In the 1800’s, Portland was a bustling river town with a busy shipping industry. Portland and its wharf were well situated to benefit from booming steamboat trade and the lucrative portage industry that developed around the falls. Portland was a thriving port with many residences, taverns, warehouses, and shipyards built to accommodate the steamboats that arrived daily.
Some of Portland’s earliest settlers came from France soon after the beginning of the eighteenth century. Ireland’s potato famine of the mid-eighteen hundreds sent many Irishmen and their families to Louisville, Shippingport and Portland. These Irish workers were instrumental in the construction of the local railroads and canal. Jim Porter, perhaps Portland’s most famous early personality, moved to the town from next-door Shippingport. Known as the Kentucky Giant, Porter owned and operated taverns in both Shippingport and Portland and would eventually serve as Portland’s representative to Louisville’s City Council. Squire Jacob Earick, whose house is believed to have been built around 1811 or 1812 and which still stands within the boundaries of Portland’s National Historic District, was the town’s first magistrate. Court was held in the main floor of the house and the local jail was only a flight of stairs away in the home’s basement.
The success of Portland instigated a long and contentious relationship with its neighbor Louisville at the head of the Falls. Louisville annexed Portland for a brief period in the 1840s only to have the town become independent.
In the 1850s, Portland boasted a large five-story hotel and several industries. Louisville successfully annexed Portland in 1856. When the Portland Canal was improved in 1870, the portage industry was no more and the Portland wharf began a decline that was most evident after a series of major floods in the 1880s and 1890s.
The Great Flood of 1937 devastated the area—the wharf was submerged under 30 feet of rushing water for nearly a month, and the city declared the site unlivable and promised a park would be built there instead, and the floodwall system ended up delayed by World War II. Industries began to move out of the neighborhood to higher ground. Just eight years later in 1945 the second largest flood in Louisville’s history occurred. In its aftermath all areas of Portland nearest to the river were razed, including the Portland Wharf, and a gigantic flood wall was built to a height three feet above the level of the 1937 flood.
Portland is still home to a large number of Louisville’s most prominent historic landmarks and a large percent of the city’s pre-Civil War buildings. Including many of Louisville’s shotgun homes.