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The Disappearance of Town Branch

The Disappearance of Town Branch

by Zina Merkin, November 2001

Many mid-western cities are laid out on a grid oriented to the four principal directions. Lexington’s grid, and its designations of North Limestone and East Main Street are curiously askew from those compass directions. The city originally was oriented along the banks of the Middle Fork of the Elkhorn, also known as Town Fork or Town Branch. But this stream along which the town initially was laid out is now nowhere to be seen. This paper sets out to track the vanishing of Town Branch, the reasons for its disappearance, and its influence on the development of the city of Lexington, linking this particular history with issues in the settlement and development of the United States in general.

While the stream in the earliest years may have been a pretty little creek, it quickly took on an urban character. Water supply was derived from springs, and later, wells, while the creek supported early industry. Tracking the fortunes of Town Branch offers an interesting window on the development of various kinds of urban infrastructure, and a reflection of Lexington’s growth, its changing economic base, and local effects of landscape changes occurring on a national level.

Click this link to open the “The Disappearance of Town Branch” in PDF format (100 kilobytes).

The Town Branch Environment: An Initial Evaluation

In 2001, the Environmental Quality Committee of Town Branch Trail collected information about the condition of the environment of Town Branch. Our findings and conclusions are presented in an 18-page illustrated report: “The Town Branch Environment: An Initial Evaluation.” Among the report’s recommendations are trash cleanup, extensive streamside zones of native trees and other plants, public education, partnerships with other environmental organizations, and technical consultations on stream morphology and water quality issues.

Click this link to open the “The Town Branch Environment” in PDF format (2.4 megabytes).

We are a non-profit!

We are a non-profit!

Town Branch Trail, Inc., a new non-profit organization, has been granted tax-exempt status by the IRS under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. Current officers of Town Branch Trail, Inc. are Van Meter Pettit, President, and Zina Merkin, Vice President. Members of the Board of Directors are Phil Holoubek, Yvette Hurt, Boyd Shearer and Krista Schneider.

Town Branch Trail, Inc. is a spin-off from Friends of the Parks of Fayette County, Inc. Town Branch Trail’s mission is to assist, organize and promote development of a proposed system of recreational trails and greenspace along or connecting to the Town Branch of Elkhorn Creek. Town Branch Trail is envisioned to become a major component of the city/county greenway system, and will link historical and recreational resources from downtown and the western side of the city and county, for the benefit of local residents and visitors alike. The organization is actively researching, planning and promoting this project, and welcomes all citizen involvement and participation. Contact Zina Merkin or Van Meter Pettit for more information.

A New Year’s Resolution: Town Branch resurrect our stream

Lexington Herald-Leader Publication


Published: Sunday, December 24, 2000
Section: Opinions and Ideas
Page: H1
Author: Editorial Board

This time last year we showcased water pollution in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and said Kentucky should clean it up.

Our suggested resolution this year is to atone for the Bluegrass’s dirty little secret: Town Branch.

The stream that literally shaped Lexington is classified as too nasty to support aquatic life.

The pollution is the byproduct of almost everything that has ever gone on in or near downtown: industry; runoff from vehicles parked on acres of asphalt or abandoned in junkyards; a leaking city dump that predates landfill standards; and, perhaps, forgotten straight-pipes discharging raw sewage.

As unappealing as all this is, what most stands out about Town Branch is not its pollution, but its potential.

A ribbon of water and earth, Town Branch rises from its man-made confinement just west of Rupp Arena and ripples between remarkably preserved, 150-year-old, dry-laid stone walls. The stream meanders past interesting examples of industrial architecture, including a distillery that begs to be reincarnated through adaptive reuse, and the ruin of an 1820s wool mill that was once Lexington’s jail.

Beyond New Circle Road, the stream traverses open country, coming close enough to Masterson Station to make the city park a natural terminus.

The stream’s potential has inspired a group to begin working to create the Town Branch Trail. Though this visionary project can’t be accomplished quickly or cheaply, Lexington should resolve to make it happen.

The support of local, state and federal governments will be required, along with the cooperation of corporate and individual landowners.

Other places have accomplished bigger waterway restorations. These projects pay lasting dividends by making cities more attractive places to live and do business.

