A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: From the Ice Age to Locks and Dams on the Ohio River, as told aboard BB Riverboat Belle

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Before we jump way ahead of ourselves and discuss the system of locks and dams on the Ohio River, let’s ask, “What IS this Ohio River; how, and when, did it form to become the waterway we are cruising on today aboard the palatial BB riverboat, the BELLE of CINCINNATI?”

BB Riverboat, Belle of Cincinnati

Let’s go back some two and a half million years ago in time – that’s about the right time frame to start contemplating the future birth of this river – for that is when the Pleistocene Ice Age began after the earth cooled enough in the Northern Hemisphere for massive continental glaciers to start to accumulate. As the ice built, it started flowing outward and into the present, Northern United States, including about 2/3rds of the State of Ohio. Imagine FEMA going nuts, today if that natural disaster was to repeat itself!   

Before the Pleistocene glaciation, the Great Lakes and the Ohio River did not exist. Much of what we now call Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois was drained by a great river called the Teays that originated in Western North Carolina and flowed northward across Virginia and West Virginia. From St. Albans, WV, the Teays went westward and northward, again, to around Chillicothe, Ohio where the Teays cut across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois parallel to the track of today’s Ohio River, but farther to the north, where it joined the Ancestral Mississippi near where the Mouth of the present Illinois River, above St. Louis. (Some maps show it emptying into the Mississippi where Cairo, IL is now located.)

When the earliest ice sheets penetrated these states, they dramatically changed the drainage patterns. The Teays was dammed by the glacier near Chillicothe forming a seven-thousand square mile, an 800-foot-deep lake called Lake Tight. This glacial lake was short-lived in geological terms; lasting, perhaps, six-thousand five-hundred years, more or less. But when the glacier retreated and the ice dam melted and gave-way, it was like my old Captain and mentor; Captain Ernest E. Wagner often exclaimed: “KATY, BAR THE DOOR!”

The Pleistocene Ice Age began after the earth cooled enough in the Northern Hemisphere for massive continental glaciers to start to accumulate.

Spillover and associated erosion from Lake Tight is believed to have formed the modern Ohio River drainage between Portsmouth and Cincinnati Ohio.

In all, at least four significant glaciations occurred during the Pleistocene. The most recent and best preserved glacial deposits are from the Wisconsinan glaciation. This glacier entered Ohio about 24,000 years ago, and by 14,000 years ago, ice had vanished from the state. Along our cruise route, we may see several glacial deposits such as vast outwash plains great for digging out sand and gravel and spacious-enough that power-generating businesses own most of the Southeastern Indiana sites for potentially more power plants.

Below Aurora, Indiana, but on the Kentucky shore, are enormous glacial erratic rocks carried there by the ice. The unique glacial formation, known as Split Rocks, is an outwash from the Illinoian glacier that extended into Northern Kentucky hundreds of thousands of years ago. No other site in the area offers better access to evidence of how our landscape formed. This ancient rarity has seen the birth of the Ohio River and the mass extinctions of the Pleistocene megafauna – such as the Wooly Mammoth, Mastodons, Giant Sloths, Giant Beaver, Camels, and the Saber-Toothed Tiger.

Much of what we now call Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois was drained by a great river called the Teays.

Its prominent position on the Ohio was no doubt the subject of curiosity and spiritual interest for humans for thousands of years. However, the rocks are not as prominent an attraction, now, as they were before the waters of Markland Dam covered most of the giant stones. Still, they are interesting to see; especially if their glacial origins are understood.

Immediately below the BB Riverboats’ dock in Newport is the Mouth of the Licking River, my most favorite of all rivers where I swam and played many fun-filled summers ago. The Licking is an ancient stream millions of years old. Before the Ohio River formed, the Licking River was the main drainage for the area when it flowed north along what is now the course of Mill Creek, in the West End of Cincinnati, until it joined the Ancestral Kentucky River and eventually emptied into the Teays.

During one ice age episode, advancing ice dammed the Licking and a glacial lake formed that was wide as from where the Anderson Ferry has been operating since 1817, to Mt. Washington, east of Lunken Airfield on the extreme eastern side of the Queen City. Mount Auburn, the high central highland where Christ Hospital now stands, was an island. My guesstimation is that the lake reached as far south in Kentucky as the Lexington region, but that is my speculation.

When that lake suddenly let loose all at once at Anderson’s Ferry, the force of the rushing water sucked out the bottom of the Licking River. The resulting valley was a hundred-feet deeper than it is today. That event was known as the Deep Stage of the Licking.

