Martins Fork Lake is located at river mile 15.6 on the Martins Fork of the Cumberland River in the scenic mountainous terrain of Harlan County, 13 miles southeast of the town of Harlan, Kentucky.
Martins Fork is fed from two primary sources, Martins Fork and Cranks Creek, which meet in the upper end of the lake. Below the dam, Martins Fork flows in a northerly direction to Harlan, where it joins the Clover Fork, which then joins the Poor Fork to form the Cumberland River.
The lake is one of several multi-purpose projects in the Cumberland River Basin that is operated and maintained by the Corps of Engineers. The lake is part of the coordinated plan for development of water resources for the Cumberland River Basin. The project was authorized by the Flood Control Act of October 1965 to provide flood control, recreation, and water quality control.
Construction of the project began in December 1973, and the lake was impounded in December 1978. The overall project design and plan of development has been formulated by the Corps of Engineers in cooperation with other federal, state, and local agencies. The dam, water control station, and reservoir are managed and operated by Corps of Engineers personnel under the direction of the District Engineer at Nashville, Tennessee.