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/ The Creek Drank By Storm Drains

The Creek Drank By Storm Drains

by Sean Patrick Hill

Just south of what was once the Louisville city limit, beyond the border marked by a long-abandoned toll gate, are the headwaters of a creek that once ran over a distance of more than a mile. 

It wove, according to a nineteenth century map, through what were then dairy farms and small orchards, as well as the occasional settlement of what the legend describes as wood-framed houses or, less often, brick. The stream, which despite my research remains unnamed, began somewhere along the old turnpike to Shepherdsville and paralleled Shelby Street, trending northward through land owned by the Meriwether family, passing a Civil War-era military outpost and crossing the small settlement of Germantown before emptying into a far larger stream, the South Fork of Beargrass Creek.

I discovered this vanished creek completely by accident in the course of my research on the military barracks, Fort Horton, whose location was only a few blocks from my house, on a hill now occupied by the city recycling center. I’d been examining this map, dated June 1865 and titled Louisville and Its Defenses, published by the Office of U.S. Engineers in Cincinnati. The map’s relief, and certainly its scale, is remarkably accurate. Of course, I looked to where my house stands, approximating its position in what were then largely undeveloped fields, a blank space on the map, and found the path of the creek.

The course of the creek begins, according to this map, between what was then the turnpike—now Preston Highway—and the far southern end of Shelby Street. The waterway is drawn as a thin ribbon of blue that extends perhaps a mile and a half. It crossed under Shelby—there may have been a wooden bridge placed there, or even stone—and continued through fenced fields to where my house now stands. It coursed generally northward through what the cartographer sketched, rudimentarily, as the gentle contours, the beginning of the hilly country that describes the southern portions of the county, a relief that remains apparent in the neighborhoods if one travels by foot. The stream passed under the road that led to Thomas Goss’s farmhouse—a road I frequently walk, now known as Goss Avenue—and under what were then the few named streets of Germantown—Cane Street, Mary Street—before its confluence with the south fork which today is abutted in a concrete channel. 

This map, when compared against a contemporary roadmap, is fairly easy to decipher. I set the old military map against a modern one and guessed that the creek ran within less than five or ten yards of my property line. Looking to the right from my front porch, which faces generally to the southeast, one can see the land sloping gently downward along Lydia Street to my yard. The rain, as I often note, pools up about my sidewalk given even the least resistance, say the blocks of limestone bordering my garden space, a patch of yarrow, a grove of lilies. My house is at about the bottom of the incline, and only one other house stands between mine and the alley that marks the end of McHenry Street, set perpendicular to Lydia. From the maps, I could see that McHenry roughly followed the course of the creek.

This incline, the bottom of the mild hill, would have gathered the rain and drew it toward what must have been wooded and flowered banks, its riparian zone, perhaps a few striped maples, some cottonwood, a canebrake. There may have been nesting red-winged blackbirds, some small fish and, therefore, herons. My house is clearly set in the draw, in what were, according to historical documents, former wetlands, marshes, even swampland. The terminus of cow meadows.

Today, the rain gathers in the street along the limestone curbs and carries all manner of trash—cigarette butts and Styrofoam, paper wrapping and plastic bags—downstream to the gutter, an iron drain embossed with the name C. G. Stiglitz & Sons, dated 1911. Affixed to the grating is an emblem placed by the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, which pictures a night heron and reads, No Dumping—Drains to Stream.

The drain lies in the road at the corner of Lydia and McHenry. Peering closer between the grates, I can see that its well is lined with brick, and the pipe is terra cotta, turning toward the center of the alley, on the far side of which is yet another drain, this one stamped Neenah Foundry. That well is also brick-lined, and its terra cotta pipe likewise turns toward the alley’s center. At the head of the alley is a manhole cover reading Sewer. I walk north up McHenry, crossing Lydia, to a grate in the center of the road. I have walked by this opening innumerable times, and always I hear water streaming. On either side, the nearly imperceptible relief of two alleyways glide gently downward from the shallow hills toward what must have been the creek bed. It would have been, from where I stand on the asphalt, beneath which is a layer of concrete and, ultimately, red cinder brick, at some depth beneath me, a small ravine perhaps.

