Splash Dams in Kentucky

This information was contributed by Fred Coy, Jr.
An earlier version of the paper was published in 1992.
This is a condensed version. It does not include the details of Splash Dam construction, the fine photographs illustrating same, or the references of the original paper.
Coy, Fred. Jr., Tom Fuller, Larry G. Meadows, Don Fig
     1992 _Forest & Conservation History_.  Splash Dam Construction 
              in Eastern Kentucky's Red River Drainage Area. 
              6(4)179-184.  Duke University Press.  October 1992.

Eastern Kentucky's rugged terrain and lack of suitable roads presented some unique problems for transporting logs to sawmills. Unique problems required inventive solutions. Splash dams were one of the solutions used through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. By constructing splash dams to impound water on small streams, loggers could trigger dam gates to release rapidly the stored heads of water. Releasing the water behind several dams in a coordinated fashion in a single watershed's streams would supply a head or "tide" of water to float large logs. The name "splash dam" was derived from the "splash" that occurred when the water was released. Splash dams were used by the lumber industry throughout the country to transport logs when other methods were economically unfeasible. The complexity of these dams varied from simple structures designed for a single use and opened by blasting to more complex large permanent concrete structures.

The locale of this study is the Red River basin. The Red River in eastern Kentucky originates in the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau and flows in a westerly direction to join the Kentucky River. Before leaving the Cumberland Plateau at the Pottsville Escarpment, the river cuts down through progressive beds of Pennsylvanian and Mississippian sandstones and limestones, some of which are massive, to form the Red River Gorge. The Gorge is only about twenty-five miles long but presents challenging obstacles to transporting harvested timber to the mills. The cliffs along the Red River and its tributaries are one hundred and sixty feet high in some places. The streams joining the Red River are relatively small, usually with a meager flow of water, and often there are waterfalls where they merge. There are remains of many splash dams in the Gorge area.

The authors made several observations and conclusions about the use of splash dams in the Red River drainage of eastern Kentucky. The water courses were the most economical way to move logs out of this rugged Red River Gorge country since the roads were few and poor, and the railroads were just being built. The Red River is a relatively small stream during most of the year and did not always have sufficient water to float logs. Splash dams provided an ingenious method to enhance the water flow. By building a number of dams on smaller streams, the impounded water could be released through a triggered gate in order to form a large tide to flush the logs down to the main stream.

The foreman judged when conditions were ready to move the logs to the sawmills. Previously cut logs were stacked on the stream banks so that they could be released into the water quickly and easily. The stage was set for the splashing after it had rained enough to raise the streams to a sufficient height. Word went out to the men that the splashing would start at a certain time. Bull crews armed with canthooks, peaveys, and other equipment waited along the streams to dump the logs into the rapidly flowing water and to prod them along if they became stuck. The men at the dams were told when to release the splashes. The uppermost dam on the streams splashed first. Water levels at each downstream dam were closely observed. When the men at these dams noticed an abrupt rise in the water level, they would trigger the gate. Timing was important as the rush of water and logs from the upper dams would destroy the lower dams if the gates were not opened in the right sequence.

Splashing continued in sequence on individual streams and simultaneously on other streams within the boundary of cut timber. The splashes generated a large tide by the time the logs reached the Red River: a tide strong enough to float logs to mills twenty miles downstream in Clay City. On occasion, log jams did occur despite the efforts of the bull crews. Doc Askins tells about one on Gladie Creek that was a mile long and he estimated involved between thirty-five and fifty thousand logs. The logs had to be blasted loose in this particular jam, although usually crews could find a key log that was holding the jam and by releasing it, free the rest of the logs.

Owners of farms bordering the streams resisted splashing. Many of these farmers expressed open hostility because of the destruction of their crops, fences, and barns. Also, logs sometimes were stranded and abandoned on their bottomland fields, creating obstacles to plowing and planting. Splashing was terminated in Kentucky about 1920; whether because of landowners' outcry, development of alternate transportation, or the exhaustion of timber supply is not known, but splashing continued elsewhere for many years.

Splash dams were built in the United States from coast to coast, as evidenced by photographs of them in the splashing mode and fairly detailed instructions as to their construction and cost. The cost of building a dam ranged from $650 to $7,000, which is consistent with reported costs in the Red River. The basic construction of log cribs supported by mud sills pinned to the underlying rock was standard throughout the country.

For three or four decades surrounding the turn of the century, timber companies in eastern Kentucky used uniquely constructed splash dams to move their timber from forests to mill. These dams are examples of local ingenuity: they were designed to use local materials and be reusable. The roar of rushing water and logs caused by splashing disappeared in the 1920's with the construction of roads into the Red River basin, ending an exciting, colorful period.

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Last revised June 30, 1997.

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