Rick Bell, author of the recently published “Louisville’s Waterfront Park: A Riverfront Renaissance,” asserts that the Ohio River waterfront is the soul of Louisville. “It is our reason for being and has defined the city’s personality, economy and traditions,” he says.
Bell, who lives with his wife in Crescent Hill, was born in 1946 in the Portland neighborhood, grew up in Shively and graduated from University of Kentucky with a photojournalism degree. He acquired his passion for Louisville and its history from his father, Fred Bell, who drove streetcars, buses and taxis in the city. The younger Bell’s interest in the waterfront started in 1957 when, as a 12-year-old, he went with his father down to the old Fourth Street wharf to take pictures of the Life-Saving Station. “No one knew the city like Dad,” says Bell, who recalls watching boats pass through the McAlpine Locks and walking through old Shippingport.
In his book, Bell captures the comprehensive social history of the city’s relationship with the Ohio River. The content ranges from the early days of the Native Americans and George Rogers Clark, through the steamship era and decades of manufacturing, to the remarkable transformation that started 25 years ago with the formation of the Waterfront Development Corporation (WDC).
“Today, it is hard to imagine the vitality of the wharf during the steamboat era,” says Bell, describing the waterfront as the city’s economic engine and entertainment center, with over 3,000 steamboats tied up to the Louisville wharf in 1856. “The great celebrities of the era – Dickens, Irving, Twain, Lafayette, Audubon, Grant and Lincoln – all passed over the old paving stones.”
To illustrate the 392-page, full-color book, Bell searched photographic archives and other collections at the University of Louisville, the Filson Historical Society and the Kentucky Historical Society. “I was able to find some wonderful illustrations, such as pictures of the North Pole Exchange, a saloon that was built in the middle of the frozen Ohio River in 1893,” he says. Other photos depict notables such as Richard Nixon and John Wayne, damage from floods and tornadoes, baptisms, ferries, bridges, and the more recently developed parks and playgrounds.
“The Waterfront Development Corporation was looking for a person with the credentials to do a comprehensive history of the waterfront,” says WDC president David Karem, adding “and, importantly, with the passion for the river that would turn the book into a fascinating journey of our relationship with this important waterway that birthed our city. Rick Bell is that person.”
Bell states, “This was a fascinating opportunity to compile a social history of a small piece of real estate that has witnessed some of the pivotal events in American, as well as Kentucky, history.”
More than 1.5 million people visit Waterfront Park each year – to play, run, participate in charity walks, watch Thunder Over Louisville, and listen to concerts. “Waterfront Park holds a unique position in this community,” says Bell. “It is a place of pride for all citizens and a great first-impression maker for visitors.”
Bell’s previous book, “The Great Flood of 1937,” was named one of 2007’s 10 best books by The Courier-Journal. Both of Bell’s regional histories are published by Butler Books and may be purchased at local bookstores or online at www.butlerbooks.com.