Barkley Dam was authorized for construction in the River and Harbor Act of 1954 for the purpose of navigation, flood control and hydropower. Construction began in June 1957 and completed for full beneficial use in July 1966. Today, Lake Barkley is also managed for recreation as well as fish and wildlife. It is the lowermost mainstream project on the Cumberland River System impounding 118.1 miles of the Cumberland River from River Mile 30.6 above its confluence with the Ohio River to Cheatham Dam (River Mile 148.7).
Lake Barkley is located in an area that varies from gentle to moderately rolling hills, typical of scenic southwestern Kentucky and north central Tennessee. It is a beautiful area interspersed with open fields, old growth timber and picturesque bluffs. The lake, in its upper reaches, passes through the site of the famous Civil War battlefield now preserved as the Fort Donelson National Battlefield located in Dover, Tennessee.
The project was first identified as the Lower Cumberland Project, but was later redesignated as Barkley Lock and Dam and Lake Barkley in honor of the late Alben W. Barkley, the 35th Vice President and United States Senator from Paducah, Kentucky.