Big Sandy River Locks & Dams

The Big Sandy River and its tributaries, flowing southward from Catlettsburg, historically featured a series of locks and dams.

The Big Sandy River and its tributaries, flowing southward from Catlettsburg, historically featured a series of locks and dams. This was part of a project to create navigable waterways from Catlettsburg to the coalfields of West Virginia and Kentucky. The river’s two tributaries, the Levisa and the Tug Forks, each had a lock to support slackwater navigation.



Surrounding the Big Sandy River and its tributaries is an area characterized by dense forests, hilly landscapes, and deposits of bituminous coal. 5 8 Due to the challenging terrain, roads were slow to develop, making the river the most practical means of transportation. From the 1830s until around World War II, steamboat traffic was a vital lifeline for the area, facilitating the movement of goods, passengers, mail, and local produce. These steamboats, including sternwheelers and sidewheelers, navigated the full length of the Big Sandy and up the Levisa Fork as far as Pikeville. During periods of low water, shallow draft boats known as ‘‘pushboats’’ would navigate further upstream, even reaching Williamson on the Tug Fork.

Before the advent of railroads, 25 steamboats operated along the Big Sandy, with numerous landings, wharf boats, and warehouses lining both banks to manage the bustling upriver commerce all the way to Pikeville, 88.5 miles above Louisa. 5 8

To support the logging industry, temporary splash dams were constructed on the Russell Fork of Levisa and other tributaries. 5 These dams created pools to gather logs, which were then released downstream by dynamiting the dams. At times, the log rafts were so dense that they almost covered the mouth of the Big Sandy at Catlettsburg. Many of these logs were transported down the Ohio River, some reaching as far as Cincinnati, where they contributed to the construction of luxurious steamboats used on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers during this era.

The last log raft journey on the Big Sandy took place around 1942 or 1943. 5 This raft originated on the Levisa Fork and notably passed through Lock 1 on its journey.


The first comprehensive survey of the Big Sandy River was completed in 1835, leading to the arrival of the first steamboats at Fort Gay, West Virginia, and Louisa, Kentucky in 1838. 4 Frederick Moore established a wharf at Fort Gay in 1849 for the loading and unloading of goods. Although the Big Sandy River Navigation Company was formed in 1858 with the intention of building locks, it never carried out this plan.

In 1875, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the river to enhance transportation. 4 They started clearing snags and overhanging trees in 1878 to improve navigation. The federal government authorized the construction of a lock and dam at Fort Gay in 1880, which was built between 1885 and 1897.

In 1889, Major Lockwood proposed enhancements for the Big Sandy River stretching from its mouth at Catlettsburgh to Louisa, covering a distance of 26 miles. 2 8 This plan included the construction of three locks on the Levisa Fork from Louisa to Pikeville, an 86.5-mile stretch requiring 10 locks, and 8 locks along the Tug Fork from Louisa to Pond Creek, spanning 60 miles. Although a total of 21 locks were needed, the estimated cost for building 20 dams was averaged at $200,000 each.

By 1909, only the first five locks of the planned series had been finished. 2 Navigating through the first lock at Catlettsburg proved challenging during the summer, as the Ohio River, into which the Big Sandy River feeds, often had low water levels. 6 Furthermore, the completion of the Norfolk & Western and the Chesapeake & Ohio railroads into the coalfields diverted much of the anticipated river traffic to rail transport. Further work on the canalization project ceased. 2

In the 1940s, there was a proposal to create a nine-foot navigation channel leading into the coalfields, featuring six locks and dams. 10 13 This project was projected to cost between $150 million and $162 million. The plan anticipated that coal companies would annually load up to eight million tons of coal onto barges. 13 However, a 1950 report by the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the project would not yield sufficient benefits to justify its economic viability. Consequently, the proposal failed to gain widespread political support.

Locking operations upstream from Catlettsburg ceased in September 1947. However, the gates of Lock No. 1 remained open, with operational hours set from 8 AM to 4:30 PM daily. 9 Locking operations at Lock No. 1 ended in 1952. 2


Big SandyNo. 1 (Catlettsburg)19051952
Big SandyNo. 2 (Kavanaugh)19051947
Big SandyNo. 3 (Fort Gay)18971947
Levisa ForkNo. 1 (Chapman)19091947
Levisa ForkNo. 2 (George’s Creek)
Levisa ForkNo. 3 (Lost Creek)
Levisa ForkNo. 4 (Wild Goose Shoal)
Levisa ForkNo. 5 (Mont Prestons)
Levisa ForkNo. 6 (John’s Creek)
Levisa ForkNo. 7 (Ball Alley Rock)
Levisa ForkNo. 8 (Haw’s Ford)
Levisa ForkNo. 9 (Ivy Shoals)
Levisa ForkNo. 10 (Weddington Branch)
Tug ForkNo. 1 (Saltpeter)19101947
Tug ForkNo. 2 (W. D. Ratcliff’s)
Tug ForkNo. 3 (Whitt Shoals)
Tug ForkNo. 4 (Crum Mill Dam)
Tug ForkNo. 5 (Warfield)
Tug ForkNo. 6 (Yosies Sluice)
Tug ForkNo. 7 (Mount Sterling Shoals)
Tug ForkNo. 8 (Alley Island)
This is a list of locks and dams along the Big Sandy River and its tributaries.