I resolved to follow the streambed or, rather, what remained of it. The iron plate above the drain on the corner, only steps from my dooryard, stamped as it is with the year, seems to me now to resemble the marker of a grave. By that year, surely, the rain, and the creek it fed, had been forced underground. It had been pressed into the service of man. 

I began to search the archives at the University of Louisville for other maps of that period. One from 1875, reputedly part of an atlas published in Philadelphia, shows the creek’s headwaters as further south of the turnpike, then called the Preston Street Turnpike. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad line, recently built, appears on the map; the creek runs to the east of it. Several other creeks in the vicinity are evident, as well, including Dry Run, which appears to have been large, running at some distance to the west of my neighborhood and emptying, as well, into the South Fork of Beargrass Creek where there was, according to a number of maps I examined, an island.

An 1879 index map, published by the Louisville Abstract and Loan Association, likewise shows this longer version of my neighboring, unnamed creek. Where my house stands is now delineated as the property of Meriwether, still undeveloped fields; the streets of Germantown to the north, however, are a more extensive development. An 1892 Rand McNally atlas shows that my neighborhood, over the course of a decade, had been fully developed into streets, including Lydia—named for a Meriwether daughter—and McHenry, the married name of another daughter. Yet the creek, even so, remains a substantial addition, an obvious feature. But a later map, estimated to have been drawn somewhere between 1894 and 1897, even at a scale of 1,000 feet per inch, fails to show any creek other than Beargrass, whose channel was already altered.

In a 1906 Mendenhall engraved map, the landscape is populated only by streets, punctuated by no other natural features save that of Beargrass Creek. The alleyways, though, are detailed each in turn, the more important navigational device at the time. The gutters would have been laid around this time, the water mains, the sewage lines. The creek, so far as I can tell, has by the early twentieth century been not only buried but forgotten. It is not so much that it is beneath the notice of the cartographers, but that it has utterly ceased to exist. And what people would have remembered it—what children might have played alongside the creek, or the men who might have fished it, or women who drew water from it or even scrubbed the clothes against washboards, kneeling on the bank—would have passed on, died, or moved elsewhere since the end of the Civil War, as development of the area accelerated.

But when the creek was featured on maps, its shape for the most part consistent between the many editions, it seems clear that the flow was not intermittent, as so many streams in this region of Kentucky can be. The mapmakers took the trouble to draw attention to it. Though the small streams in the hills south of the city often run dry by summer, Louisville lies largely in the bottomlands, spread over the Ohio River Valley, where the waters naturally gather and pool. It is likely, given the climate and yearly rainfall, that this stream ran most of the year, perhaps going dry only in late summer, or even autumn. Mostly I am aware of the fact, standing on or near what was once a thread of running water, the bed of which must have been littered with shards of limestone, even of fossils, the surface flashing in the sun, that I am perhaps the only one in this neighborhood today that knows what once ran here.

On a cloudy spring day in May, I set off from my house, following, as near as I can figure, the channel of the vanished creek. I walk north on McHenry Street, stopping to note each manhole cover, each storm drain for its manufacturer. There are many different makes, as if they were done at different times—the Stiglitz Foundry, a Louisville company dating back to 1829; Neenah Foundry, based in Wisconsin; Drummond Manufacturing, in Ontario; Scowden C. B.—possibly referring to Theodore Ransom Scowden, the engineer and architect who was hired to design Louisville’s Water Works in 1857.

I cross over Mulberry Street and, at the intersection of Ash, see through the lace of an iron cover the water flowing steadily beneath the street, maybe six or eight feet down. At Goss Avenue, the slope of the land is easily discernible, climbing to the east toward the restaurants and the grocery store. To the west, the road falls into a hollow and, beyond that, gradually ascends to the CSX tracks—the old Louisville & Nashville line. On this corner is the colossal Germantown Mill Lofts. The brick buildings, totaling over 250,000 square feet spread over nearly eight acres, is the complex of a former cotton mill, opened in 1889. Cotton bales arrived by train, unloaded on a spur. In 1891, too, a streetcar line ran down the entirety of Goss to a turnaround on Texas Avenue. The trolley would have had to cross the creek, perhaps on a bridge or over a culvert.

