Underwater Archaeology in Kentucky’s Rivers

I was fifteen feet under the surface of the Kentucky River, and it was pitch black except for the beam of my flashlight. Even with the light, I could see only a few inches through the muddy water. I had heard all the stories of catfish the size of Volkswagens. I could be right next to one for all I knew. I wasn’t thinking about that, though. I was looking for submerged clues to our past. And suddenly, there it was: a stack of limestone slabs: a foundation that once supported a towering structure that pumped water up to Camp Nelson during the Civil War.


Photo 1: Camp Nelson waterworks, 1860s. Photo: National Archives, Still Pictures Branch

Even after 150 years, this part of the structure was intact. Originally on the river bank, this structure had been submerged since the construction of lock and dams during the 1890s. This survived over a century of current and floods. What else is there on the riverbed? What questions about the past might we answer if we keep looking in these rivers? We are just starting to answer that question, but we know we’ll find unique and significant insights into Kentucky’s past.

Waterways have always been central to life here. Kentucky has over 1900 miles of navigable waterways. That’s more than any state except Alaska. The word ‘Kentucky’ may be derived from a Shawnee word meaning ‘at the head of rivers.’ Some of the first permanent villages in Kentucky were settled more than 3000 years ago along the Green river, with a subsistence strategy based on riverine resources. Our waterways hold a wealth of information about the past. Hidden under the often muddy waters of Kentucky’s rivers and creeks are shipwrecks, remains of early industries, and remnants of our attempts to control these waterways through locks and dams.

The history of some of these rivers reads like a Hollywood screenplay. There is the story of the first steamboat trip on the rivers west of the Appalachian mountains took place in 1811, as the steamboat New Orleans travelled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans along the Ohio and Mississippi, surviving the New Madrid earthquake while near Owensboro, KY. There are tragic stories of violent steamboat explosions. One of the first steamboats ever constructed for the western waters exploded near Owensboro in 1820 and several dozens more exploded over the next century, including the 1844 explosion of the Lucy Walker, owned by a wealthy Cherokee man named “Rich Joe” Vonn and crewed by enslaved people. Dozens of steamboats collided as well, including the tragic collision between the steamboat “America” and the “United States” near Warsaw, Kentucky. The two boats collided on a bend in the Ohio at night, catching fire and sinking, killing around 75 people.


Photo 2: Woodcut print of the explosion of the Lucy Walker, between Lousiville and New Albany, IN, 1844. From Wikipedia Commons.


River pirates targeted the boats on the Ohio River from the late 1700s until the early 1800s. Operating out of hiding spots such as Cave-in-Rock, a large cave on the Illinois side of the Ohio down near Eddyville, groups like the Mason Gang terrorized travelers.

Shipwrecks are only a part of what we find. Industry flourished along the river, including some that have disappeared, and which are not well documented. For instance, shipbuilding began in Kentucky before 1800. This included large, ocean going sailing vessels as well as flatboats, keelboats, and steamboats.


Photo 3: Steamboat on the Ohio River near Maysville, 1899. Photo by J.T. Kackley. Kentucky Historical Society, Ohio River Portrait Project.


Locks and dams were built by 1830 on rivers in Kentucky, to maintain depth year round for navigation. Remnants of earlier ‘bear trap’ dams, clever two-piece hinged constructions that raised and lowered, may still be in place on the riverbed.

Since many of Kentucky’s waterways are still heavily used, I was unsure about the opportunity to find intact archaeological sites that could tell us about the past. I had heard encouraging stories of nearly intact wrecks in the Ohio River. I had also heard frustrating stories like that of the Civil War ironclad, the USS Carondelet, located after 109 years on the bottom of the Ohio River, but just two days after a dredge destroyed much of the wreck. But every project has shown me just how much is out there, from the Civil War waterworks at Camp Nelson to a nearly intact ferryboat from the beginning of the automobile era. Underwater research will be part of the future of Kentucky archaeology, helping us answer questions related to transportation, trade, and technology, and will cause us to ask questions we cannot anticipate yet.


Photo 4: Remnants of a ferry along the Kentucky River. Photograph by Isabella Begley.


Very little underwater archaeology has been done here, but there is a lot to do. Diving in Kentucky’s rivers is more challenging in some ways than most of my other underwater research in the Mediterranean or in Central America, but that challenge makes it exciting, and the opportunity to help open up an entirely new avenue into the past makes it meaningful and important.


Photo 5: Preparing to dive on a sonar anomaly, Ohio River. Pictured are Dr. Chris Begley and students Jessica Wise and Lauren Combs. Photo by Isabella Begley.




By: Christopher Begley, PhD., Transylvania University