When the water level in Kentucky Lake is low, the remnants of foundations and streets are often visible, especially at Birmingham Point.

Named after Birmingham, England, the founders had hopes the town would establish an iron industry similar to its namesake. It did. Remnants can still be seen today at Land Between the Lakes

Following the Civil War, the town grew and prospered. According to Collins' History of Kentucky, Birmingham had a population of 322 in 1884. Benton, the county seat, had a population of only 158. There were two schools, two hotels, four dry goods and general stores, two wagon and blacksmith shops, five churches, three grocers, two millinery shops, and a drug store. By 1929, approximately 600 residents called Birmingham home.

Street in old Birmingham KY

Kentucky Dam and Lake

In 1938, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced the construction of Kentucky Dam in order to create Kentucky Lake. At that time, Birmingham's residents were told they must relocate.

The dam was completed in 1944, and the entirety of Birmingham was submerged under the resulting lake, the largest man-made lake in the world at that time. Due to the creation of Lake Barkley, in the 1960's, some Birmingham residents were forced to relocate a second time.

When water levels in Kentucky Lake are low, remnants of foundations, streets, and access roads are visible, especially at Birmingham Point.

foundations seen during low lake levels

roads near old Birmingham, KY

Building the dam

Kentucky Dam created Kentucky Lake, the largest man-made lake in the eastern United States. The dam backs up the Tennessee River for 184 miles, forming a lake stretching south across the western tip of Kentucky and running nearly the entire height of Tennessee. At maximum normal operating level, Kentucky Lake covers 160,300 acres and has 2,300 miles of shoreline.

More important than its size is its function. Kentucky Dam can be compared to a giant faucet used by the Tennessee Valley Authority to help control flooding on the lower Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It's the gateway to the Tennessee River waterway and a major power plant in the TVA system.

The enormous job of building Kentucky Dam took six years from the start of construction on July 1, 1938, until the reservoir began filling on August 30, 1944. At the peak of construction, nearly 5,000 men were working at the site.

To provide a dry river bed for construction, huge cofferdams were built in three stages from the east side working to the west side.

Impact

At approximately 652 miles long, the Tennessee River is one of the largest rivers within the lower 48 states. Kentucky Dam is located 22 miles upstream from Paducah, Kentucky where the Tennessee River flows into the Ohio River. The name is derived from the Cherokee village of Tanasi. Water from the 40,200 sq. mile Tennessee River Valley passes through this largest tributary of the Ohio River.

The impact Kentucky Dam has on flood control and commercial navigation is extensive. Electrical generation was not a top priority of the original design; however, today the dam contributes about 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year to TVA's power system.

The strategic location and vast flood storage capacity of Kentucky Lake make it possible for Kentucky Dam to reduce or even temporarily shut off the flow of water from the Tennessee River in order to help lower flood crests on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Along with the other dams in the TVA system, it helps provide flood protection for 6 million acres of land in the lower Ohio and Mississippi Valleys and reduces the frequency of flooding on another 4 million acres.

view of Kentucky Lake

Navigation

Projects to improve navigation on the lower Tennessee River began shortly after the Civil War, but it was Kentucky Dam and lock that provided a first-order channel for today's large inland towboats and barges.

Kentucky Lake is the first step in a stairway of navigable TVA lakes that allows modern 9-foot draft vessels to travel the 650-mile-long main river year-round. Since the formation of Kentucky Lake completed this waterway and linked the Tennessee Valley with the 21-state Inland Waterway System, freight traffic on the Tennessee River has grown from 2 million tons a year to more than 31 million tons.

At the eastern end of the dam is a lock handling over 2,000 loaded barges each month. This normally requires lifts of about 55 feet between the level of the river below the dam and the lake behind it.

River towboats and barges bound upstream carry steel, grain from the Midwest, and petroleum products, chemicals and ores from the Gulf Coast. Towboats bound downstream carry a variety of Tennessee Valley products to other regions, including nuclear reactor vessels too large for overland travel.

Power

power plant inside Kentucky Dam

Recreation

Kentucky Lake attracts fishermen and tourists from a wide area of Mid-America. Along its 2,300 miles of shoreline are numerous boat docks, resorts, several state parks, the Tennessee National Wildlife refuge, 48 public access areas, many county and municipal parks, state wildlife management areas, a dozen group camps and clubs, nearly 100 commercial recreation areas, and three small wildlife areas.

paducah building showing high water flood mark

(flood marker, Paducah, KY)

Birmingham, Kentucky

Birmingham, a town of several hundred people situated on the banks of the Tennessee River, was the most notable community affected by the creation of Kentucky Lake. For unknown reasons, the town did not relocate in the early 1940s when TVA built the dam and was permanently flooded.

historical marker showing old Birmingham

Locker home in old Birmingham

The home of George Locker, Sr. built around 1890 (above) was moved to a location between Aurora and Benton, KY, and remains today.

locker home

Above: The Locker home as it stands today. It is no longer lived in due to wiring issues and where it was struck by a 3/4 ton truck (see hole in front) that never hit his brakes.

people in boat on flooded streets

Birmingham school

As the town began to prosper after the Civil War, a stave mill and timber business employed over 200 people. The population grew to be larger than the county seat. During its golden years (the years following 1894), the town contained five churches, four dry goods and general stores, three grocers, two schools, two hotels, two millinery shops and two wagon and blacksmith shops. In 1903, organizers created the Bank of Birmingham.

flooded area with gas starion

flooded street

Birmingham served as a shipping hub for goods going into Marshall County, KY. The Tennessee River was the main transportation link in Marshall County before railroads were built in Benton and the northern part of the county in 1890. Commissioned in 1933, Kentucky Highway 58 passed through Birmingham to the ferry at the river. The road served as an important link for residents as well as travelers going to Eddyville, Kentucky.

birmingham mill

flooded street and building

Basketball fame

"Jumpin’ Joe” Fulks (1921-1976) was the town’s most famous resident. However, fame came with a price. Fulks played college basketball at Murray State and went on to play in the NBA. He was known as the first of the high-scoring forwards and was posthumously enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978.

Joe Fulks

(Photo credits: Linda Reed provided many of the black and white and color images and flood photos taken by George Locker, Sr.; flood marker photo by Chris Light [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0])