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Dix Dam: A Daniel Boone-sparked idea powers Kentucky communities for nearly 100 years

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Kentucky Utilities
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1923-1924 Rail cars dump rock to build Dix Dam

In 1766, Daniel Boone began exploring Kentucky’s rivers, forests, and mountains, including a river he saw potential in for powering grist mills to make flour.

Boone wrote of Dick’s River, “the river affords many excellent mill seats and will have plenty of water in the driest seasons.”

Joe Russell in a paper presented to the Harrodsburg Historical Society in 1984, also writes that in 1909 a young man named Louis Herrington read what Boone observed about what is now called Dix River.

Russell says Herrington owned a small power plant in Richmond and was inspired by the Dix River's potential to make hydroelectricity.

Herrington studied the river and discovered its elevation fell 500 feet from the headwaters to where it led to the Kentucky River. He reached out to an engineering firm in Chicago that helped build the famous Roosevelt Dam in Arizona.

After land along Dix River was surveyed and bought a site for a dam was selected at a narrow gap between Mercer and Garrard Counties. It took about two-thousand workers and two years to build Dix Dam. It reached 287 feet, and at its base was 750 feet thick.

Steam shovels lifted dynamited rock into rail dump cars. A trestle was built over the dam site, and the cars dumped rock off the side. It’s estimated the dam has 1.6-million cubic yards of rock and cement. Italian workers were brought in to make the face of the gigantic dam. Each boulder was put in place one by one and then smaller rocks filled in the spaces between the larger rocks.

Kentucky Utilities engineer Dave Beck says “yep and they call that when they pack those little small stones in between those larger stones, they call that chinking. And that creates your flat surface so your concrete apron can be poured.”

KU owns and operates Dix Dam which is part of the E.W. Brown Generating Station in Mercer County. The water near Dix Dam is drops 249 feet making Herrington Lake the deepest in Kentucky.

KU controls the amount of water that flows from Herrington Lake through a 23-foot-wide tunnel that stretches for 875 feet underneath the dam into a hydroelectric generating station on the backside.

In addition to hydroelectricity, the E.W. Brown Generating Station uses natural gas, coal, and solar to make power. Greg Wilson, the plant general manager, says over time the million-plus cubic yards of stone and concrete have settled and moved the dam some. Several scaffolds are lowering workers down the face of Dix Dam, and the water level has dropped to reach the base of it.

Wilson says “some of those joints have kinda moved together. So, we’re basically doing some cosmetic work on those, we’re cleaning those some, and we’re going to put a protective membrane from the elevation 720 up to the top of the dam. Hopefully, it will be here another hundred years.”

Herrington Lake not only helps power electricity, but the 35-mile-long lake also is home to dozens of businesses like marinas, hundreds of homes, and some of the best bass fishing in Kentucky.

Bobby Childers lives on Herrington Lake and started the website Herringtonlakeky.com which is devoted to lake history, businesses and pictures. He says it’s amazing that something built a hundred years ago is still helping turn on the lights across Kentucky.

“A hundred years ago the concept of a hydroelectric dam, and that’s occurring, what forty years after Edison’s work? I mean we go from a light bulb, and then you go to a hydroelectric dam, that’s amazing.”

Dix Dam was considered an “engineering marvel” in the 1920s. Today it still stands and helps produce power. It’s a testament to the visionary Louis Herrington, the exploration of Daniel Boone, and the thousands of workers who made the dam stone by stone.

Extended Interview:

K.U. Engineer Dave Beck takes us back to 1923 for an in-depth look at how Dix Dam in Herrington Lake was built
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Disclosure: Kentucky Utilities is a financial sponsor of WEKU.

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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