Kentucky River Forms Here

Historical Marker #1805 in Beattyville (Lee County) notes the location where the Kentucky River begins. Two branches, the North Fork and Middle Fork, join together east of Beattyville. They then form a confluence with the South Fork at the town, which forms the Kentucky River. The stream flows 250 miles to the northwest to join the Ohio River at Carrollton, Kentucky.

Once was the time when steamboats made their way through a series of locks and dams to reach the source of the Kentucky River. Due to the size of the Kentucky River, those steamboats that navigated its waters were much smaller than those used on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. These smaller craft began using the Kentucky River as early as 1816.

The variation in the depth of water at certain locations, and at different times of the year limited navigation on the stream. In 1836, a series of locks and dams were installed at various points along the river to regulate the water levels to maintain regular traffic. Due to a shortage of state funds, the dam and lock project was discontinued in 1842. Steamboats provided many farmers in the eastern counties of the state a necessary outlet for their agricultural goods and products that were previously unavailable. At this time, few mountain counties had good roads and no railroads, so steamboats provided an important service.

After the Civil War, thanks to federal funds the dam and lock project continued. By the 1890s, Kentucky River steamboat traffic was again brisk, especially in the portion of the river nearest its source. In the upper stretches of the stream freight dominated steamboat traffic in favor of passenger traffic, which was usually limited to local travel. Vital raw materials needed for the growth of the United States, especially coal and lumber, were often transported via steamboat to locations on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers or even exported for international markets at ports such as New Orleans.

The early years of the twentieth century saw a transition to gasoline powered boats. The old wood and coal-fired steamboats slowly died away and the age of steamboating on the Kentucky River eventually ended.