Kentucky Lock

Nashville District
Published Jan. 11, 2024
Kentucky Lock aerial view

Kentucky Lock

Kentucky Lock is located near Gilbertsville, Kentucky, 22.4 miles from the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers.  It is 20 miles east of Paducah, Kentucky. The 184-mile reservoir created by Kentucky Dam stretches across parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. It is the largest reservoir in the Eastern U.S. Construction on Kentucky Lock began in 1935. In 1942, the lock was finished by TVA and put into operation.

Kentucky Lock is the lower gateway to more than 700 miles of navigable waters in the Tennessee River Basin.  The access it affords to the Barkley Canal connects the Tennessee River with more than 300 miles of water in the Cumberland River Basin.

Due to geological conditions in the area, more than half of the completed structure is submerged.  The depth to foundation rock is so great that, on the west abutment wall, only 90 feet of the 206-foot-high structure is visible.

Area History

Since the earliest exploration of the area, travelers used the Tennessee River to reach the Ohio River.  They soon discovered that the Cumberland River emptied into the Ohio shortly before the Tennessee and that the two rivers ran parallel for many miles.

This tract of land became known as the Land Between the Rivers, and in the late 1800s, a booming iron refining process developed in the area.

During the Civil War, General Ulysses Grant brought a flotilla down the Tennessee River to storm Fort Henry.  After that successful assault, he put his troops ashore and had them march across this land to the Cumberland on his way to Fort Donelson.  His gunboats made the trip around the rivers to provide artillery support for that attack.  The fall of these two forts allowed the Union to ship supplies on the two rivers.

Initial studies for a dam and lock near the mouth of the Tennessee River were made at a site called Aurora Landing.  Those studies presented many difficulties in building at Aurora Landing and resulted in the selection of the dam's present location.

For a time, there was strong opposition to the Kentucky Dam project in Congress.  Those problems were eventually solved, allowing Kentucky Lock and Dam to act as the gateway to the Tennessee River.

Today, with the formation of Lake Barkley on the Cumberland, the area once known as the Land Between the Rivers is now the Land Between the Lakes.  It has been developed into an extensive recreational area. For more information, visit the Tennessee Valley Authority Kentucky Reservoir web page.