Described as a “linear park,” Town Branch Trail would give downtown workers and residents a natural place to walk, run and bike. Quick access to the landscape that distinguishes Lexington from other mid-size cities would be a terrific selling point.

Town Branch could become the strongest strand in a citywide web of greenways. This natural amenity would encourage residential and commercial development downtown and to the southwest of downtown all the way to South Broadway and the University of Kentucky.

The trail would tie Lexington’s historic past to a more livable future.

The city’s first permanent structure, a fort, went up in 1779 along Town Branch near a canebrake that became the corner of Main and Mill streets.

The creek front was called the Town Commons until 1790, when it was renamed Water Street. In 1793, horse racing on Water Street was confined to the lower end and only for the purpose of showing studs.

As the city grew, flooding became a nuisance. Town Branch, which is born south of Winchester Road near East Third Street, was routed underground through downtown and all but forgotten — until now.

Restoring Town Branch to a central role in the life of Lexington would be a precious gift to future generations.

These archives are stored on a SAVE ™ newspaper library system from MediaStream Inc., a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.

Idea for creek sounds like a winner.

Lexington Herald-Leader Publication


September 24, 2000
Section: City & Region
Edition: Final
Page: C1
Author: Don Edwards, Herald-Leader Columnist

“The very form of our town came from the creek.”
–Van Meter Pettit

We’ve driven over it and past it thousands of times, but many of us don’t notice that the Town Branch of Elkhorn Creek is there.
It’s not that easy to find the middle fork of the Elkhorn. From the east, it runs under downtown Lexington through a brick-vaulted waterway, then comes up near the huge parking lot behind Rupp Arena.If you drive to the west end of the lot, there’s a double line of trees on the south.

You have to stop and get out of the car, walk over and look through the yellowing leaves to see sunlight bouncing off the quiet water.It’s like an oasis in a desert of asphalt — an anomaly, a geographical antique left from pioneer days.

Yesterday, as part of ideaFestival, a couple of dozen people sat in the first-floor theater of the Lexington Public Library and listened to architect Van Meter Pettit, 33, talk about his favorite idea: “Town Branch Trail.”The idea is to turn Lexington’s oldest, polluted waterway into a new kind of landscape feature, a trail for walking, running and biking that runs alongside the creek past 19th-century retaining walls; 200-year-old houses; and buildings that once housed horse stables and woolen mills.”It would connect parts of the city like a necklace,” Pettit said, “linking downtown to McConnell Springs Park and Masterson Station Park.” When you see downtown “only from the perspective of four-foot sidewalks and whizzing cars, you feel crowded,” he said, “but if you could get on a trail system that eventually went 20 miles, it wouldn’t seem crowded.”

Pettit took the idea to Urban County Council member Sandy Shafer. Now Town Branch Trail is a project of the Friends of the Parks of Fayette County Inc., a non-profit citizens’ group.
The Town Branch area, Pettit said, is one that was once important to the city, but it was long ago abandoned in favor of business and residential growth.

Now it’s an area of poor neighborhoods and industrial expanse. “We wouldn’t do that nowadays: put kids, heavy machinery and industry on top of each other,” he said. “But this is a way to bail out poor neighborhoods, give them a new life.”

Ultimately, the pollution of Town Branch is a situation that’s going to have to be cleaned up anyway, he said, so why not sooner than later? He envisioned replanting native plants along the creek corridor, and he reminded his listeners that park space is not just for walkers, joggers, bicycle riders and student tours: “The people who work in the area near McConnell Springs Park go there to eat lunch. It’s a resource for everybody.” I listened to Pettit’s presentation. I liked the idea, and I wondered if it would become a reality some time in the 21st century.

If you’re interested in helping with, donating to or merely learning more about Town Branch Trail, you can reach Pettit at Pettit’s father, H. Foster Pettit, a former Lexington mayor, was in the theater listening to his son’s presentation.

Maybe a new generation will change a very old Town Branch for the better.
Don Edwards can be reached at (859) 231-3211, (800) 950-6397 or

These archives are stored on a SAVE ™ newspaper library system from MediaStream Inc., a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.