The Kentucky Dam, an impoundment of the Tennessee River in western Kentucky, formerly carried the Illinois Central Railroad and US Routes 41 and 62.
Efforts to tame the Tennessee River for navigation and flood control began as early as 1864
Prior to the construction of the Kentucky Dam, electric power was a rarity in the rural areas of western Kentucky. 4 Kentucky Utilities provided electricity to Paducah but refused to extend its lines into other areas stating that there wasn’t sufficient need. A small generator was installed at the Norman Milling Company which provided electricity for a few blocks in Calvert City, but it wasn’t sufficient to provide any economic benefit.
Groundwork that led to the construction of the Kentucky Dam began on June 5, 1920, when Congress authorized the United States Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a ten-year survey of the Tennessee River valley, the most comprehensive study ever made of any river basin in the nation. 4 The Corps reported in 1928 and recommended a flood control, navigation, and hydroelectric dam at Aurora Landing in Marshall County.
The project went to Congress on March 24, 1930, and on May 28, 1931, Southern Utilities was granted a temporary permit to build the dam. 4 The project was sidelined after President Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act into law on May 18, 1933. The TVA opposed Southern Utilities’ plan and the company’s permit was allowed to expire.
In 1935, Congress authorized TVA to build dams to allow for a nine-foot navigation channel from Paducah to Knoxville, Tennessee. 4 TVA then recommended Gilbertsville as the preferred site for a dam in March 1936, but no further work toward the facility’s construction was made because of a lack of funds.
After rains fell for 19 days in January 1937, the Tennessee and Ohio rivers and their tributaries overflowed their banks leading to massive economic losses. 4 It spurred the passage of legislation in Congress on February 16, 1938, that appropriated funds to the TVA. The Kentucky Dam was authorized by Congress on May 23. 1 2 4 Congress appropriated $2.613 million to start the construction of the dam on July 1. 4 A total of $116.2 million would be needed to finish the project.
Construction began on July 1. 1 2 4 Because of the enormous scope of the project, TVA floated homes down the river to Gilbertsville from its worker village at Pickwick Dam and built a self-contained community with administration offices, schools, and a medical clinic. 4 At the peak of construction, 5,000 men from several states worked on the project.
The new Kentucky Dam, which included a 100-foot by 600-foot lock, 3 was completed at the cost of $118 million on August 30, 1944. 2 4 Atop the dam was a bridge to carry the mainline of the Illinois Central Railroad; US Route 62 was added at the cost of $1.05 million 6 following a dedication ceremony on December 9, 1950. 5
Work to build a second, larger 110-foot by 1,200-foot lock in 1998. 3 To facilitate the new lock and out of concerns of terrorism, it was decided to build separate bridges for the railroad and highway over the Tennesse River and away from the dam. The new Paducah & Lousiville Railway and highway crossings opened in 2009.
- State: Kentucky
- Route: Not Applicable
- Type: Dam
- Status: Active - Other
- Total Length: 1,642 feet
- Main Span Length: 80 feet
- Deck Width: 28 feet
- Navigational Clearance:
- “Kentucky.” Tennessee Valley Authority, 2017. Article.
- Tennessee Valley Authority, The Kentucky Project: A Comprehensive Report on the Planning, Design, Construction, and Initial Operations of the Kentucky Project, Technical Report No. 13 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1951), pp. 1-12, 68, 115-116, 509.
- “New and Improved Kentucky Lock on the Way.” Tennessee Valley Authority, 2016. Article.
- Foust, Bobbie. “75 years of powering the region.” The Trib, 2 Sept. 2019.
- “Kentucky Dam Highway Bridge to be Dedicated on December 9.” Owensboro Messenger, 23 Nov. 1950, p. 7.
- “Better Roads to Parks May Lure Vacationers.” Courier-Journal [Louisville], 7 Oct. 1950, p. 1-5.
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