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Posted 5/29/2009

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By John Neville

History made once again along the Falls of the Ohio River.

On May 27, Corps commanders and civilian employees, public officials, and industry representatives met at the Falls for another historic event—the dedication of the new lock at McAlpine Locks and Dam, located along the banks of the Ohio in Portland, Ky., about a mile from downtown Louisville.

“This project is for America,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commander Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp said. “We have achieved a great thing for this country's families and businesses. Our engineers, contractors, and their employees work extremely hard to deliver these quality navigation projects.”

The Corps began working on the new chamber more than 10 years ago. However, the agency’s historical mission of ensuring the Falls remain navigable for industry extends back more than 200 years.

“When the first federal appropriation for improvements on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was made in 1824, the mission was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers—at the time, the only professional engineers in the U.S.,” said Charles Parrish, a Corps historian for more than three decades. “They wanted it done right. It’s been our job ever since.”

Before navigation improvements, the Falls of the Ohio were a two-mile stretch of river filled with large rocks, small islands, sand bars and narrow canals. There was also a 26-foot difference in elevation from the beginning of the Falls to the end.

The area was nearly impassable during low water. At high water, the Falls were a perilous two-mile trek that shredded boats and claimed lives.

“Boaters in the early 1800s used such words as ‘awe and terror,’ ‘a horrid fury,’ ‘sublime horror,’ ‘an awful scene,’ ‘the turbulence of roaring water,’ when describing descending the Falls,” said Parrish.

To avoid the danger, transport boats began unloading their cargo on the shore above the Falls where wagons then moved the goods to a boat waiting down river. The costly and time consuming process was in need of a solution.
Then, in 1825, the Louisville and Portland Canal Company, with federal assistance, built the first canal and lock system. The lock system essentially worked like an elevator, raising a vessel so that it could pass the Falls going up-river, or lowering it so that it could proceed down river. The locks—slightly wider than a vessel—were built into the dugout canal. The gates closed and the lock either filled up with water or released it, depending on which direction the vessel was headed. The concept remains the same today.

The original locks eventually became obsolete as boats grew larger. In the 1860s, the L&PCC began widening the original canal to build a larger lock system, but the company began experiencing financial problems during construction. The project was eventually finished with the help of the Corps in 1872.

Then, in 1874, Congress granted navigational jurisdiction over the Falls to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Since then, the Corps—at the request of Congress—has expanded the capacity of the locks as older structures wear out and as the tows that pass through them increase in size and loading capacity.

The lock being celebrated today wasn’t the first 1,200 foot lock at the McAlpine site. Construction on the first began in 1958, back when the existing 600 foot lock and wicket dam site was simply known by a number—41. Then, in 1960, one year before the lock was completed, the project was named for William McAlpine, the first and only civilian to serve as the Louisville District Engineer.

“William McAlpine served as DE during WWI because of a shortage of uniformed officers who were needed in the theaters of war,” Parrish said. “That was not "Mr. Mac's" only claim to fame. He later became chief engineer for developing navigation improvements on the upper Mississippi River in the '30s-40s. He subsequently became chief navigation advisor to the Chief of Engineers (Corps commander) for national navigation projects.”
Today, Col. Keith Landry commands the Louisville District, nearly half a century after the locks were named in honor of his predecessor.

“It is an honor and a privilege to command this great district,” Landry said. “The completion of this 1200 foot lock represents our commitment to the Corps’ mission of sustaining the efficient navigation of our nation’s inland waterways.”

Modern commercial capability at McAlpine

In the Ohio River Basin where commerce moves quietly on the river through a stealth transportation system, the Army Corps of Engineers and industry have reached a critical milestone with the completion of the new 1,200-foot lock chamber. At this time, only McAlpine and Smithland Locks, on the lower Ohio, have twin 1,200-foot lock chambers.

“The new McAlpine lock project increases the capacity and efficiency of the locks and ensures continued and uninterrupted transportation of coal, aggregates and metals at a significant cost savings to taxpayers,” said Landry.

“A 15-barge tow carries the equivalent of 1,050 semi trucks. This keeps traffic off interstate highways and the public safer. Approximately 54 million tons of goods estimated at $11.6 billion pass through the McAlpine Locks annually.”

And the locks’ customers are pleased.
“Marathon and its predecessors have been moving petroleum feed stocks and refined products through McAlpine Lock for over 50 years,” said Lisa Brown, a spokeswoman from Marathon Oil. “Our business depends on having a reliable river highway. Completion of the new 1,200-foot lock chamber at McAlpine will enable us to continue to meet customer expectations in a timely and reliable manner.

The work of the Corps

Corps employees operate the 20 locks and dams systems located along the Ohio River, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. Rain, ice, heat, flooding, and the rest of the elements do pose problems for the men and women who work the locks. And when one of Mother Nature’s most powerful forces—water—is thrown in the mix, the combinations can get even more dangerous.

Concrete walkways run all along the McAlpine locks, and they can get icy, said Gene Dowell, the district’s lock and dam operations manager. Lock operators are required to keep them clear of slippery conditions. Sometimes, though, mechanical issues require visual inspections of places that are difficult to reach in extreme conditions.

“But those are more of the exceptions than the norm,” said Dowell. “For us to have a breakdown during an ice storm would be the most hazardous conditions. But anytime you’re working around industrial machinery and you have water all around you, there is always stuff that can happen.”

The dark of night is also a challenge, according to McAlpine Head Lock Operator Sally Waterbury.
“Once it gets dark, everything looks totally different to you,” she said. “Granted there are a lot of lights out here, but your eyesight is different. And, the way you see things through the cameras is different. The tows take it slower because they’re working with spot lights and the light they get from the lock.”

And that’s why safety is such big deal on the river. When the Corps follows proper procedure, it can significantly reduce risks.
“The work is not inherently dangerous if we follow safety rules,” said McAlpine Lockmaster Robert Azinger. “…there is a small risk of falling into the river during boat ops and miter gate ops but if we follow our guidelines of activity hazard analysis, safety harness, and personal flotation device usage, these dangers are significantly mitigated. The modern locks and dams are very safe compared to the ones built in the 1920's, which we still have in operation at some locations on the river.”

While the Falls have claimed the lives of early Americans and those that have worked the improvements over the last 200 years, the Corps has overcome the Ohio River’s biggest navigation obstacle. Although he never saw the improvements the Corps made to the river’s commercial navigation, one of Kentucky’s most well-known historians still appreciated what the Ohio meant to the nation.

“Excepting this place (the Falls), there is not a finer river in the world for navigation by boats,” Kentucky Historian John Filson said in 1784, describing the Falls and the beauty of the Ohio River.