Barren River No. 2 Dam changed lives, region
Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2014 1:00 am
LUCAS — When Steve Jackson puts his fishing line into Barren River Lake, his thoughts often gravitate to his grandfather Carl Disman.
Disman gave up his past so that Jackson and hundreds of thousands of people could have a brighter, safer future in southcentral Kentucky.
Jackson said when he talks to fellow lake anglers about bass and crappie, he tells them about the great fishing spots in the lake, spots where fish gather in and around the old limestone foundations of the farm buildings once owned by men like his grandfather. It’s all underwater now – tangled tree trunks and stumps and old foundations.
There’s even an old spring Disman used near his barn. That’s underwater, too.
Disman was one of nearly 80 property owners who sold their land to the federal government so the property could be flooded by the Barren River No. 2 Dam. Eventually a lake, a state park, lodge and boating facilities would come to Barren and Allen counties, providing a picturesque vacation and camping spot. Jackson recalled Disman’s homestead was one of the last structures condemned to pave the way for the dam project.
According to news reports at the time, property owners in Barren and Allen counties formed a committee so they could collectively deal with the land sales. A newspaper report of a meeting in February 1960 noted about 150 people attended a meeting at the Allen County Courthouse, 78 of whom would be directly affected by what was being called the Port Oliver Dam.
That was one of the first significant steps in a lengthy process that led to Barren River No. 2 Dam being dedicated on Sept. 25, 1964. On Saturday, officials celebrated the 50th anniversary of the dam in ceremonies in Barren County.
To determine why homesteads had to be abandoned and flooded in the first place to create the reservoir, an examination is needed of the rationale for the project. First, there was the unpredictable Barren River, a river that couldn’t be contained within its banks. It had to be tamed for safety and economic reasons. It was dammed to create a reservoir that could launch recreational and economic development opportunities in the region.
The scrutiny begins
In 1944, while the United States fought to quell the Germans and the Japanese in World War II in Europe and the Pacific, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers back stateside was studying the Barren River in Kentucky, a study authorized under the federal Flood Control Act of 1941.
The study showed that 18,340 acres of land in the Barren River flood plain was affected by flooding, taking out 11,005 acres of corn, 3,185 acres of hay, 843 acres of pasture and 3,307 acres of woodlands. Jackson recalls as a boy he saw the Barren River at the Narrows gorged two different times with water that reached the level where the lake rises in elevation today.
The federal study looked at the flood area below the authorized Barren No. 2 reservoir at river mile marker 79.2 and at the river’s mouth. The 1944 study noted the greater losses to floods occurred during the traditional crop season, April to November. The U.S. Army broke the river watershed into two sections, the first from river mile zero to mile marker 43.7 and the second section from 43.7 to 79.2 to look at flood losses.
Records compiled by U.S. Rep. William Natcher, D-Bowling Green, which are available in the Natcher Collection at the Kentucky Museum archives, show the congressman several years later was working to shepherd federal legislation about a concept called low-stream flow. The idea was if the water in the river could be slowed down in speed and thus pooled, it would enhance the fish habitat, maintain a healthy temperature for the fish and also control flooding that had affected farm owners in the flood plain.
The Ohio Valley Improvement Association in Cincinnati, chaired by William Hull, concurred with Natcher’s approach. In a letter to Natcher in 1957, Hull urged Natcher to increase budgeted planning funds for Barren River No. 2 from $50,000 to $150,000 so that construction could be started in fiscal year 1959.
In a Western Union wire sent to the Daily News publisher in 1958, Natcher was pleased to report that the River and Harbors and Flood Control Omnibus Bill had been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 11, 1958, on a vote of 321-81.
“It is in the best interest of our people and national security that the regulation to increase low-stream flows be adopted,” Natcher wrote to J. Ray Gaines.
Turning the earth
The Barren River dam project progressed to the point where on April 16, 1960, Natcher – an influential member of the House Appropriations Committee – lifted the first spade full of dirt for the project while an estimated 1,000 people watched, including Kentucky’s two U.S. senators, John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton. News accounts at the time said the dam was just one of $533 million in water development projects in Kentucky.
In a pamphlet produced in 1964 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District, it noted the dam impounded a reservoir with a minimum pool length of 19 miles and a maximum pool length of 46 miles. That’s a total water storage capacity of 768,600 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot of water equals 325,850 gallons of water.
The dam had been a long time coming. An act of Congress in June 1938 provided the potential funding for the dam under the Flood Control Act of 1938. However, it took until 1960 before the first shovel of dirt was turned for the 3,970-foot earthen dam which had a total fill of 5,181,326 cubic yards.
The flood control effort was vital, according to a column in “Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground” written in January 1965 following the 1964 dam dedication ceremony where Natcher and Kentucky Gov. Edward Breathitt spoke.
“Just last spring rampaging waters along the Ohio River cost Kentuckians damages estimated at $32 million. A great deal of this financial disaster and untold human suffering will be avoided in the future because of dams like this one which are being constructed all over Kentucky,” the column noted.
