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End of an era: Generations kept heart of the inland waterways beating

Published Dec. 18, 2018

For 89 years Locks and Dam 52 and 53 on the lower Ohio River provided safe navigation on the busiest stretch of America’s inland waterways, but the behind-the-scenes efforts to keep the river open have been far from easy. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles throughout the years, but the talented staff held the whole thing together with band-aid type repairs and kept the river open until August 2018 when the new Olmsted Locks and Dam, built to replace Locks 52 and 53, went into operation, ending the era of old-style wicket dams on the Ohio River.

“Thousands of feet have walked the lock walls in those 89 years. Thousands of hands have touched every piece of equipment, created, rebuilt, and molded Lock 52 as it bore the title of being the busiest lock in the United States,” said Col. Antoinette Gant, Louisville District commander. “We are so appreciative of the men and women who have given their time away from their families.”

For employees like former lockmaster Randy Robertson, who spent 27 years at both locks, the commitment was never a question—even on the tough days.

“It was such a specialty job you couldn’t get just anyone to do it. It was the pride of the work that kept us all going,” he said. 

Jesse Hall, who has spent 16 years working on the Louisville District’s Locks and Dams, agrees. “The complete dedication by the employees for those two locks I have never witnessed before. It gets in your blood is what the older guys always said.  Know this—it was only accomplished through rigorous hours and complete dedication by the employees.”

Like Robertson, Hall knows the projects at 52 and 53 like the back of his hand, as he not only worked on the locks and dams as a USACE employee, but also spent his childhood living in the dam houses on site until his seventh grade year when his father, Ron Hall, worked there.
“52 and 53 were quite the places to live as a child; it was a really close-knit community,” Hall said. “The workers would always get together and have large cookouts and huge functions at the houses after work. It was a unique experience. The workers would treat other kids as their own.” Hall recounted that as a kid he only made it to school during times of high water because of the staff at Lock 52 would pick him up in a boat.

Robertson, who was the last one to move out of the houses in 1993 echoed this sentiment. “It was just a way of life,” he said. “We would gather for barbecues after work; we would celebrate the holidays together.” 

Those relationships kept everyone accountable, Robertson said. “The big thing is camaraderie. If you didn’t come in to work, you were making it harder on your buddies.” 

And the job didn’t need to be any harder than it already was. Raising the antiquated wicket dams was not for the faint of heart. 
Manually raising the wicket dam was an intricate process that meant working long, hard hours. The crew, aboard the LD 559—a 1920s era maneuver boat—would work inches away from the rushing water of the river using wicket hooks resembling massive crochet hooks to grab the wicket eye and pull it out of the water all while fighting against the powerful current. That process was then repeated up to 487 times until every wicket was raised.

“It was extremely tough especially the last few years as the dam started deteriorating,” Hall said.  “We had to come up with ways that had never been tried or thought of before to raise the dam.” 

Even under the toughest circumstances the crew never failed to get the job done. 

 “We would spend tireless hours out on the dam making sure we could get it up so that tow traffic could start moving again,” Hall said.  “We did many 30-hour straight dam raisings without going home,” he said. “The longest I remember was working a straight 42 hours while raising the dam at 52 then coming down to help get 53 ready for a dam raising.  

“We have been out there when it was 110 degrees, and we have raised it when it was below zero as well,” Hall said.  

 “There was a lot of pride and accomplishment in getting the dam raised,” Robertson said.

Robertson said the beartraps on the dam were just as finicky as the wickets. “They were so unpredictable. I would be out there in an ice storm freezing all night or burning up in the summer heat trying to get the beartraps to operate and now at Olmsted, we have tainter gates that are operated with the simple push of a button.”

Those finely-tuned techniques are now a lost-art as the dam at Olmsted will be raised automatically. “We were operating in a time warp, operating just like they did in the 1920s. It will never be that way again,” Robertson said. 

Robertson is happy for the newer workforce to get to experience life at Olmsted versus the tough days previous generations endured at 52 and 53. 

“I’m excited for the younger generation,” Robertson said. “I worked on the steam engines and these kids can work on fiber optics. They got to see the tail-end of the old, hard way and now they get to have so many opportunities here.” 

Now, as captain of the fleet at Olmsted Locks and Dam, it’s a whole new world for Robertson who is excited for the change of scenery and slower paced life that Olmsted will afford. 

“I have missed so much over the years, but now I can finally get a weekend off because the differences in operations here at Olmsted versus what we were dealing with at 52 are remarkable,” he said.

 “It’s almost laughable to be sitting here on the new St. James maneuver boat,” Robertson said as he looked out the window comparing it to the old maneuver boats, which are now historical artifacts.

The St. James is used to push the Olmsted Wicket Lifter, the James M. Keen, and has six bedrooms and a full kitchen onboard.
“Now we have side-by-side refrigerators and beds, versus where we used to heat a baked potato on the boiler on the steam engine working 24-36 hours raising the dam, and we were sleeping on the floor of the boat. You would wake up and snow would be on your face, but you had to rest, you had to take a little break,” Robertson said.

A contract was awarded this year for the demolition and removal of Locks and Dam 52 in Brookport, Illinois, which is expected to begin in January 2019. Work to remove the lower approach walls is already underway downstream at Lock 53 in Grand Chain, Illinois. 

“2018 marks the end of an era for navigation on the Ohio River System,” said Waylon Humphrey, Louisville District Operations Division deputy chief. “It is impossible to articulate our thanks to the men and women who gave up so much of their personal time through unmatched dedication and service to ensure the navigation mission continued on the lower Ohio, even as the infrastructure was literally crumbling around them. We now look to the future as Olmsted will begin a new chapter of navigation on the lower Ohio and know the facility couldn’t be in better hands.”