Navigating History: The Big Sandy River’s Canalization Efforts

The Big Sandy River, bordering Kentucky and West Virginia, was once a bustling waterway with locks and dams to facilitate commerce. Its significance waned with the advent of railroads leading to the abandonment of most locks by 1947.

The Big Sandy River and its two tributaries, which run along the border of Kentucky and West Virginia, were once considered for canalization. This plan involved constructing a series of locks and dams to create slackwater for commercial navigation. The surrounding region of the Big Sandy River is known for its dense forests, hilly terrain, and bituminous coal deposits. The area’s challenging landscape hindered the development of roads, making the river a vital transportation route.

Before railways were established, the Big Sandy River was a hub of activity with 25 steamboats operating along it. These boats, along with numerous landings, wharf boats, and warehouses, facilitated a thriving commerce up to Pikeville. Additionally, log rafts were common, transporting logs down the rivers towards Cincinnati.

In 1889, Major Lockwood proposed improvements for the Big Sandy River, extending from its mouth at Catlettsburgh to Louisa. This led to the construction of five locks and dams between 1897 and 1910, along the Big Sandy, Levisa Fork, and Tug Fork. However, the emergence of railroads into the coalfields diminished the rivers’ commercial significance. Most of these locks were abandoned by 1947, with the last one closing in 1952.

In Louisa, Kentucky and Fort Gay, West Virginia, the remnants of Lock No. 3 can be found. Completed in 1897 after a 14-year construction period, this lock was notable for its 270-foot-long movable needle dam, the first of its kind in the United States, and was designed to provide a lift of 10.6 feet. The lock chamber itself was 158 feet long and 52 feet wide.

In 1902, the U.S. federal government authorized a project to increase the height of the Fort Gay lock. However, despite this enhancement, the volume of transportation through the lock declined markedly, from 300,000 tons to 194,000 tons. By 1922, the lock was primarily used for minimal coal and oil transport, and its operational use ceased in 1947.

Today, the best view of Lock No. 3 is from the Louisa side, at a place fittingly named Lockview Park.

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