A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: Our state’s many streams and rivers are an important part of history, everyday life

They are present everywhere we travel — to work, school, or shopping trips in urban, rural or suburban areas.

Driving Kentucky roadways you are likely to cross a small stream or river, or see one off in the distance.

Kentucky waterways, important in our history, and part of our daily life, are where we escape to relax and recreate — fish, hunt, canoe, kayak, pleasure boat, or simply take in all the sights and sounds associated with moving waters. Riparian corridors pulse with diverse plant and animal life.

Leaf through reference books, like The Kentucky Encyclopedia, published in 1992 by the University Press of Kentucky, and a cascade of amazing facts about Kentucky waterways will spring forth like babbling brooks.

Here’s a sample:

Kentucky is the only U.S. state to have a continuous border of rivers running along three sides — the Mississippi to the west, Ohio River to the north and Big Sandy River and Tug Fork to the east. (Photo provided)

• During the Pleistocene epoch (Ice Age), which ended about 12,000 years ago, at least four major advances and retreats of continental glaciers affected the courses of Kentucky’s rivers.

• Kentucky’s earliest prehistoric peoples lived a lot of the year in stream valleys. They were hunters and gatherers, who moved around to take advantage of seasonally available foods — small and large mammals, birds, nuts, berries, fish, and mussels.

• Early explorers and settlers used waterways for travel, and landmarks, as they crossed the Appalachians, and penetrated the interior of the state, what we know today as the Bluegrass Region, between the Kentucky and Licking River drainages.

• On June 1, 1792 Kentucky became America’s 15th state, and the first west of the Appalachians. Our state is strategically located at the heart of the continent, where major rivers converge.

• Kentucky is the only U.S. state to have a continuous border of rivers running along three sides—the Mississippi to the west, Ohio River to the north and Big Sandy River and Tug Fork to the east.

The Ohio River, which flows from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois, forms the northern border of Kentucky, and in total length is 981 miles long. (Photo provided)

• The Ohio River, which flows from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois, forms the northern border of Kentucky, and in total length is 981 miles long. Its drainage basin includes parts of 15 states. The Ohio River’s largest tributary is the Tennessee River, which arises near Knoxville, Tennessee and flows through northern Alabama and Tennessee, before heading north into Kentucky. The name Ohio comes from the Seneca Indians, and means “Good River.”

• West to east, the nine river systems that flow through Kentucky to the Ohio River are: Tennessee, Cumberland, Tradewater, Green, Salt, Kentucky, Licking, Little Sandy and Big Sandy.

• The state has the greatest length of navigable waterways in the Lower 48 states, and today, two of the largest man-made lakes east of the Mississippi River. Lake Cumberland, at 101 miles long, has an average depth of 91.2 feet, and a water volume estimated to be 6,089,000 acer-feet. Kentucky Lake, with 2,064 miles of shoreline, encompasses 160,300 surface acres.

• There are 13,000 miles of streams, and 1,500 miles of navigable waterways. The state’s streams pour an estimated 30 billion gallons of water into the Ohio River annually.

• Today, more than one-fourth of Kentucky’s population lives along its waterways, and 51 of the state’s 120 county seats are located on rivers.

• Kentucky’s rivers and streams were teeming with fish and mussels at the end of the 18th century.

Today, there are 244 native fish species in Kentucky waters, and 19 non-native species that were either intentionally or accidentally stocked. Some native species have been extirpated — are no longer present in Kentucky waters.

Historically, more than 100 species of mussels lived in Kentucky waters, a total exceeded only by Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. Today, about 20 species are extinct or no longer live in Kentucky, and 36 of the remaining 84 species are rare.

• The damming of Central Kentucky’s many small free-flowing streams in the late 18th and early 19th century, to build mills to grind grain, gave rise to the state’s storied Bourbon whiskey industry. Early distillers included Elijah Craig of Scott County and Jacob Spears of Bourbon County.

Bourbon is made from a fermented mash of at least 51 percent corn, with lesser amount of wheat, rye and barley. Other ingredients in bourbon include limestone water, and yeast. Bourbon is distilled at no more than 160 proof, and aged in charred oak barrels to give it color and flavor.

The Kentucky River flows through the heart of Kentucky for some 255 miles, from the confluence of the North and South forks at Beattyville, Kentucky, to the Ohio River at Carrollton, Kentucky. (Photo provided)

• The Kentucky River flows through the heart of Kentucky for some 255 miles, from the confluence of the North and South forks at Beattyville, Kentucky, to the Ohio River at Carrollton, Kentucky. Its watershed encompasses about 7,000 square miles.

• Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital, is located 65 miles upstream of the Kentucky River’s mouth.

Beginning in 1842, a series of 14 locks and dams were built which transformed the river from a series of pools, riffles and sandbars to a navigable waterway with a year-round depth of six feet or deeper. This enabled steamboats and other commercial vessels move people and goods up and down the waterway.

• Elkhorn Creek, the Kentucky River’s second longest tributary, empties into the Kentucky eight miles north of Frankfort.

Its two forks and main stem drain the heart of the Bluegrass Region in four counties — Fayette, Scott, Woodford and Franklin.

The South Fork of Elkhorn Creek arises in Fayette County, and flows through horse country. A popular float is the 15.31 river miles from Fishers Mill Road to Forks of the Elkhorn.

The North Fork of Elkhorn Creek arises in Scott County, and is a much shallow, slow-moving stream, with several low dams. From Georgetown, Kentucky, to Forks of the Elkhorn is 35.95 miles.

The main stem of Elkhorn Creek, from Forks of the Elkhorn to the Kentucky River is 17 miles long. The stream’s high quality smallmouth bass fishery has excited anglers since the 19th century.

• Arising in southeastern Magoffin County, the Licking River flows northwest to the Ohio River at Covington. As the crow flies, the main stem is some 135 miles, but due to meandering, the actual river distance is 310 miles.

The Licking River and its many tributaries, flow through all or parts of 21 Kentucky counties, and encompass 3,707 square miles, or about 10 percent of the state. (Photo provided)

The Licking River and its many tributaries, flow through all or parts of 21 Kentucky counties, and encompass 3,707 square miles, or about 10 percent of the state.

• Cynthiana, the county seat of modern-day Harrison County, is located on the South Fork of the Licking River, which is formed by the juncture of Stoner Creek and Hinkston Creek in northern Bourbon County.

• Stoner Creek, which flows through Paris, Kentucky, is named for the son of a German immigrant, George Michael Holsteiner (original family name), who took the name Michael Stoner on the frontier. A frontier scout and explorer, Stoner accompanied Daniel Boone on his initial hunting trip and exploration of the interior of Kentucky in the fall of 1767.

• The South Fork of the Licking River is 64.7 miles long and flows through Harrison and Pendleton counties, joining the main Licking River at Falmouth, Kentucky, encompassing 927 square miles.

• Harrison County has 148.7 lineal miles of fishing streams, the most of any county in the drainage. In the entire Licking River drainage there are 1,418 miles of streams that provide sport fisheries.

Kentucky is a water wonderland. Make time for the exploration of your local waterways. They are filled with beauty and hidden natural treasures, so much a part of our state’s heritage and outdoor traditions.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment