By Joe LacdanJanuary 3, 2019
BROOKPORT, Ill. -- An Army Corps of Engineers technician bristled as he walked along a narrow cement path at the deteriorating Lock 52 site north of the Illinois-Kentucky border.
"It's kind of sad," he said as he looked out over the Ohio River on a bright August morning.
Lock 52, which sits just north of Paducah, Kentucky, on the north shore of the Ohio, had entered its final days as operations at the busy station would soon end with the opening of a new lock and dam downriver.
For the Army Corps of Engineers members who manned the old station just west of the narrow Irving Cobb Bridge, the transition was bittersweet. Corps members of different generations have worked at Locks 52 and 53, which long outlived their shelf life. Generations of workers and contractors also put years into a project just west of the two locks.
On Aug. 30, the Corps of Engineers unveiled its $3 billion masterpiece: the Olmsted Lock and Dam, which towers over the river, resembling a glistening monument.
Olmsted, one of numerous locks and dams operated by the Corps, culminates a massive modernization of the inland waterway system that began in the mid-20th century. The Ohio River has long symbolized the pioneer spirit of America's westward expansion.
During the 1800s Americans began the push west and used the Ohio as a means to transport goods and supplies. That tradition continues to this day. Farmers and supply companies use the Ohio to ship bulk supplies such as steel, pig iron, and grain.
At the western end of the Ohio, industry experts estimate more commercial traffic rolls through these waters than the Panama Canal. According to a Reuters report, about 60 percent of the nation's$40 billion grain exports are moved along rivers. Passage at Olmsted is crucial to America's inland waterway system, as its network forms a gateway that leads to other rivers, including the Mississippi and the Tennessee rivers.
The Corps, charged with enabling river navigation and passage, has projects spread further, including the McAlpine Lock and Dam replacement 200 miles to the east on Louisville's shoreline. This 10-year project involved construction of a 1,200-foot lock chamber completed in 2009.
About 22 miles north of where the Ohio meets the Tennessee River, its largest tributary, the Corps continues construction on a new 1,200-foot long lock addition to the Tennessee Lock. The Lock acts as a gateway to the Tennessee River basin, which encompasses more than 40,000 square miles from western Tennessee to the Smoky Mountains in the east. The region includes 700 miles of navigable water. The new lock will cut vessel passage times from up to 10 hours to less than one.
The Corps projects completion of the addition in 2024, which will help service more than 30 million tons of goods and commodities that travel through the Tennessee each year.
Further east on the Tennessee River lies the Chickamauga Lock near Chattanooga. Here workers began a $757.7 million lock replacement project the Corps hopes to complete by 2024.
At Olmsted's stretch of the Ohio, any delay or mechanical failure could result in a financial hit for shipping companies. Conditions at Locks 52 and 53 reached dire conditions, threatening the viability of navigation. Delays because of deteriorating infrastructure caused increased costs to businesses transporting bulk goods.
"If I'm a businessman and I [have] to figure out how to get my wheat or my product to market, I'm predicting how much it's going to cost to go down the river," said Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, Corps of Engineers commander. "When I've got to wait two or three days for the Corps of Engineers to get that ship through there, that's an impact to my cost and I might decide to go some other way."
At Lock 52, rust covers the metal piping. Crumbling cement makes the path unstable. One misstep on the shaky walkway and an unsuspecting visitor could take a dip into the Ohio's waters. A Corps technician recalled one news cameraman had taken such a fall while leaning on the flimsy metal-chained safeguard.
In 1928, shortly before the onset of the Great Depression, the U.S. government built Lock 52's wickets, with each lock constructed from four 12-foot by 12-foot wooden planks sitting atop wood timbers.
"It was a great design," said Jesse Hall, a 40-year-old lead technician. "It worked great forever. The problem was everything was getting so old, falling apart; rusting, concrete chipping. The first five years I was there it seemed everything went a lot smoother. The dam was in better shape. The last five years really started going downhill."
Over time dirt began to collect on the timbers. Many of the wickets broke off and some went missing. The Corps hired a special contractor to install anchors upstream to help work around the missing wickets. Corp members and contractors had to work long shifts.
"Lock and Dam 52 and 53 were essentially in active states of failure," said Waylon Humphrey, deputy chief of operations for the Louisville District. "Conditions at Lock 52 were deteriorating at a rapid rate. We were losing more and more wickets … It was truly a race against the clock."
Fortunately, after receiving what the Corps called "efficient" funding, the Olmsted project ran ahead of its estimated 2022 completion date.
A former UH-60 Black Hawk crew chief who served in Bosnia and Kosovo, Hall never saw himself following in his father's footsteps into the Corps. After six years in the Army, Hall decided he had missed the military camaraderie and found something similar in joining the Corps.
When he received an assignment as a technician at Lock 52, his career had come full circle. At the same lock, Hall's father Ron had served as lockmaster. His father had started as a laborer with the Corps and eventually worked his way up before retiring after three decades with the Corps.