Big Sandy River Lock No. 1

Lock No. 1 on the Big Sandy was opened on November 17, 1904. 7 Featuring a dam length of 300 feet, it was designed to provide a 21-foot lift with a lock that measured 160 feet in length and 55 feet in width. 1 2 It was noted for being the highest needle dam in the world. 3

However, the completion of Lock No. 29 on the Ohio River in Ashland, which maintained the navigation pool at a height of 498.5 feet above mean sea level, subsequently reduced the lift at Big Sandy’s Lock No. 1 to 13.5 feet.

As of 1947, operational hours at Lock No. 1 were set from 8 AM to 4:30 PM daily. 9 After no commercial traffic used the lock in 1951, locking operations were discontinued on June 30, 1952. 12 The Ashland Oil & Refining Company made an offer to operate the facilities. 11

Big Sandy River Lock No. 2

Lock No. 2 on the Big Sandy was completed at Kavanaugh, 12.7 miles from the Ohio River, in 1905. 2 Featuring a dam length of 276 feet, it was designed to provide a lift of 12.6 feet with a lock that measured 160 feet in length by 55 feet in width. Locking operations were discontinued in 1947. 2 9

In October 1962, the property was designated as surplus, and subsequently, the General Services Administration sold it to the Chesapeake Realty Development Corporation in July 1963 for $28,000. 14 The intention was to redevelop the site for industrial purposes. Included on the site were two houses, two washhouses, a frame office building, a pump house, and a utilities building.

Big Sandy River Lock No. 3

Lock No. 3 on the Big Sandy River, located at Fort Gay, 26.2 miles upstream from the Ohio River, was completed in 1897. 2 It featured a 270-foot-long dam and was engineered to provide a 10.6-foot lift. The lock itself measured 158 feet in length and 52 feet in width.

Construction on this lock began in 1883 under the direction of Engineer B.F. Thomas. 4 The project faced several delays and cost overruns. In 1891, a significant alteration was made to the original plan, switching from a fixed dam to a moveable needle dam at Fort Gay, a first of its kind in the United States.

The total expenditure for Lock No. 3 reached $750,000 by its completion in 1897. 4 This achievement drew attention, including visits from engineers from Mississippi and Hungary and the Congressional River & Harbor Committee.

In 1902, the federal government approved a project to raise the height of the Fort Gay lock. 4 Despite this upgrade, transportation through the lock decreased significantly, from 300,000 tons to 194,000 tons.

The lock’s operations were reduced in 1920 due to ongoing repairs. 4 By 1922, traffic through the lock had dwindled with a minimal amount of coal and oil sent through. Locking operations were discontinued in 1947. 2 9

Levisa Fork Lock No. 1

Lock No. 1 on the Levisa Fork was completed 35.1 miles from the Ohio River in 1909. 2 Featuring a dam length of 206 feet, it was designed to provide a lift of 11 feet with a lock that measured 160 feet in length by 55 feet in width. It provided nine feet of water at Torchlight mines and about eight feet of water in the George’s Creek bend. 8

Locking operations were discontinued in 1947. 2 9

Tug Fork Lock No. 1

Lock No. 1 on the Tug Fork was completed 30.7 miles from the Ohio River in 1910. 2 Featuring a dam length of 190 feet, it was designed to provide a lift of 12 feet with a lock that measured 160 feet in length by 55 feet in width. It provided nine feet of water at the mouth of Rockcastle Creek. 8

Locking operations were discontinued in 1947. 2 9



  1. Big Sandy River navigation.” Ohio River Blog, 27 Aug. 2016.
  2. Big Sandy River.” American Canal Society Canal Index.
  3. Highest Needle Dam in the world, Lock No. 1. Big Sandy River, Catlettsburg, KY.” Kentucky Historical Society.
  4. The Fort Gay Lock and Dam.” The Historical Marker Database, 2019.
  5. Hartford, John “Big Sandy River.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 23 December 2010.
  6. “Improvement.” The Big Sandy News, 6 Sept. 1912, p. 1.
  7. “Suggestion.” Messenger-Inquirer, 17 Nov. 1904, p. 1.
  8. “Big Sandy Valley.” The Big Sandy News, 7 Jan. 1898, pp. 1-2.
  9. “Navigation Is Scheduled For River Lock System.” Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 Sept. 1947, p. 14.
  10. Creason, Joe. “Dams Have Dotted Kentucky Talk For Almost 160 Years.” Courier-Journal, 4 Jan. 1952, p. 7.
  11. “Ashland Oil Offers To Operate Lock, Dam.” Courier-Journal, 12 Jun. 1952, p. 11.
  12. “U. S. To Halt Operation of Big Sandy Dam No. 1.” Courier-Journal, 28 Feb. 1952, p. 4.
  13. “Canalization For Big Sandy Urged.” Advocate-Messenger, 18 Feb. 1953, p. 4.
  14. “Lock Out.” Courier-Journal, 8 Jul. 1963, p. 4.


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