Built on one of the many former dairy farms, the cotton mill’s employees were, unsurprisingly, Germans. The shotgun houses surrounding the mill—and my house, built more than half a century later, is among those rows of long houses—were built by the company. The Germans, for their part, built the markets, shops, churches, and schools. The creek, as indicated by the Rand McNally map published only three years later, would have had to have circled this imposing structure that stretches along Goss for a full city block between McHenry and the railroad, but I since learned from an official form of the National Register of Historic Places that, early on, the building was not in fact as large as it is today, the main structure ending in line with Boyle Street, a block from McHenry and the creek—it would not stretch all the way to McHenry until 1905. And when it did expand, judging by a map of the property made at the time, the shipping yards would have probably eradicated, or at least fouled, what creek remained. But when the initial mill was built, it is likely the creek ran unimpeded to the east of it.

Crossing Goss, I turn left toward the tracks and, passing a lawyer’s small office and a brick cocktail lounge, turn northeast again on Boyle, the base of the street in an obvious hollow, passing what was once Cressman’s Bakery. Within a block, the road begins to climb. By now, I am becoming more sensitive to the contours of the land, and the path of the creek, according to the maps, seems to follow the low-lying ground easily detectable and veering to the north. I turn left on Samuel Street, a row of shotguns leading to the warehouse of a construction company, its parking lot dipping about where the creek would flow. Watching a man mowing his lawn, I see an egret soaring overhead.

I follow Samuel to the end, at the tracks, rounding the edge of the gray building onto Dandridge, a point which forms a triangle. I find an alley behind the building, and follow it to the clear depression, where I find another storm drain—I am hunting these and the manhole covers, and now I begin to sense that the creek was laid entirely in pipes, bound for Beargrass. I step through the gate in a fence, its chain link and razor wire tangled in wild grapevine and mulberry limbs and cross an open lot. The contours of the low-lying channel curve beneath houses, among streets intersecting at odd angles—Ellison, Shelby Parkway—and along a rain garden that, come summer, will be a patch of sunflowers and butterflies. In an alley, where I find a pile of soaked luggage, the channel continues due north. The neighborhood is quiet, and in that quiet it is easy to feel reverent.

I follow Swan Street through the intersection of Oak—it was known as Milk Street in the nineteenth century—under the flashing red light and, in the one incongruity, find that all the land rises about the area in every direction. Swan goes north and uphill to Mary Street, the only reason for the rise I can see being fill has been added, a routine street improvement; the map clearly shows the creek continuing north and turning east beyond Mary onto Cane Street, now St. Catherine. I follow the path to another alley along the course roughly coinciding with the map and follow it north, then back west into another alley, where I find a grate covered with mud and trash—the low point. I am nearly to Beargrass Creek, and here, according to the maps, the creek begins to twist.

At the end of Swan Street, I come to the Hope Worsted Mill, another of the old cotton mills, this one now housing artist studios. By the time it was built in 1902, I cannot be sure the creek still ran, as the neighborhood by then was fully platted and occupied. It would have been mosquito-infested, as Beargrass Creek historically was, a justifiably feared source of malaria. On the far side of Kentucky Avenue, a few paces to the west, Swan Street continues northward to a bridge over the South Fork of Beargrass Creek. From the bridge, I look down into the concrete channel, the walls entirely covered in years of graffiti. A pair of mallards, male and female, drifts in the current. From somewhere upstream I hear, improbably, a phoebe, the Eastern phoebe, which typically nests in cliffs along creeks and rivers. I have never heard one within an urban area, let alone this area of warehouses, vacant lots, and the offices of a coal and coke company. From atop a utility pole, above the insistent buzz of three transformers, a Northern red-shafted flicker calls out.

I peer east, upstream, expecting to see an opening in the wall, a pipe from which would pour the waters I’d been following, but the channel turns, and that wall curves out of sight. I walk down an alley paralleling the channel, the edge of which is blocked by an eight-foot-high fence overgrown with Virginia creeper. I find the last manhole cover, the ground sunk around it. Like a supplicant, I think. I look up into the crowns of the black walnuts. Cottonwood seed snows down.

