It was supposed to be Louisville’s answer to St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. But in the press, it was eventually called ugly. A turkey. A good idea gone bad. It’s been gone since 1998, but not entirely forgotten.
In fact, it’s been on Curious Louisville listener Mark Friedland’s mind: Whatever happened to the Falls Fountain?
The fountain started out as a twinkle in the eye of Barry Bingham Sr., and his wife Mary (the Binghams owned Louisville’s newspaper and some other media companies at the time).
They were visiting Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, where they saw a huge fountain. Louisville’s waterfront wasn’t really developed at the time, and the Binghams thought an attraction like that could beautify it, and draw tourists.
They put $2.6 million toward the fountain, which would sit in the river near the Second Street Bridge and launch a stream of water 420 feet into the air, in the shape of a fleur-de-lis. It shot 15,800 gallons of water per minute with a 900-horsepower motor.
The Falls Fountain was turned on in August, 1988, to much news coverage and fanfare.
But things didn’t exactly go as planned.
WFPL’s Rick Howlett looked into the fountain’s history. “It had some problems with debris and other issues,” Rick said. “Some people started making fun of it after a while, and it never really connected with people the way the Binghams had hoped it would.”
The fountain didn’t always work. And even when it did, it was only on display for six months out of the year. It had to be moved into storage during the winter, and any time the river was high.
After 10 years of on-again, off-again functioning, something major seemed to go wrong inside the fountain’s 39′ by 39′ apparatus. A maritime surveyor named Greg Weeter was called in to inspect it.
“It looked like there’d been a major machinery failure because there was metal strewn everywhere like shrapnel,” Weeter recalled.
And there was a pretty big problem with the fountain’s variable speed drive: “It had exploded.”
The fountain would be too expensive to fix. The city sold it to a guy named Mike Stamper for $15,750, and he had it hauled to McBride’s Fleet in New Albany.
And that’s where we found it, more or less in one piece, tied to a barge:
Michael McBride is the port captain at McBride’s Fleet. He says there’s not a lot that can be done with the fountain now — it can’t really even be sold for scrap. “The problem with it would be getting it onto land,” he explained.
The fountain is weird, octagonal shape, so it would take specific equipment to lift it out of the water. “By the time you took the expense to get it onto land, which would cost tens of thousands of dollars,” McBride said, “to get it cut up and to a scrap yard would probably cost money.”
Our question asker Mark Friedland would like to see the fountain somewhere accessible by land — not just boat, like it is now.
“I really do think it could be an attraction,” he said. “I think people would come see it. It looks a little bit like a flying saucer. It looks like something otherworldly.”
If you have a boat, you can peek at the fountain near the 612.5 mile of the Ohio River. No boat in your garage? Don’t worry: It’s visible from the satellite view of Google maps.
A transcript of the audio piece is available here. Great questions make great stories, and Curious Louisville wants yours! Send us your question in the form below, or at CuriousLouisville.org. You and your curiosity might be featured in a future story.