The Kentucky River is a tributary of the Ohio River, 260 miles (418 km) long,[2] in the U.S. Commonwealth of Kentucky. The river and its tributaries drain much of the central region of the state, with its upper course passing through the coal-mining regions of the Cumberland Mountains, and its lower course passing through the Bluegrass region in the north central part of the state. Its watershed encompasses about 7,000 square miles (18,000 km2). It supplies drinking water to about one-sixth of the population of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Kentucky River
The Kentucky River Palisades at Raven Run Park
Kentucky River watershed (Interactive map)
CountryUnited States
Physical characteristics
 • locationBeattyville
 • elevation669 ft (204 m)
 • location
Ohio River at Carrollton
Length263 mi (423 km)
Basin size6,989 sq mi (18,100 km2)
 • locationLockport
 • average8,924 cu ft/s (252.7 m3/s), USGS water years 1977-2019[1]

The river is no longer navigable above Lock 4 at Frankfort. Concrete bulkheads have been poured behind the upper lock gates of Locks 5–14 to strengthen the weakest link in the dam structures. All 14 dams are now under the management of the state-run Kentucky River Authority. The primary importance of the locks today is to maintain a pool that allows the city of Lexington to draw its drinking water from the river. Although the Lexington area receives well over 40 inches (1,000 mm) of precipitation annually, the limestone karst geology of that area results in surprisingly little natural surface water to be found in the region.

Winchester, Beattyville, Irvine, Richmond, Lancaster, Nicholasville, Harrodsburg, Wilmore, Versailles, Lawrenceburg, and Frankfort also draw water from the river for their municipal water supplies. It is estimated that more than 700,000 people depend on the river for water.


Watershed of the Kentucky River, showing the North Fork, Middle Fork, and South Fork tributaries.

The main stem of the Kentucky River is formed in Eastern Kentucky around Beattyville, in Lee County, by the confluences of the North, Middle, and South Forks (more on which in #Forks).[3] The river flows generally northwest, in a highly meandering course through the mountains, through the Daniel Boone National Forest, past Irvine and Boonesborough, flowing southwest and passing south of Lexington, then north through Frankfort. It joins the Ohio at Carrollton.

Approximately 15 miles (24 km) southeast of Boonesborough, the Kentucky is joined by its tributary the Red River. Approximately 20 miles (32 km) west of Boonesborough, it is joined by Silver Creek. At High Bridge, it is joined by the Dix River. At Frankfort, it is joined by Benson Creek; that confluence was the junction of Kentucky's three original counties. At Monterey, approximately 10 miles (16 km) north of Frankfort, it is joined by Elkhorn Creek, which drains much of the Inner Bluegrass region.

Between Clays Ferry in Madison County and Frankfort, the river passes through the Kentucky River Palisades, a series of dramatic steep gorges approximately 100 miles (160 km) in length.



The Kentucky River has three major forks, the North, Middle, and South Forks.[3] The Middle and North Forks join just upstream of Beattyville to form the Kentucky River, which is joined in turn just downstream of Beattyville by the South Fork.[3] The area between the confluence of the North and Middle Forks and where the South Fork joins is known locally as The Three Forks Country.[4]

Between them, the three forks drain nearly 35 of the 4,423-square-mile (114.6 Ma) central portion of the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield area.[3][5]

The North Fork near Combs.

The North Fork Kentucky River is approximately 168 miles (270 km) long.[2] The North Fork's own tributaries are in its article and include amongst the larger of them Lotts Creek, Big Creek, and the two major ones Quicksand Creek and Troublesome Creek.[3]

At Airdale, the North Fork has a mean average discharge of approximately 863 cubic feet per second, per data collected during the period 1930–1942.[6]

The Middle Fork Kentucky River is approximately 105 miles (169 km) long.[2] The Middle Fork's own tributaries are in its article and include the two major ones Cutshin Creek and Greasy Creek.[3]

At Tallega, the Middle Fork has a mean annual discharge of 792 cubic feet per second.[7]

The South Fork Kentucky River is approximately 45 miles (72 km) long.[2] The South Fork's own tributaries are in its article and include the three major ones Sextons Creek, Goose Creek, and the Red Bird River.[3]

At Booneville, the South Fork has a mean annual discharge of 1,052 cubic feet per second.[8]