News reports in 1960 stated the highest price paid for land was $275 per acre and that the land-buying process was expected to take a couple of years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had determined that the river valley would be permanently submerged up to the elevation 520 feet above sea level and that the government would purchase land up to the seasonal pool level of 560 feet above sea level. The top flood level elevation would be 590 feet above sea level.
Jackson, 64, a Barren County resident, said his grandfather resented that he had to give up his farm for the project. “That (farm) was his domain,” Jackson recalled.
With the eventual development of the lake as a tourism spot, people from Alabama, Illinois, Ohio and other states came to Barren River Lake for fishing tournaments. The dollars they spent boosted the economy in Barren, Allen and Monroe counties.
Billy Gray, 77, of Barren County, who first came to southcentral Kentucky at age 9, said the dam was a good decision because of the water supply benefits for the region along with the economic development. Gray said when the dam was completed in 1964, he used to take his water storage vehicles down by the lake to obtain free water for his tobacco plants. The edge of the lake was only about a quarter-mile from his house. Health reasons led to Gray quit growing tobacco in 1997.
Years later, he takes in a Sunday afternoon dinner at the lodge and marvels at the development that has occurred around the lake.
“I think a lot of people who were opposed to it (initially) think differently now,” he said. He compared the situation to when Interstate 65 was built and those people who had traveled along U.S. 31-W wondered why the new road was needed.
When Natcher spoke at the 1960 groundbreaking, the Markwell and Hartz construction firm from Memphis, Tenn., had used its bulldozers to knock down a clearing. Then-Kentucky Gov. Bert Combs joined Natcher, Cooper and Morton that April.
“We’ll keep our children at home and we’ll utilize our natural resources through river development,” Natcher told the crowd, according to news reports. High school bands from Glasgow, Allen County, Butler County and Bowling Green entertained the crowd before the politicians’ speeches, the reports recounted.
Four years later, when the dam was completed, Natcher shared the speaker duties with Breathitt, and the Bowling Green congressman remained optimistic about the $24.5 million dam’s potential. He said the project was the realization of one of his major dreams as a congressman.
Natcher said he was reared on a farm in the Barren River basin and that he knew firsthand the “hardship” of floods.
Col. William Roper of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told people gathered at the Western Hills Restaurant in Bowling Green that the dam was expected to reduce flood damage by $6 million a year, meaning it would pay for itself in just over a decade, news reports show. The Barren River project was one of four major flood control efforts in southcentral Kentucky: Rough River, Nolin, Barren and Green rivers. Roper said the four projects represented a more than $69 million investment.
“The primary purpose of the Barren River Reservoir project is flood control,” the 1964 pamphlet from the Army Corps of Engineers noted. “As an integral unit of the comprehensive flood control plan for the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, it will reduce flood stages in the Barren and Green River valleys and all other areas downstream from the dam. The reservoir is maintained at or near minimum pool level during winter months and at seasonal pool level during summer months except when waters are stored for flood control,” the pamphlet noted.
If you build it, they will come
With the dam operational, Breathitt told the onlookers in 1964 about a proposed $176 million bond issue planned for November 1965 that would pave the way for a resort lodge and swimming pool, boat dock, picnic, camping and swimming facilities. A new state park was about to be born.
The money would soon be forthcoming. The first inkling that the larger economic plan was bankrolled was when it was announced in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal in December 1966 that $1,734,000 in federal money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund established by Congress in 1965 – where fees paid at federal recreation facilities were being distributed to the states – was approved for the project.
The state of Kentucky matched the $1.7 million from the federal government with $1,230,000 realized by a sale of revenue bonds and $724,255 earned from the approved 1965 local bond issue.
By the time the 25th anniversary of Barren River State Resort Park and celebration of the Louis B. Nunn Lodge occurred in 1996 – named for the former Kentucky governor and native of Barren County in 1971 – the complex had become a vibrant part of the community. It had been a long time since the Barren River Valley Development League and public officials had heralded the potential that the dam could bring to the area in their 1964 speeches.
The $3.7 million Kentucky state park generated millions of tourism dollars, a fact not lost on Jackson, who said he, his children and grandchildren benefit from his grandfather’s decision to give up the farm.
Under the water lay those building foundations, former Native American hunting spots and the area that settlers in the 1700s claimed was “barren” because of a lack of trees in the topography, the trees razed to provide grazing areas for buffalo.
Not all the history, though has been overwhelmed by water.
According to the state park’s website, Port Oliver, near the dam, was formerly called Port Oliver Ford, and was the site of a brine-well field for producing table salt. Baileys Point Recreation Area was the site of an antebellum farmhouse, built by early settlers to the area who went by the name of Foster. The website also noted that a family cemetery remains with gravestones and stone vaults that date back to the early 1800s.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noted it is the largest federal provider of outdoor and water-based recreation in the nation and hosts more than 350 million visits each year at its lakes, beaches and other areas. Corps lands and waters provide about 4,500 miles of trails, 3,400 boat launch ramps and 33 percent of all U.S. freshwater fishing.