Below Aurora, Indiana, but on the Kentucky shore , are enormous glacial erratic rocks carried there by ice. The unique glacial formation, known as Split Rocks

With time, the last glaciation, the Wisconsin, came and lasted some 65,000 years until only 11,000 years ago when the glacier retreated, and the Pleistocene ended. The resulting drainage from the melting ice ripped out new valleys and assumed the courses of former ones. After the ice was finally gone, what remained behind was a coursing, 981-mile long La Belle Riviere, the O-hee-yo, or, the beautiful Ohio River!  Now we have a river with which to work!

One interesting side note I found was from an 1884 Courier-Journal newspaper article where the writer, a Col. R. T. Darrett, stated:  “There were points along the Ohio River where it was evident the river had cut down the channel to a depth of 250 feet, and such data determined this river to have been cutting down its present channel for about 600,000 years!”  

Apparently, the Colonel did not know about the erosive works of the Pleistocene Ice Age, but his calculations do show how quickly the enormous drainage resulting from the melting ice formed the Ohio River.

The Ohio River extends 981 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the river’s mouth near Cairo, Illinois. Before dams spanned the Ohio, you could walk across the entire width of the river in periods of dry weather. Traffic by boat would be impossible. Congress authorized the canalization of the Ohio in 1878.

Eliz Lee and Clyde — The Licking River, my most favorite of all rivers where I swam and played many fun-filled summers ago.

Federal involvement in improving the Ohio River for commercial navigation began in 1824 when Congress directed the Corps to find a method of removing sandbars and snags. The desired channel depths to be attained by this clearing and snagging program was 3 feet, and 30 inches for the lower and Upper River reaches, respectively. This depth was deemed adequate for vessels at the time, consisting of steamboats, keelboats, and flatboats.

By 1870, William Milnor Roberts, an American civil engineer, was one of the most prolific and prominent civil engineer of his generation in the United States. As a young civil engineer, he was involved in the construction of the Eads Bridge, held the title of the Chief Engineer of Northern Pacific Railroad, and was president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Scarcely two decades after the Society’s founding, he proposed that a six-foot navigation pool along the entire Ohio River would be necessary to accommodate future navigation. Roberts estimated that sixty-six locks and dams would be required to provide this channel.

The River and Harbor Act of 1875 provided funds for the construction of a movable dam 4.7 miles downstream of Pittsburgh at Davis Island, also known as Lock and Dam # 1. Federal canalization of the Upper Ohio River for 6-foot navigation started in 1877 with the construction of Davis Island Lock and Dam. When completed in 1885, the project consisted of one lock chamber 600′ long and 110′ wide, and a wicket dam which allowed traffic to navigate the river without proceeding through the lock in high flows. Davis Island L&D was the only federally-constructed facility in the nineteenth century.

Before dams were built on the Ohio, you could walk across the entire width of the river in periods of dry weather.

One other lock (78′ wide), constructed with funding provided by private sources and the City of Louisville, Kentucky, was the Portland Canal that skirted the “Falls of the Ohio” at Louisville. Mr. Robert’s six-foot channel never materialized.

By 1908, Locks and Dams # 2 through 6 were constructed extending down to Ohio River Mile 30. However, by 1900, coal barge tows requiring nine-feet of draft were already operating on the Ohio River, and a nine-foot channel depth for the entire river gained popularity. After a recommendation by the Board for Rivers and Harbors in 1906, the River and Harbor Act of 1910 authorized a 9-foot slack-water navigation project for the Ohio River, with plans consisting of movable (wicket) dams and a single lock chamber 600′ x 110′.

The original Ohio River “project,” when completed in 1929, consisted of 50 lock and dam structures and the Louisville-Portland Canal and Lock and provided a reliable channel depth of 9 feet. During this period, Ohio River traffic grew substantially, increasing from 10 million to 20 million tons between 1923 and 1925.

In the early 1950’s, the Army Corps of Engineers began replacing the old structures with twenty modern locks and dams with higher lifts, longer pool-reaches, and much longer lock chambers. Upon completion of Olmsted Locks and Dam and the removal of Locks and Dams 52 and 53, only nineteen structures will remain. But the way that enterprise at Olmsted has been progressing for the last thirty years; it may be the 22nd Century before the lock & dam is finally finished. (Allow time for audience laughter.)

