The Creation of Kentucky Dam
Written by Justin D. Lamb
Above: Luther Draffen
Marshall County was like most other rural counties in the south during the 1920s, poor and little hope of improvement. Things became increasingly worse when the Great Depression hit Marshall County in the 1930s as several were out of work as unemployment soared. Many others lost their homes and farms causing some to migrate north to look for work in big city factories.
In November 1932, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States and his optimistic message gave the country hope that better times laid ahead. Much like President Roosevelt, Calvert City businessman Luther Draffen was also optimistic that better times lay ahead and he had a plan that would allow his native Marshall County to prosper like never before. Draffen saw the rivers that surrounded Marshall County as its rescue from economic hardships.
Perhaps no other area in the country is as blessed with large natural streams as western Kentucky. With the Ohio River on the north, the Mississippi to the west, and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to the east, these waterways significantly contributed to the progress and development of the area throughout the years. In the late 1920s, Luther Draffen looked to these rivers to once again move the region forward when began working to have a large dam built on the Tennessee River. Talks began as early as 1925 for development of a private dam when Aurora Dam Clubs began lobbying to have a private dam built on the Tennessee River near Aurora to control flood waters. However, Luther Draffen envisioned a better plan which called for a government dam to be built near Gilbertsville to not only control flood waters, but generate electricity and create much needed economic growth.
After taking the oath of office in March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his famous “one hundred days” and enacted numerous pieces of New Deal legislation which created several government relief programs and agencies to bring aid the American people. One such agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was formed in 1933 to provide navigation, flood control, hydroelectricity, and economic growth in the Tennessee Valley which included far western Kentucky. Perhaps no other government agency has had such a profound impact on Marshall County as the TVA.
Shortly after the creation of the TVA, Luther Draffen along with several other western Kentucky businessmen and civic leaders formed the Lower Tennessee Valley Association (LTVA) in order to aid in securing the building of the dam at Gilbertsville and to develop the Tennessee Valley. Luther Draffen was chosen as the organization’s president and he began working closely with United States Senator Alben Barkley and Congressman Voris Gregory in securing Congressional appropriations for a dam.
As President of the LTVA, Draffen relentlessly hounded the TVA to consider building a dam in Gilbertsville. In his book, The TVA, former TVA Board Chairman, Gordon R. Clapp remarked that Luther Draffen “talked, walked, and studied the dam” and “his dream was filled with substance that doubters could not deny.” Draffen’s wife, Dora, recalled that her husband was uncompromisingly committed to the Gilbertsville Dam project and that she had “heard more dam talk than anybody in the state of Kentucky!”
In his plans, Draffen saw three great benefits that would come out of the construction of the Gilbertsville Dam. First, he believed it would provide much needed jobs for many of the unemployed in Marshall County and western Kentucky. Second, he saw that the control of the river by artificial means was the only method by which devastating floods could be abated and that a nine foot channel maintained for the ultimate industrial development of the area. Last, Draffen foresaw west Kentucky moving forward due to the cheap electricity that a public dam could provide. Draffen also foresaw that the construction of a man-made lake would someday draw large numbers of tourists to Marshall County.
However, Draffen’s dream of a dam at Gilbertsville was met with a great deal of opposition almost every step of the way and there were times when the project seemed doomed from the start. Politics in Washington, D.C. created the first roadblock as lawmakers from western states such as California and Nevada opposed the measure because they felt that there was little to no potential in Marshall County or western Kentucky and felt that money should be spent elsewhere. To convince them otherwise, Draffen made numerous trips to Washington to help Senator Barkley and Congressman Gregory make the case for a dam in Gilbertsville.
Draffen also met fierce opposition from the coal and railroad industries whose land would be flooded with the creation of a man-made lake. He also was attacked by the lobbyists of private utilities that feared a government takeover of electricity.
Draffen also met opposition back home, too. Residents of the town of Birmingham and Gilbertsville feverishly opposed Draffen’s plan because it called for their relocation because both towns would be inundated. Many times, Draffen was criticized and a few times, his life was threatened. Many conservatives believed that the TVA was a threat to private development and that the government had no right to control electricity rates. Often times, Draffen was labeled a “socialist” or a “communist.” Despite the criticism, Draffen forged on with his plan and continued to try to convince the TVA to build a dam in Gilbertsville.
After several talks, the TVA still wasn’t convinced on building a large scale dam at Gilbertsville and they considered constructing a series of four “low navigation dams” on the Tennessee River which would only control the pool stage of the river. Draffen and other members of the LTVA forged a battle to stop this plan as they argued that low navigation dams were a waste of money and that they could not provide the much needed low cost electricity to the region which would in turn create economic growth. After much persuasion by Draffen, Senator Barkley, and others, the plan was abandoned.
On November 1, 1933, Luther Draffen along with Congressman Gregory and Senator Barkley traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee to meet with officials of the TVA. After hours of negotiations, the TVA finally agreed to commit to a large scale dam, but the location was not agreed upon. Nevertheless, the first part of the battle was won and Draffen was delighted that a dam was going to be built on the Tennessee River. The only answer that remained was where would the dam be built?
Draffen did not rest. He began working to convince the TVA to build the dam at the mouth of the river in Gilbertsville instead of Aurora as proposed by officials in the TVA. Draffen argued that Gilbertville’s close proximity to the river port of Paducah would create a bigger economic boost and bring in several industries. After several geological tests, TVA found that the geology at Gilbertsville was better suited for a dam than at Aurora, so the location was officially changed.
With TVA on board and a site chosen, all that remained was Congressional appropriations to fund the project. Once again, Draffen was on the road steering up support from lawmakers when on May 23, 1938, as he boarded a train in Louisville, he received word from his wife that Congress, in a very close vote, had approved appropriations for over two million dollars to start construction on the Kentucky Dam. An ecstatic Draffen went to Washington and personally thanked each Senator and Congressman who had voted in favor of the measure.
Nighttime construction on Kentucky Dam, 1940
Construction of the dam began on July 1, 1938 as several thousand acres of land was purchased and cleared by the federal government to make way for the dam. The project put nearly 5,000 men to work over a six year span and was completed in 1945 for a cost of 117 million dollars. The length of the dam was 8,442 feet and it stood at a height of well over 200 feet. Draffen’s dream had finally been realized.