By Jay Ferguson, Louisville Water Museum Specialist
Having been surpassed by River Road and I-71, Mellwood Avenue is no longer the main thoroughfare it once was. Now it is difficult to imagine the grand plans to make this route a majestic drive out of the city. Created by Louisville Water in 1860, the roadway was first named Reservoir Avenue, aka Water Works Avenue. It delineated much of the route the 20-inch water transmission main took from the 1860 reservoir down into the city. The cast-iron pipe began its route on the hill where the VA Medical Center is now located, traveled westward along what’s now Mellwood, turned onto Story Avenue and then went into the city via Main Street. Louisville Water installed a second and larger 30-inch supply main along Reservoir Avenue seven years later.
The roadway served as a conduit for people to travel out of the city to Louisville Water’s open grounds around the reservoir and the green space where River Road Country Club was once located. To aid public access, the roadway was "McAdamized" (paved with crushed stone) in 1861. Louisville Water officials predicted this drive would become one of the most fashionable in the city: "This avenue will in time become a delightful drive, as the naturally beautiful building sites which adorn it are destined, ere long, to be graced with private residences." Later in the 1860s, there was talk about developing a city-owned park in the area.
To give the public better access, Main Street was extended over Beargrass Creek while Southall, now part of Mellwood, was extended to connect with Reservoir Avenue. The plans also included widening Reservoir Avenue; however, these plans never came to fruition. There was some public opposition about making a public park so far away from the city, and it probably did not help that the roadway and the area of the proposed park were in a floodplain.
Although it was first built and maintained by Louisville Water, part of the roadway must have come under city ownership because an 1895 city ordinance changed Reservoir Avenue’s name to Mellwood Avenue (to the city boundary). The name came from the Mellwood Distillery, which, as early as 1873, had its operations on Reservoir Avenue between Frankfort Avenue and Brownsboro Road. The distillery remained in operation until Prohibition. After Repeal, it reopened as General Distilling Company but then closed for good in the 1960s. The distillery’s buildings were soon demolished.
A section of Reservoir Avenue remained in Louisville Water’s ownership well into the 20th Century. It had become an established thoroughfare that some people took for granted. Company officials complained of "waste and trash thrown along the road." Some things never change. However, Louisville Water still worked to maintain the road, claiming "the riding and driving public highly appreciate the natural beauty of this section." As late as 1928, Louisville Water spent $3,681.26 to regrade, repave, improve drainage and rebuild culverts to keep the "delightful drive" open to the public.
Today Louisville Water no longer lays claim to any part of Mellwood Avenue. The original transmission mains were removed long ago as part of the company’s Main Rehabilitation and Replacement Program. Mellwood Avenue remains a popular drive from downtown to the facilities along River Road.
Picture caption: Looking west, this photo shows the intersection of Frankfort Avenue (in the foreground) and Mellwood Avenue at the height of the 1937 Flood. The brick building on the right was one of Mellwood Distillery’s warehouses.