The next day, I set out from my house to follow the course of the invisible creek upstream, toward its source. At the end of McHenry, I turn in a southerly direction, following the alleys toward a confluence with Shelby Street. Men there are paving the road, a dark river, as I often imagined streets were as a child. I step to the edge of the curb and can feel the heat rising from the tar.

It is just a half block south of here, at about the intersection with Milton Street, where I imagine the creek crossed under Shelby. On the far shore of the steaming tar, the contours seem to glide through the parking lot of a receiving dock, continuing on behind a house that burned a few years back, crossing Burnett—once known as Stonewall Street—and following an alley behind a gas station, a shuttered barbershop, and the Dairy Del ice cream stand. Along the alley, I find piles of illegally dumped trash: paint cans, a child’s car seat, cardboard boxes, crushed plastic bottles. It occurs to me how often people have dumped trash—and continue to—in creeks and streams. Now they leave their waste along the edges of roads, the alleys that were laid over the top of streams like flooring, like quilts. It is a grim offering.

The alley opens onto the grounds of Shelby Elementary. I follow the lowlands along its parking lot to the street named for Ziegler, whose market and saloon stands near my house, built in 1887, from which the creek must have been in view. I turn back onto Shelby Street—the creek probably ran through the backyards of the houses lining the road—then west onto Lynn, which connects to Preston. Along Lynn, the deteriorating parking lot of the Swiss Hall, the lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, abandoned now and for sale, surely lies atop the bed. Directly across from it, an alley runs between Shelby and Preston. I turn into it. It meanders like a creek. In cracks of concrete, a brown standing water pools, not so much the ghost of the creek, I think, as its resurrection, its desire to return.

Walking the alley, I notice how incredibly perceptive my feet have become, how they feel the gravity of the alley’s depression. I can sense the flow, can see it in the collected dust and gravel. The alley ends in mud, a puddle of recent rain, the ground littered with countless cigarette butts. Behind the Mexican restaurant, a man sweeps the street.

I cross Preston, headed southwest now, and follow a clearly cut drainage channel through the University Park Apartments, under a grove of black walnut and yellow poplar, to the four-lane Eastern Parkway where the grate reads, Drains to Stream. From there, the map suggests the creek ran to the west of Family Dollar, the closed Pic Pac, beneath and behind the bingo hall of Our Mother of Sorrows.

I cross a parking lot—a wrecked car sunk into the asphalt—to a grass path, blocked by a post, behind the church buildings. I find a pair of boots, the cardboard sheets of a homeless camp. I trace another road up the hill—there is nowhere to go but uphill now—and, several blocks later, pause at the fenced corner of a cemetery. An enormous hackberry grows there, and I listen, for a long moment, to the wind through its leaves. From here, I decide to turn back.

Looking south along the fence, I think better of it, and follow the short road to a gate marked as the property of MSD—the Metropolitan Sewer District. The road behind this gate travels further south, a narrow swath between the houses and the cemetery. Curious, I look at the map on my phone—there is an odd curve in the boundary of the cemetery where it borders this MSD property. The shape of a creek, no doubt. I walk back to Preston Highway toward the entrance of The Temple Cemetery. 

I enter the main gates and walk purposefully toward the back fence. Like many fences here, it is overgrown, nearly viewless, but in one break in the links where whatever grew there was poisoned, the last of the leaves wilted black, I can see, on the far side, water. A marsh, an earthen dam. At the southern edge of the pond, a stream that emerges from a series of pipes. I am breathless. I turn back toward the road, the old turnpike, avoiding the men on riding mowers, the engines swerving between the graves. I hike back among the stones, convinced I had found the headwaters.

This spring, my daughter and I sat on the porch and watched the workmen strip the asphalt from the intersection of Lydia and McHenry. When the men were gone, and the machines quiet and idle, the smoke cleared, I went to the street to read the layers of history there. Beneath the scraped asphalt lay a veneer of gray concrete and, deeper, the original brick. I marveled at how many men, how many hours, it must have taken to cobble that street together. Beneath that, somewhere, perhaps only a few inches, but more likely many feet, may lie the original earth. What seeds, I wonder, are trapped there?

