Within the entire length of the Ohio River, there was only one place where rock reef extended across the river for a stretch of three miles – The Falls of the Ohio. This area of water was a low water slope, dropping around thirty feet over the three miles and made it practically impassable by cargo and transportation vessels in the early 1800s except when the water level was high; even then, it was treacherous.
“That’s why Louisville is here. All of that stuff had to be loaded and unloaded. You need people for that. You need storages and warehouses; that’s why this was the perfect place for Louisville,” said Jay Rickman, lockmaster, McAlpine Locks and Dam.
Rickman recently joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) after spending a majority of his career in the private sector, focusing on ground up construction, management, and operation of civil construction projects in Texas and Georgia. He also specialized in shipyards, marinas and bridges for federal, state, and private corporations before transitioning into his current USACE career as a Lock and Dam Equipment Mechanic Supervisor, more commonly called “the lockmaster.”
“A lockmaster is defined as a person who immediately directs the operation of a lock. The word lockmaster is used for simplicity. I am designated as the responsible caretaker of the facility for our country’s future generations,” said Rickman.
Rickman explained how the locks and dam provide a safe way for water bound cargo vessels to transport their goods down the Ohio River and that it wasn’t always an easy process. To create the original locks and dam, workers used horses and wagons to haul away the necessary dirt.
“The original locks had wooden wickets. They laid down on the bottom and you go down and pick them up. Like a movable dam,” Rickman said. The original wickets, lock and dam were all constructed by the Louisville and Portland Canal Company. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that USACE was asked to step in and help reconstruct the essential waterway.
The McAlpine Locks and Dam are no longer constructed of wooden wickets and have been updated over the years to accommodate for larger vessels traversing the Ohio River. What was once a single lock and dam 50 feet wide and 190 feet long, considered the largest in the world for its time, is currently 1,200 feet long and approximately 110 feet wide to accommodate two independently functioning locks.
These locks, believe it or not, drain approximately one million gallons of water per foot within the 1,200-foot-long structure. So, if the lock operators need to drop a ship 52 feet, approximately 52,000,000 gallons of water must be drained from the lock to make the trip safe. Draining the water is done by a set of draining and filling valves in the lock which empty and fill by gravity. The amount of displaced water within the locks allows barges to safely traverse the lock while transporting items such as coal, chemicals and manufactured goods.
The locks, however, transport more than just commerce. The locks are also open to recreational boaters. Sometimes during events, like the Mayor’s Hike, Bike and Paddle, kayaks and canoes paddle into the locks to maneuver from one side of the river to the next. For an event like this, coordination is key.
“During special events like the Hike, Bike, and Paddle event, we coordinate times and river flows with the event organizers for the safety of all involved. Generally, we will have extra spotters on the lock walls to oversee large groups locking through for safety and assistance if needed,” said Rickman.
The lockmaster and lock operators maintain operation of the locks and local authorities provide closer monitoring by riding alongside the event participants.
“The local P.D. has River Patrol boats that stay with the paddlers in case there are any issues. I think there are also knowledgeable event staff that are present to help with any problems that arise,” said former McAlpine lockmaster Dewey Takacy.
While police officers stay with the paddlers during the event, it is also important to note the lock operators go through a significant amount of training to keep themselves and anyone who enters the locks safe.
“The lock operators have a training program that starts off with blueprint reading and other hydraulics. They’ll have to take a written and an oral exam to pass the first phase. Then, they’ll come back for a second phase which is another written and oral test. There’s also a panel interview, which deals with the specific sites, blueprints and regulations for the transportation industry. Then, they’ll come back for a final which certifies you as an operator and includes login and tag out, fire protection, and other safety,” explained Rickman.
Still, the locks are a dangerous place, even with these safety courses in place and close monitoring during events, and the USACE employees advise caution when entering the locks.
“It takes about four minutes to open and close the valves in each direction. So, even if you saw them go into the water, it might be six minutes before you can get everything shut down because of the way the vacuums work…. We have life jackets, throw boxes, life preservers and every camera you could imagine watching everything,” stated Rickman. “The lock operators realize how dangerous it is to be in the chamber.”
Precautions and proactive action are always advised, such as always wearing a life jacket correctly – meaning zipped and buckled – as well as always use caution while navigating the locks by being aware of your surroundings and conditions.
The McAlpine Locks and Dam are an essential part of the Ohio River, USACE Louisville District and the Louisville community. The same team who run the locks also help run the National Wildlife Conservation area as well as the fossil beds located next to the Falls of the Ohio. Several workers agree that McAlpine is beautiful any time of day, but mornings on the upper site are the best.
If you plan on visiting the McAlpine Locks and Dam, be sure to adhere to the guidance and advisements of the lockmaster by wearing a life jacket and always being aware while you enjoy the view.