Kentucky River locks to re-open

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By Christopher Brooke



An effort to refurbish the locks and dams on the Kentucky River will open 64 miles of the waterway to recreational users no later than next spring.

After the completion of the renovations — including to the dam at Lockport — boaters will be able to take the river all the way from the Ohio to Frankfort, according to the Kentucky River Authority’s Jerry Graves.

The effort to make the river navigable over long distances arose after boaters expressed interest in floating to the state capital.

“People are ready to come back to Frankfort by water,” he said. “Anything from a bass boat to a large houseboat.”

He understands the allure of the water, since he’s been taking craft out on the Kentucky since 1968.

In all, the Kentucky River runs from Eastern Kentucky, to the south of Lexington, through Frankfort to flow into the Ohio River, according to information compiled by Bergmann Associates, a subcontractor on design work for a similar project at locks three and four. The river had been divided into 14 locks and dams for navigation and water supply pools, though locks five through 14 have been blocked off to river traffic by concrete.

Commercial use of theriver declined over the years due to difficult-to-navigate water levels, the sizes of the locks to pass boats through and competition with railroads to transport goods.

After the rehabilitation project wraps up, boats from the Ohio would enter a lock at Carrollton to start their journey and then onto the lock in Henry County.

Abandoned by the Army Corps of Engineers and turned over to the KRA, Graves didn’t think any work has been done to the locks in about 40 years.

He’s looking forward to the river hosting more boat traffic. “We could either do the work or put concrete barriers in front of them and say, ‘We’re done,’” he said.

Located about 31 miles from the Ohio River, lock and dam two “support an 11-mile-long pool of water,” according to a history of the Kentucky River. “The original dam was a timber crib structure, consisting of an outside frame of timbers filled with dirt and rock, and the original lock was stone masonry.”

As carried out by MAC Construction of New Albany, Ind., the repairs at Lockport will involve lifting the gates out of the water to repaint and rework them.

It will take a crane to lift the lock gates out of the water and place them on land for repairs, KRA Engineer David Hamilton said. 

“The approximate weight for the lock gates at Lockport are 21,000 pounds per gate leaf for the upstream gates and 34,000 pounds per gate leaf for the downstream gates.”

In their heyday, Hamilton noted that the lock at Carrollton saw significant traffic. In the 1990s, the Kentucky River saw a high of 2,200 recreational craft go through the facility there per season.

At Lockport, the busiest season had about 800 boats go through that lock.

Construction at locks three and four took place in 2013. Graves said that the Kentucky River Authority put in a new dam at lock three, without taking out the old structure, about 30 feet away from it.

The new dam also serves the other responsibility of the quasi-governmental agency — water retention.

Favorable conditions could allow the work on Lockport’s dam to wrap up by September — low water would better facilitate the construction crews getting in to do the rehab of the lock’s gates.

“Everything depends on the weather and the river,” Graves said.

As the lock season runs through the last weekend in October, that could give boaters the opportunity to get out on the river as soon as this fall.

Built for commercial use of the river in the 1830s, these dams have been around for a long time. “We’re just giving them a little TLC,” Graves said.

The project cost at locks one and two came in at $3.3 million, Graves said. The river authority pays for capital projects from water user fees, he said. About 750,000 people who get their water from the Kentucky pay 13 cents per 1,000 gallons that goes to the KRA.

The river authority issued a bond last year to cover the $3.3 million needed to rehab locks one and two and build a new dam past Frankfort.

Hamilton expects that getting the first four locks opened up will lead to other recreational facilities being built on the river, such as docks, campgrounds and places for the boats to get gas.

It will take some time for people to get used to the idea that the locks have reopened for the first time since 2007.

“It’ll take a couple years to get the word out and get people traveling up and down the river again,” the engineer said.

When completed, the dams will be staffed by “lockmasters” to put the boats through the locks Fridays through Sundays.