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    Nashville District tames Cumberland River with the 'Old Locks'

    Nashville District tames Cumberland River with the 'Old Locks'

    Courtesy Photo | A Derrick arrangement is in the pit during the construction of Lock 4 Oct. 26, 1894 on...... read more read more



    Story by Leon Roberts 

    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District

    NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Feb. 14, 2018) – Using wood coffer dams, primitive hand tools, A-frames and even animals to haul in supplies and stone blocks on tracks from nearby rock quarries, Army engineers constructed 15 navigation locks in the late 1800s and early 1900s to tame the Cumberland River for steamboats moving people and commerce throughout the region a century ago.

    In the mid-1880s Col. John Barlow led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chattanooga District, and Charles Locke headed up the Nashville sub office as assistant engineer. In 1887, they prepared designs for the first lock and dam on the Cumberland River to be constructed just below the Nashville Harbor.

    In the book titled "Engineers on the Twin Rivers," authored by Dr. Leland Johnson, Lock and Dam No. 1 would have a lock chamber measuring 60-feet wide by 250-feet long, which were longer than necessary to accommodate shipping and small appropriations.

    Johnson wrote that a board of engineer officers determined the final lock dimensions would be 52-feet wide and 280-feet long.

    “With the dimensions of the locks and the timber-crib, stone-fitted type dam approved by the Board of Engineers, the canalization of the Cumberland began in 1888”… at the urgent request of the Cumberland River Commission, the Engineering faculty at Vanderbilt University, and various legislators, Johnson wrote.

    In order to develop the Cumberland River for navigation, Barlow left Chattanooga and took command of the Nashville District Oct. 1, 1888 at the first office in the Trousdale Building located at 609 Broad Street. Special Order 191, enacted in August 1888, directed Barlow to create the district.

    A huge wave of support and record steamboat traffic on the Cumberland River in 1889 would lead to the creation of the Cumberland River Improvement Association the same year to “impress upon Congress the merits” of the canalization of the Cumberland, Johnson noted. By the end of 1889, the Cumberland River handled 875,000 tons of reported freight.

    Locke then supervised a party of 17 men in two flatboats on a survey of the lower Cumberland for locks and dams, which generated a report for the construction of seven locks (A, B, C, D, E, F and G), although Lock G would never be built as increased lift would be added to the lock designs. Congress authorized canalization of the lower Cumberland River in 1892 and appropriated funds for the construction of Lock and Dam A at Harpeth Shoals.

    Col. Henry Robert, who published the first edition of Robert’s Rules of Order 20 years before arriving in Nashville, replaced Barlow as commander of the district in 1891. Under Robert’s direction, the canalization got fully underway with construction of Lock and Dam A and Lock and Dam 1, the two projects closest to Nashville.

    The first locks were constructed with massive, hand-cut stone masonry, while the later locks were built using concrete. All were the same dimensions with varied lifts. The engineering methods and tools of the trade were not far removed from those used by engineers during the Civil War.

    In the early 2000s, the Nashville District’s Leadership Development Program participants wrote a report titled “Subduing the Cumberland: A History of the ‘Old’ Locks and Dams on the Cumberland River.”

    Bill Bennett, Andreas Patterson, Brad Bishop, Tim Dunn and Melissa Sager worked on the report that detailed how the old locks were constructed for navigation and to facilitate trade, but were eventually challenged by other modes of transportation, including the railroad and development of the automobile.

    The LDP report noted that “while steam power existed, man and animal power provided the lion’s share of the power that made these locks and dams a reality.”

    To construct the locks and dams, artisans quarried stone, cut and laid by hand. Cribs for the dams were submerged and filled with rocks, also done by hand. Workers swam underwater to make repairs and to feel the bottom to ensure cribs were placed properly. Men even packed down clay with their bare feet during construction.

    According to Johnson, with the exception of Lock 21 near Burnside, Ky., constructed after the turn of the century, Locks A through F and 1 through 8 were similarly constructed with 10-foot square timber cribs, much like log cabins, except pinned rigidly in place at the corners with long steel rods. They were dipped into the river side by side, filled with stone, and capped with10-inch square timbers to hold the stones in place.

    “The last of the fifteen locks and dams built on the Cumberland for the benefit of navigation alone was completed in 1924, and in 1928, with the completion of Lock and Dam No. 52 on the Ohio River, a six foot minimum project depth was established. But the steamboats, for which the cannibalization project had been designed, were disappearing,” Johnson wrote.

    Throughout the construction of the old locks and dams, appropriations from Congress were usually small, forcing contracts for the necessary work to be accomplished a little at a time.

    In 1924, the last lock under construction, Lock 8, would be put into operation and the decision made to abandon any further construction of locks 9-17. Between 1930 and 1935 Congress appropriated funds to install A-Frame wickets on the crests of Dams 1 and A through F to create a nine foot channel depth. It did a lot to facilitate the growth of commerce on the Cumberland River, especially after World War II, along with the development of the modern diesel towboat and welded steel barge.

    Tows increased on the Cumberland River, but with the old locks being small by this point, barge tows were split into two or three pieces, increasing the time it took to deliver goods up and down the river.

    To improve navigation and add hydropower as a project purpose, the modern multi-purpose dams on the Cumberland River and its tributaries, constructed from the 1940s through the 1970s, replaced the need for the Corps of Engineers to maintain and operate the old locks and dams.

    According to the LDP report, little remains of the 15 old locks and dams it took the Corps of Engineers so long to build. Portions of some of the locks can still be seen today, including land walls, steps, gauges, lock keepers homes and support structures.

    Parts of Lock F are visible but Locks D and E have been inundated by Barkley Dam. Portions of the land walls and other features can still be seen at Locks A, B, C and 1 and 2. The dams and a portion of the lock at Locks A and No.1 were demolished in 1958 because they created a navigational hazard on Cheatham Lake. Locks 3 and 4 are intact, gates and all, but have both been covered by Old Hickory Lake, created by Old Hickory Dam. Portions of Locks 5, 6 and 7 are still visible. Lock 8 is intact, but submerged under 30 feet of water backed up from Cordell Hull Dam. Lock 21 is intact but under water in Lake Cumberland.

    Bennett, Patterson, Bishop, Dunn and Sager summarized in the LDP report that for 40 years inadequate appropriations, public apathy and opposition from landowners plagued the canalization project.

    “The Cumberland River Improvement Project struggled to completion as river traffic on the Cumberland River fell to an all-time low. But as commerce revived the locks were there to facilitate growth. As small as the locks were they would prove to be invaluable between steam and modern diesel towboats,” they wrote in their conclusion. “The period of usefulness of Locks and Dams A-F and Nos. 1-8 and 21 may have been limited but they represent the first efforts of man to control the Cumberland, to make the willful river bend to the needs of man. Today multi-purpose dams control the river from Burnside (eastern Kentucky) to Smithland (western Kentucky) in a way never envisioned when the canalization of the Cumberland was undertaken in 1888, but those first locks and dams also deserve recognition.”

    A collection of maps in the USACE Digital Library of the Cumberland River in 1930 include annotations of the locations of the old locks. It is available at

    (For more information about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, visit the district’s website at on Facebook at, and on Twitter at



    Date Taken: 02.14.2018
    Date Posted: 02.14.2018 15:10
    Story ID: 266055
    Location: NASHVILLE, TN, US 

    Web Views: 1,198
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