FORT GAY — The mayor of Fort Gay wants to spread far and wide her townspeople’s affection for a unique and historic local landmark.
“People who live around here love our lock and dam, and the lockhouse,” said Joetta Hatfield, “and we’re working on a project that will allow us to share them with everyone.”
Not many people outside the area are aware of it — at least not yet — but Big Sandy Lock and Dam No. 3 spans its namesake river between the towns of Fort Gay on the West Virginia side and Louisa on the Kentucky side.
The lock-and-dam complex was the first of its kind to be built in the United States. Similar dams, called “needle dams” because they used vertical wooden slats, or “needles,” to regulate the flow of water, had been built in Europe but never before in America.
That changed in 1897, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed work on Lock and Dam No. 3. From 1897 to 1925, it allowed riverboats and barge tows to ascend from the lower Big Sandy upstream into the river’s two main tributaries, Tug Fork and Levisa Fork, which merge about a half mile upstream.
After the corps decommissioned and abandoned the lock in 1925, it was more or less ignored. Debris and sediment collected in the lock chamber, the gates rusted and the lockmaster’s house fell into disrepair. About the only people who frequented the area were fishermen, who caught large catfish just downstream from the dam’s man-made waterfall.
The town of Louisa built an overlook so visitors to a riverside park could have an unobstructed view of the locks, but nothing was done on the West Virginia side until Hatfield took the initiative.
“It’s still not easy to get down to the locks, but it used to be even harder,” she said. “We cut some trees, we cut some paths, and we made the walk in a little less steep. Our workers try to keep the area as cleared [of brush] as they can.”
The town of Fort Gay also reacquired the cut-stone lockmaster’s house, which had been used for storage by a local resident. “We’d like to turn it into a welcome center and museum,” Hatfield said. “We recently received a brownfield grant in the amount of $5,000, which will cover the planning phase of the project.”
The first order of business, she said, will be to get the locks and lockmaster’s house declared a National Historical Site.
“We’ve already done that for the old Fort Gay High School building, and given the dam’s first-of-its-kind history, I think getting historic-site recognition for the locks will be an easy thing to do,” she added.
That, in turn, should make it easier to secure funding for improvements — creation of the welcome center, installation of safer walkways between the lockhouse and the locks, and erection of handrails to prevent visitors from falling into the lock chamber or the river.
“Eventually, we’d like to create a riverwalk around the locks,” Hatfield said. “And in our pie-in-the-sky wildest dreams, maybe even a zip-line that starts on the Louisa side and comes over the river to the West Virginia side. That’s not likely to happen any time soon, but we can hope.”
The improvements, she added, would also make the site a safer place for anglers: “The fishing is really good here, but the lock area isn’t fished as much as it could be because it’s so difficult to get to.”
All the plans for the locks’ development hinge on funding.
“It’s going to take some time,” Hatfield said. “There’s tons of paperwork to be done. If anyone out there is interested in helping the effort, all they have to do is call me, and I’ll take them on a private tour of the locks.
“I never tire of going out onto the locks and hearing the roar of the water. This was the first needle dam ever built in the United States. That, in itself, is amazing. The place is beautiful, and there’s a real sense of history about it. Other people need to experience that, too.”