This area has been known by numerous names, including Latonia, Milldale, South Covington, and the Flats. The area was once a basin of flat farmland surrounded by hills, brimming with lakes, streams and springs. In 1854, rail lines came to the area, and became an important part in its development.
The Milldale area became a desirable location for industry. The KC Junction, where the Louisville, Cincinnati and Lexington Railroad and the Kentucky Central intersected in Latonia became one of the busiest junctions in the U.S. by the late 19th century. Many railroad workers settled in Latonia to remain close to their employment. The tracks, now owned by CSX, still cross the middle of historic Latonia, and form the northern edge of the district.
In 1883, The Latonia Agricultural and Stock Association had purchased 109 acres from the James Taylor estate in 1882 in order to open a Thoroughbred horse racing facility. Horseracing, along with baseball, were two of America’s favorite spectator sports in the last half of the nineteenth century. This era saw a rapid rise in the construction of race tracks, and Latonia quickly became a favorite venue for horse racing fans for a number of reasons. It became a national destination, offering some of the best purses, which drew the top horses, owners and jockeys. Its most famous stakes race being the Latonia Derby.
Initially run as the “Hindoo Stakes ” in honor of the great Kentucky-bred champion Hindoo, the inaugural 1883 race was won by Kentucky Derby winner Leonatus. The Latonia Derby ran annually from 1883 through 1937. It became so popular that in 1912 a motion picture was made by Independent Motion Picture Co. titled Winning the Latonia Derby that featured silent film star King Baggot.
The name Latonia came from a nearby health springs resort hotel that had been active before the Civil War. The racetrack which had a beautiful Victorian clubhouse and grandstand, a lake, and handsomely planted grounds was regarded as among the United States’ top sites for racing, and drew more than 100,000 visitors annually.
Because of the racetracks success, the business and residential area surrounding it took the same name. During its heyday, the community profited enormously from the racetrack. There was brisk boarding house business, not to mention brisk saloon business. In 1893, the electric streetcar made it easier to commute to the racetrack. With many needing lodging during the spring and fall race seasons, many area residents rented rooms in their homes, moving into their basements to accommodate paying guests.
The community emerging around the Latonia Racetrack was becoming a streetcar suburb of Covington. Latonia’s commercial district, known as Ritte’s Corner, experienced a commercial boom due to the growth and success of the Latonia Racetrack. Numerous businesses located to the Ritte’s Corner area, particularly around the intersection of Southern, Decorsey and Winston Avenues. Businesses locating to the area included banks, saloons, clothing and grocery stores. These service industries were in demand as the desire to live in Latonia increased and housing was built in all directions surrounding the commercial district to accommodate the Racetrack employees, railroad workers, housing for service industry workers and more grand structures for the wealthy entrepreneurs. Latonia became the largest business district beyond downtown Covington.
In 1909, Latonia became a part of the city of Covington, Kentucky. As the Latonia Racetrack closed in 1939, the local areas economy was dependent on railroad development. Freight trains replaced passenger and commuter trains. The area became important to transportation, the Banklick Pike which connected much of Northern Kentucky with Cincinnati, ran directly through the Historic District.
As it became a historical intersection of major roads leading into Covington and Cincinnati, Ohio. The district also became a center of community activity. Engine Company No. 2, Covington Fire Department was located at Ritte’s corner. Places of worship in Latonia like Calvary Baptist Church, Latonia Christian Church, Latonia Baptist Church, and Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church represented the growing masses which called Latonia home. Shops at Ritte’s Corner included such stores as Johnny’s Toy’s, Latonia Bakery, and Nick’s Place. All of which receive a heartwarming response from those who remember their legacy.
The area contains a significant collection of architectural styles. Within the district are commercial examples of Italianate, Arts and Crafts, and Queen Anne, and Art Deco styles. Within the district are thirty contributing and eight non-contributing properties significant in the growth and development of the community of Latonia in Covington, Kentucky.
The Latonia Racetrack was demolished in the early 1940’s. The track once stood west of the district boundary, across Winston Avenue. Today it is the site of two large shopping centers. The Railway Museum of Greater Cincinnati owns and maintains a collection of 80 historic railroad equipment located on a 4-acre site in Latonia.
photo: Rittes Corner Fountain, Kenton County Library