Federal canalization of the Upper Ohio River for 6-foot navigation started in 1877 with the construction of Davis Island Lock and Dam

The modern lock structures, completed after 1960, have a 110’ x 1200’ main chamber and a 110’ x 600’ auxiliary chamber.  Markland Lock is one of three locks we will be traversing this trip.  In June of 1959, I was a deckhand on the steam, sternwheel, excursion boat, the Steamer AVALON. After we left Cincinnati, late at night following a rowdy midnight charter by the graduating class of Withrow High School, and were on our way to Louisville, our steamboat was the first commercial boat to lock through Markland. Though the modest drop was only about two feet, we were the first!  

Our River Hop will also take us through McAlpine Lock & Dam at Louisville, Kentucky near where the river tumbles over an ancient Devonian Reef forming the “Falls of the Ohio.” We will also lock through at Cannelton Lock above Cannelton, Indiana, and Hawesville, Kentucky, the birthplace of Captain John W. Cannon, the Master of the famed, Robt. E. LEE of racing fame when, in 1870, the LEE defeated Captain Thomas P. Leathers’ NATCHEZ from New Orleans to St. Louis in three days, eighteen hours, and fourteen minutes. Incidentally, the record time is yet to be beaten by a commercial craft.

Above Cannelton Lock, by the sharp bend at Lafayette Springs, was where the Marquis de Lafayette and his party took shelter after their steamboat, MECHANIC, struck a bolder, later named, “Mechanic’s Rock,” and went to the bottom of the Ohio River in 1825. No one drowned, but Lafayette lost his carriage, baggage and about $8,000 in gold. (That’s about $176,000 in today’s, inflated, nearly-worthless money!)

By 1900, coal barge tows requiring nine-feet of draft were already operating on the Ohio River, and a nine-foot channel depth for the entire river gained popularity

Locks, though massive structures in size, operate by the simple principle that “water always seeks its level.” Simply stated, the lock has at a pair of watertight doors at either end and a set of valves; one on the upper-level pool of water, and a set on the lower. As our boat approaches the lock, and the lock chamber is ready for us to enter, the upper gates will be open, and the lower gates and valve closed.

After we enter, the gate behind us closes. By the time we are secured safely to a floating mooring pin, both gates will be tightly closed; the upper valve closed. Then the lockmaster will open the downstream-side valve and the water inside the lock chamber will drain out by employing the natural force of gravity until the water level inside the lock is the same as the river level on the downstream side of the dam. Then the lower gates open – and out we go!

Listen for signals blown on whistles by the lock to our pilot who may, or may not, repeat them on our set of horns. Also, observe a siren sounding on the lock house before the lockman opens the lower valve. The signal is a warning to boaters within the vicinity below the dam that a torrent of water will be coming their way from the discharge of water within the lock.

Finally, when the lockmaster determines it is safe for us to exit the lock, he/she will sound a short “Toot,” which our pilot will likely answer. And our deckhands should “let go,” after the pilothouse signal. Once the lines are turned loose and back on deck, you may hear the call, “All Gone,” and then the pilot will come ahead on the engines, and we will be on our way again.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

THe modern lock structures, completed after 1960, have a 110′ x 1200′ main chamber and a 110′ x 600′ auxiliary chamber.

The lock has a set of watertight doors at either end and a set of values; one of the upper-level pool of water and a set on the tower

ALL GONE — and the pilot will come ahead on the engines to be on the way again.

Related Posts


  1. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    I have enjoyed so much each installment of Captain Sanders’ stories. I certainly hope they will be put in book form someday soon. He is a wonderful story teller! His words bring the day and time to life for the reader. Thanks so much for sharing with the world.

  2. Jack A. Brown says:

    As one who has worked and played on the Ohio river I found this story to be interesting and educational. Thank you for posting it and keep them coming.

  3. joe says:

    Another great story about the river from Capt. Don. Ms. Schoen said it best.

  4. Diana says:

    Thank you Captain Sanders!. So happy there is a place to come hear your stories.

  5. Bela Berty says:

    Put me down for a book by Don Sanders. His story-telling has amused since 1976.

  6. Most interesting about the Glaciers and the rivers. MI Schools used to teach the glaciers and formation of the Great Lakes,

  7. Ruben Smyer says:

    You could certainly see your expertise in the paintings you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. Always follow your heart. “If the grass is greener in the other fellow’s yard – let him worry about cutting it.” by Fred Allen.

  8. Thank youu for any other magnificent post. Where else
    may just anyone get that kind of information iin such an ideal approach
    of writing? I have a presentation next week, aand I’m
    at the search for such info.

  9. Christena says:

    It’s going to be end of mine day, but before end I am reading this fantastic
    article to increase my know-how.

  10. Super Milano says:

    I relish, lead to I discovered just what I was lpoking
    for. You’ve ended my 4day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day.

Leave a Comment