Throwback Thursday – Southern Kentucky’s Locks and Dams

Southern Kentucky’s rivers and geography shaped its history. From the Green River’s locks and dams came steamboat commerce and access to more land. Bowling Green’s Boatlanding Park is one of many spots where area locks and dams paved the way for change.

Going back over 250 years, much of the Green River area was being explored and settled just after the American Revolutionary War ended. Tracts of land along the river were even given to men who gave military service during the war.

The rough wilderness was considered “the West” at the time, and it also attracted vagrants and crime, earning itself the name “Rogue’s Harbor.” By 1842, there were enough small community settlements around southern Kentucky that locks and dams were needed to transport resources and provide better access.

Four locks and dams were built along the Green River, the furthest going as far inland as Bowling Green, and a fifth was built where the Barren River meets the Green. These helped steamboat and commerce reach new heights. Two more were added at the turn of the 20th century to provide access to Mammoth Cave, as the area became a national park 40 years later.  

By the 1960s, three of the locks and dams had failed or closed, two along Mammoth Cave and one in Woodbury. Just before 1970, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impounded a section of the river to create Green River Lake.

The locks and dams have fundamentally changed the ecosystems of the rivers and in 2016 the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife started work to dismantle them. The Nature Conservancy and several other groups are working in conjunction with this project to remove what remains.