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Raising wicket dam soon to be a ‘lost art’

Published Dec. 18, 2009

It’s a dangerous job, but someone has to do it. Manually raising the antiquated wicket dam at Lock 52 may seem like a simple task, but the brave crew that works inches away from the rushing water of the Ohio River to complete the complex, trial-and-error process might disagree.

Raising the dam is an intricate process. To lift the wickets, crew members use long crochet-like hooks, or wicket hooks, to grab the wicket eye and pull it out of the water. One of the many challenges, though, is fighting against the powerful current of the Ohio River.

"I don’t care how tough or burly you think you might be, you’re no match for the strength of the Ohio River current when you’re trying to blindly probe around in 16 feet of rushing water with a 23-foot steel rod and mate the hook-end with the wicket eye," said lock and dam operator Marshall Hunerkoch. "It takes a lot more finesse and technique to find the mark than it does muscle."

Lock 52 and Lock 53, the oldest dams on the Ohio River were completed in 1929, and the process of raising their dams is quite different than that at modern facilities like Smithland and McAlpine.

 

"It takes a lot of man power and man hours," said lockmaster Randy Robertson, "We’re in a time warp; we’re doing it the same way as in the 1920s."

The dam at 52 had to be raised during the second week of August due to low water.

"A dam raise is never the same," said Robertson, so when the crew begins, they never know just how long the process might take. There are a total of 487 wickets, but 312 of those are pass wickets that can be raised and lowered all at once. The rest have to be raised and lowered manually one at a time.

"It normally takes 12-16 hours, but it has been even 30 hours non-stop," said Robertson. This happens at any time during the day or night, and the crew doesn’t leave until the job is complete.

"We don’t have a lot of free nights and weekends," joked work leader Jeff Kelly.

 

The operation:

 

The 15-member crew boards the LD 559 maneuver boat, a boat specially designed for lifting the dam. The boat is connected to the lock wall by a sturdy stern wire controlled by three operators: Susan Duncan, Dennis Burnett and Jake Windburn. They keep the boat and its crew from being swept over the dam and allow the boat to inch on to the next wicket. Duncan, the only woman on the boat, says sometimes it is difficult to only move the boat an inch or two. "They usually want it right on the money," she joked, "I shake my fist at them a lot." Duncan appreciates her co-workers and feels that it is very important for everyone on the shift to work well together.

Lever rack operator Jeff Kelly controls foot pedals for the steam-powered friction crane that hooks to the rods and lifts the wickets out of the water.

"Operating this crane with the lever and brake setup is similar to using a treadmill or an elliptical machine, and you definitely feel like you have had a workout after a long day of operating it," said Kelly.

Together, the crew operates much like a well-oiled machine.

"We have divers, welders, crane operators, but everybody just kind of jumps back and forth between jobs," said Robertson. Although, all want to get the dam raised as efficiently as possible, safety is the biggest priority for all involved.

"The thing here is everybody watches out for everybody," said Robertson.

During the most recent dam raising the water was falling two-tenths of an inch every hour, requiring crew members to race against time.

"It gets harder because the pressure of the water racing over the dam increases," said Robertson.

"That last wicket was a real sticky wicket," said Hunerkoch. "We all took our turn and fought with it for a long time, trying to convince a hook rod to penetrate the torrential current and hook the eye so we could raise it and head home, but the river was just too powerful."

Even under tough circumstances, "We’ve never failed to get it done," said Hunerkoch. "That’s what I take a lot of pride in."

The next step: Diving

 

After the dam is successfully raised, divers must go down to assess and repair the weak areas on the worn-out wickets. There are only four trained divers at Lock 52: Randy Robertson, Jimmy Nix, Jesse Hall and Luther Helland. The divers train with their eyes closed to get used to the shapes so they can make the repairs or install new wickets in the darkness underwater.

"It’s like a jigsaw puzzle," said Robertson.

The average life of a wicket is 15-20 years. Typically, about 20 new wickets are replaced each year, but last year 63 wickets were replaced.

Following the completion of Olmsted Locks and Dam in 2016, Locks 52 and 53 will be dismantled and the finely-tuned techniques will no longer be needed.

The dam raising at these locks will soon be a "lost art," said Hunerkoch "There aren’t too many people in the world who can say they’ve done this."