But in the center of McHenry Street, it must have been different. There, as the neighborhood was being platted, fill dumped by the ton, the men must have laid pipe to channel the creek water. Water mains were lowered into the ground, most likely cast iron, though just as often wood. Later, gas lines. Some form of earth, quarried somewhere, must have buried those pipes and, over that, a thick floor of brick puzzled together. Perhaps by 1911—or even by 1894, if not before—the creek with no name was already subterranean, as it clearly remains today. And what is a creek, if not a body of water? What is rain but water in search of a body? The water still runs. What’s more, there is still life growing from it. From the storm drains, I’ve seen trees growing—mulberries, catalpas. Insects are surely down there. Probably the same strain of rats I’ve seen in the mountains of trash at the dump to the west, where the old barracks once stood, where I can imagine Civil War soldiers looking out over the string of creek water, flashing in the noonday sun.

What these iron grates gather is termed stormwater. It is something to be managed. What the pipes carry, filled by what we flush from our commodes, our sinks, our washing machines, is wastewater. This creek, that may never have had an official name, must have been given one by the locals, the children. Later, it may have been viewed by those same children, grown, in need of work and income, as an inconvenience, or an opportunity. The bed, shaped over millennia, is only bedrock now. The fog over the water, that once hovered with insects, birds, perhaps a kingfisher, lies mostly in the dark. And the air is compressed under the weight of our city. The drivers of cars, delivery trucks, and steamrollers have passed over it without a glance. There is, for them, nothing there. Nothing more. A colorless street. A transit. A utility.

What remains of the creek is not exactly memory. Anyone who would have had such a recollection is long dead, many buried in the Catholic cemetery less than a mile from here, on the banks of the South Fork of Beargrass Creek, itself reduced to a thin stream coursing between unscalable walls painted with tags. Perhaps some stories were told, but who remembers them now? The maps remember, though some of them are by now frail documents. 

One map, in particular, held by the university, is an 1856 lithograph, at a scale of four inches to a mile. Near the thin compass rose at the bottom of the map, only Shelby Street is drawn. Where the creek would run, there is a torn and weathered blank space, patched in places with tape. The stretch of the creek, where we can imagine it, resembles a wound, as if the creek itself has been clumsily erased, torn from the map, carelessly patched.

It is not my intention to fault the men and women who built this village, any more than I mean to celebrate the imagination of the mapmakers. I doubt there was any meanness in them, and I should think that some must have felt regret at the changes in the landscape, changes they themselves inflicted, in the pay of men who fancied themselves visionaries, city fathers, transformations which must have perfectly mirrored the change in their understanding. They accomplished something appropriate for their time, the fantastic growth that exploded at the end of the Civil War and carried on as the cotton mills grew, along with the incomes they earned from that work. As the streetcar brought more and more people to their shores. The Germans here reportedly felt a great pride in their ward; they planted tidy yards, swept their walks, and painted their shotgun houses white.

Today, when heavy rains fall, the waters gather and rush downstream toward these brick wells, pouring into the terra cotta mouths, swallowed into the dark. But beneath us, plowing through wet streets in our cars, the wipers slashing at the glass, beneath the asphalt, the concrete, and the fill of dirty earth, the waters, unerringly, run. The creek sings out through the webs of iron, and I want to imagine that it waits for us to give it, at last, its name.

Sean Patrick Hill

About Sean Patrick Hill

Sean Patrick Hill is a writer, photographer, and educator in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, and is the author of three collections of poetry and two hiking guides. He has been awarded grants, fellowships, and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Great Meadows Foundation and, most recently, The Bascom: A Center for Visual Arts.

Cold Mountain Review is published once a year in the Department of English at Appalachian State University. Support from Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs and College of Arts and Sciences enables CMR’s learning and publications program. The views and opinions expressed in CMR do not necessarily reflect those of university trustees, administration, faculty, students, or staff.