The whole Kentucky River Basin is subject to regular flooding, caused by high rainfall, and because the banks of its various tributaries are generally steep, flood damage is usually to buildings, towns, and roads that are on the courses of the creeks.[9] The physical and human geography comprises deep narrow river valleys, with relatively narrow flood plains along which are built most of the roads, railway lines, homes, and businesses.[10] The generally rocky terrain of the area causes rainwater to run off into many ephemeral creeks, that feed into the perennial ones, rather than being absorbed into the soil.[11] Much of the built environment in the area is along the creek beds, meaning that damage is mainly to it rather than to agricultural areas.[11]

Kentucky River flooding has been recorded since the early 1800s. Swiss immigrant and lock-keeper, Frank Wurtz, recorded the floods from 1867 on and spoke with local farmers to learn of earlier ones. They told him of great floods in 1817, 1832, 1847, and 1854. Wurtz documented the floods of 1867, 1880, and 1883, which he claims was five feet higher than the high tide of the 1847 flood. The waters of the 1883 flood washed his post away.[12][page needed]

On January 1, 1919, the waters rose 10 feet in ten hours at Frankfort, causing damage to many smaller towns along the river. In November of the same year, the waters rose 3 feet in one hour at Frankfort. In 1920, flooding caused the sewers in Frankfort to back up. There was also major flooding in early 1924 and late December 1926.[12][page needed]

Floods hit Kentucky and the South in 1927, causing widespread damage in the Kentucky River basin, in communities such as Neon, Whitesburg, and Hazard. Hundreds of people were forced from their homes.[13]

Politics of flooding in the 1930s


Throughout the 1930s, the area, already suffering from the economic depression, had to deal with several floods, including a particularly bad one in 1936. As the Ohio river flooded that year, it backed into the lower Kentucky. The crest reached 42.7 feet (13.0 m) tall, and flooded half of Frankfort, completely isolating the Old State Capitol. In all, 12,000 square miles (31,000 km2) of the Ohio valley were flooded.[14]

The severe 1937 flooding, exacerbated by cold weather, resulted in civil unrest. In the Kentucky State Reformatory at Frankfort, the water rose to 6 feet (1.8 m) in the walls. With the downstairs population moving up a floor, racial tensions erupted. 24 prisoners tried to escape, but after a warning shot was fired, only one man left. No clean water or food was left in the prison, so authorities moved the population of 2,900 to the "feeble-minded institute" on the hill next to the prison. Carpenters were brought in to build small, temporary housing units. Due to the unrest of the prison riots, the National Guard was brought in to oversee the makeshift prison. The prisoners considered to be too dangerous for the setting were sent to Lawrenceburg and Lexington. Governor Happy Chandler successfully pushed for a new reformatory to be built in LaGrange.[15]

While the public was still dealing with the effects of the flooding, Kentucky Utilities opened the Dix Dam spillways, which added more height to the flood waters. When it was turned off, 3 feet (0.91 m) extra of water were added. In Mercer county, the ferry connecting to the shore of Woodford washed away and was never replaced. A flood in 1939 rose slightly higher in Hazard than the flood in 1937.[12][page needed]

Residents in the Kentucky River watershed demanded the federal government do more to control floods. Kentucky Hydro-Electric began pushing as early as 1925 for a 162-foot (49 m) dam 1 mile (1.6 km) above Booneville on the South Fork. For a variety of reasons, many people protested this. The dam would create a reservoir, backing up the South Fork for over 28 miles (45 km).[citation needed]

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Flood Control Act of 1938, which authorized construction or study of many dams and reservoirs by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Only two small lakes, Carr Fork and Buckhorn, were created in the Kentucky River watershed. The most controversial project, a Red River dam that would have flooded most of the river's scenic gorge, was finally abandoned in 1975.[citation needed] By that time, more people understood the widespread environmental and habitat effects of such dam construction and were less willing to support them.

