Water Skiing on Lake Cumberland

The following "memory" was requested by our son, Chris, who lives in the
Somerset area and whose boys frequent Lake Cumberland.

I was born and raised in a wonderful small rural south-central Kentucky town, Somerset, near the mighty Cumberland River. The river is approximately 688 miles in length and reaches from Harlen County in eastern Kentucky, through northern Tennessee and back into western Kentucky where it merges with the Ohio River north of Paducah. It was a major part of the economy due to the steamboat commerce transporting goods from one part of the river to another.

Cumberland River Map
Cumberland River Map

Along its journey, the Cumberland River reveals Cumberland Falls which is 68 feet tall and 125 feet wide. The falls divides the upper and the lower Cumberland River.

Cumberland Falls

Cumberland Falls
Cumberland Falls

Prior to the construction of the Wolf Creek Dam, my great-great-uncle, Henry Louis Ramsey (1864-1928), was a steamboat captain on the Cumberland River.

Steamboat Certificate
Serial number 93503 | Issue Number 1, 12
This is to certify that Henry L. Ramsey has given satisfactory evidence to the undersigned United States Local Inspectors, Steamboat Inspection Service, for the district of Nashville Tennessee that he can safely be intrusted with the duties and responsibilities of Master of Steam Vessels of all gross tons, upon the waters of Rivers flowing into the Gulf of Mexico and First Class Pilot on the Cumberland River between Robertson Island Tenn. and Burnside Ky.; Obey River between its mouth and Wolf Creek; and on Caney Fork River between its mouth and Ballard's Ford Tenn. and is hereby licensed to act as such Master & Pilot for the term of five years from this date.
Given under our hands this Fourth day of September 1923
Wm. T. Hunter U.S. Local Inspector of Hulls | Wm. P. Fiske Local Inspector of Boilers

Our family was frequently involved with the river, and much of our recreational time was spent boating, swimming, fishing, playing in and on Cumberland River.


Playing in the Cumberland River in the 1940s.

The above video is from vintage home moves in the 1940s.
Bill wearing Papa's swim suit
86-year-old Bill Wears His Grandfather's 82-Year-Old Wool Swim Suit in 2023
(That is Also 4-year-old Bill Swimming With Only Head Showing)
The Above Photo Was Made By Combining A Frame From The Very Old Home Movie
And Adding The 86-Year-Old Guy! (Swim Suit VERY UNCOMFORTABLE!)

My Grandfather, William H. Ramsey, Sr., owned a produce company and eventually became the owner of the Gulf Oil Company's distribution center in Somerset. He purchased two boats which we used on weekends.

Bill Ramsey, Sr.
The George P. Taylor Produce, Bill Ramsey, Sr. is on the far left.
William Ramsey  Gulf Oil
My Grandfather admires his newest Gulf Oil truck.
(I drove that truck. My job: filling gasoline stations during the summer months.)

The Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority were tasked with the enormous opportunity to create a massive earth-filled dam that would provide flood protection as well as electrical power for the area. Flooding was a well-known and anticipated event for residents whose property lined the banks of the Cumberland. The "river bottom" land was rich in minerals and provided amazing soil for the agricultural community.

The dam project (as it was lovingly called in the Bible-influenced - where very few inappropriate curse words were heard) presented many challenges. These included the purchase of thousands of acres of the beloved bottomlands, the resettlement of residents, and the curtailment of transportation on the river while construction was underway.

I well remember that during WWII our physician, W. D. Spradlin, was called to active duty and moved most of his patients to Dr. Horton in the near-by town of Burnside on the shore of the river. Our small town provided many, many young men who answered the call to serve and many made the ultimate sacrifice during the war. Those serving included my Dad's two brothers (Jim, in the Navy, and Lloyd who eventually chose military service as his career and retired as Maj. Gen. and Provost Marshall of the Army.)

Maj. Gen. Lloyd B. Ramsey

Burnside steamboats
Steamboats at Burnside
Burnside ferry crosson
Ferry Crossing at Burnside
After all Burnside buildings were moved before the lake filled.
Between 1,200 to 1,500 residents were relocated.
Click HERE to read more.

The Wolf Creek Dam Project was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1938 and the Rivers and Harbor Act of 1946.  Construction of the project, designed and supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, began in August 1941.  After a three-year delay caused by World War II, the project was completed for full beneficial use in August 1952.

Wolf Creek Dam
Wolf Creek Dam

The dam was completed for flood control operation in 1950.  Three of the six hydroelectric generating units were placed in operation in 1951 and the remaining three in 1952.  The operation of the lake is for the primary purposes of flood control and the production of hydroelectric power.  The cost of the project was approximately $80.4 million.

Local residents were told that the "filling" of the lake would take a couple of years, but to the surprise of everyone, the lake filled very quickly. At that time there were no commercial docks on the new lake, but quickly they spring up and locals and water lovers from miles away quickly learned of the recreational possibilities for Lake Cumberland.

My parents (both of whom appear in the 1940s video above) had taken a trip from Kentucky to Florida and visited Cyprus Gardens in Florida. There they saw, for the first time, both men and women being pulled behind a speeding boat on a new (to them) invention - waker skis.

Cyprus Garden water skiers
Cyprus Gardens Ski Show

Dad decided that these new-fangled boards would be a big hit on Lake Cumberland, so he purchased a pair and brought them back to Somerset and showed me. I was fascinated by the possibilities of riding on the water with only a couple of bright yellow Cyprus Gardens skis and was anxious to take them to the lake and learn how to imitate the folks in Florida. These were the very first skis that appeared on Lake Cumberland.

Early Dock on Lake Cumberland

Evinrude Outboard Motor

We secured permission from the dock owner, Arthur Prather, and Dad instructed me (from what he had observed at Cyprus Gardens) to sit on the edge of the dock holding on to the rope with skis barely touching the water. He gradually tightened the rope and waited for me to give the "go ahead" signal. He opened the throttle on our 16 horsepower Evinrude outboard and I was yanked off the edge of the dock and amazingly skied immediately. I did not hesitate or fall as I became the first person to water ski on the 1,255 miles of shoreline Lake Cumberland. Later, I was even convinced to perform water ski demonstrations to wild applause from observers standing on the banks of the lake. Before the summer ended, I had skied all the way from Lee's Ford Dock to the Wolf Creek Dam and back (a distance which took over 2 hours just to go to the dam.) Although I was the first to water ski on Lake Cumberland, I think others may have skied since that day in the early 1950s (many thousands every year!)

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