January and February 1957


The Kentucky River basin, including the three Forks and their tributaries, suffered a major flood in January and February 1957, although that did not exceed the highest on record on North Fork (and on its tributary Troublesome Creek), the Goose Creek tributary of South Fork, and Carr Fork, all of which had had higher local floods at that point.[9] The 1957 flood affected not only the Kentucky River but also the Big Sandy River, the Cumberland River, and the Tennessee River.[16] The total cost of damages was estimated at US$15,000,000 (equivalent to $162,725,118 in 2023) in the Kentucky River basin, out of US$52,000,000 (equivalent to $564,113,744 in 2023) across Kentucky as a whole.[16]

It also affected south-western West Virginia, western Virginia, and north-eastern Tennessee, but Kentucky state was the hardest hit.[16] In part this was because of the physical geography of the area, as aforementioned.[10]

There had been 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5.1 cm) of rainfall a week before the floods, which had saturated the ground and filled streams to their median levels, and in the period from the 27th of January to the 2nd of February there was 4 to 9 inches (10 to 23 cm) of rainfall.[16] The highest rainfall of the floods within Kentucky state was measured in the PikevilleHaysi area.,[10] with 6 to 9 inches (15 to 23 cm) over much of the flood area and 12.5 inches (32 cm) at the headwaters of Middle Fork.[10]

The highest peak river discharges then on record were measured along all three Forks of the Kentucky River.[10]

There were no early warnings of the floods, as communications were disrupted.[17] Approximately 7,700 telephones and 103 long-distance telephone lines were taken out of service.[17] Most people had to evacuate their homes rapidly without time to transport their possessions.[17] Water supplies were contaminated, natural gas supplies were cut off making it difficult to cook, and food shortages occurred because of damage to food stocks on people's homes and in local stores.[17]

President Eisenhower declared the region a disaster area.[17] The Red Cross, one of several relief organizations that came to aid alongside the federal and state governments, reported the destruction of 597 homes, major damage to another 2,932 homes, and minor damage to a further 8,740.[17] Nine people died.[17] Several rural school buildings were entirely destroyed, and many others were closed either because of damage or because transportation disruption meant that people simply could not get to them.[17] The most costly school losses were the State Vocational School at Hazard (US$37,300 (equivalent to $404,643 in 2023)), with the rest of Perry County having some US$85,000 (equivalent to $922,109 in 2023) worth of damage to other schools, and Floyd County having US$308,000 (equivalent to $3,341,289 in 2023) worth of damage to its schools.

Highway damage made transport of relief supplies difficult, with the United States Army sending in 14 helicopters for transport of supplies, headquartered at London.[17] Approximately 900 mines and manufacturing industries, and 90% of the coal mines in Perry, Letcher, Floyd, and Pike Counties, were shut down.[17] 96 cable-suspended footbridges, providing access to highways from residences that were on the opposite banks of streams, were destroyed.[18]



The river provides excellent[according to whom?] fishing. The largest goldeye ever taken in the state of Kentucky (2.04 pounds or 0.93 kilograms) was caught in the Kentucky River in 2001, as well as the 65.06-pound (29.51 kg) state-record bighead carp, caught in 2020.[19]

See also



  1. ^ "USGS Water-Year Summary for Site 03290500". Archived from the original on August 30, 2020. Retrieved August 30, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map Archived March 29, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, accessed June 13, 2011
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Quinones et al. 1981, p. 12.
  4. ^ Rennick 2000a, p. 2.
  5. ^ Quinones et al. 1981, p. 4.
  6. ^ "USGS Surface Water data for Kentucky: USGS Surface-Water Annual Statistics".
  7. ^ "USGS Surface Water data for Kentucky: USGS Surface-Water Annual Statistics".
  8. ^ "USGS Surface Water data for Kentucky: USGS Surface-Water Annual Statistics".
  9. ^ a b USACE 1958, p. 40.
  10. ^ a b c d e USGS 1967, p. 5.
  11. ^ a b Horn 2022.
  12. ^ a b c Williams 2000.
  13. ^ "9 Jul 1993, Page 3 - The Courier-Journal at". Courier-Journal. Retrieved October 23, 2018.
  14. ^ The Kentucky Encyclopedia (2000). "FLOOD OF 1937". Retrieved October 23, 2018.
  15. ^ The Kentucky Encyclopedia (2000). "PRISONS". Retrieved October 23, 2018.
  16. ^ a b c d USGS 1967, p. 1.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i j USGS 1967, p. 7.
  18. ^ USGS 1967, p. 8.
  19. ^ "State Record Fishes and Awards". Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. 2023. Retrieved October 28, 2023.



Further reading


38°41′0″N 85°11′18″W / 38.68333°N 85.18833°W / 38.68333; -85.18833