For almost 90 years, the wooden locks and dams at Brookport have served the busiest inland waterway system in the country. Hall has now spent the last decade of his 17-year career working here. In the past few years he has also held the title of boat pilot, stern operator, crane operator, welder and purchase agent.
"Bittersweet for me," Hall said. "This place … it's been part of me since I was a child."
Hall sat on his tidy wooden desk on the second floor of the narrow brick office building. He wore an orange shirt and his beard showed traces of grey. Outside, the south end of the building had "Lock 52" painted in red letters on a white sign. In contrast to the new Olmsted facility 30 miles to the west, the facility seemed archaic.
As an infant, Hall's family occupied the 1920s-era housing at Lock 53, about 45 minutes east of Olmsted. Some of the old single-family homes, including the brick and cement house where Hall grew up, had been converted to Corps offices.
Olmsted will not be fully complete until the Corps finishes phasing out the facilities at 52 and 53. Eventually the batch plant at 52 will be taken apart. The old houses will go up for auction, or potentially demolished. Topsoil, native grasses and trees will need to be planted over the grounds. Lock 53, located several miles west down the Ohio, ceased operations Aug. 15. Lock 52 followed on Sept. 6.
Corps officials believe Olmsted's effects will have a rumbling, lasting impact that will be felt from Pittsburgh to the Ohio River's mouth near Cairo, Illinois, all the way down the Mississippi to the Gulf Coast.
Soon barges and other riverway traffic will be able to pass through the Olmsted Locks and Dam in only half the time it took to get through 52 and 53, along one of the busiest stretches of river in the nation. Here more than $20 billion worth of coal, raw materials and other commodities pass through this stretch of the Ohio each year.
Outside of Hall's office, the hum of a massive barge passing through could be heard as it churned along the banks of the Ohio. In this swath of the river country, cell phone reception can be questionable at best, and few restaurants dot the area save for a single Subway some 8 miles from the lock and dam site.
About 35 miles west, along the river's southward curb sits the Olmsted project -- a magnificent sprawling structure complete with a 20-foot-wide bridge and an air-conditioned river-traffic-control center. Along the riverbanks adjacent to the lock and dam sits an operations building and engineer residence building.
In this small stretch of rural river country, the only place to dine in Olmsted is a small family restaurant sitting in the heart of the rural town of 300. At mile 964 of the Ohio, where the river bends southwest toward Cairo, the 2,500-square-foot facility towers over the waters below.
"It's definitely a huge accomplishment," Humphrey said. "A lot of very long hours, a lot of hard labor in rough conditions building a project of this magnitude. So to finally see the last wicket come up and see the 140 wickets standing across the river … it was a historic accomplishment.
In a ceremony Aug. 30, its opening arrived with much fanfare, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Army Secretary Mark T. Esper attending the ribbon-cutting.
The Corps chose the Olmsted site, located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, for its strategic location and importance to inland waterway commerce. From Cairo, barges carrying commodities make their way toward the upper or lower Mississippi; some making the voyage all the way south to the Gulf Coast and the Port of New Orleans. The river's 981 miles is home to 164 species of fish, including the invasive Asian Carp that can be seen bobbing near the Corps' lock sites.
A process that took hours or days will be cut into 45 minutes, with barges only having to migrate through a single series of steel locks located at Olmsted instead of two series at 52 and 53. The more than $3 billion spent on the project will reap dividends for companies shipping mass quantities of cargo.
"We've changed the dynamic," said Maj. Gen. Mark Toy, the Corps' Great Lakes and Ohio River Division commander.
Construction on the project began in 1988 in Olmsted, located in the sparsely-populated southeast Illinois region known as "Little Egypt." On the southernmost tip of the state, the once-busy port city of Cairo lies at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
The Corps knew the importance of this location that connects riverway traffic from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Olmsted needed to be located close enough to encompass the pool controlled by Locks 52 and 53.
During construction, the project required heavy underwater maintenance. Contractors and Army divers completed about 15,000 dives into the Ohio's waters, cleaning out silt buildup in the culvert valves.
The lengthy construction of Olmsted, endured several missteps. The project didn't truly gain traction until the Corps received the steady funding necessary to continually maintain construction schedules.
"You never knew from one year to the next if you were going to get funding to start and stop," Toy said. "Try building a house ... When you're building a house you work for one or two months then you stop, you send the crews home, and then you bring them back and then you start again.
"That essentially was happening with Olmsted Lock and Dam all the way until 2010-2011. Once we got the consistent funding -- what we call 'efficient funding,' where you get the money up front … you can build everything and come in on time and under budget. And that's what happened here."
While the project came at a heavy cost, the benefits to industry will quickly earn much of it back, the Corps contends. The innovation could revolutionize the speed of cargo traffic in the nation's riverways.
When barges navigate the river in the summer, certain areas must rise to a navigable level for the vessels to pass. That's when the locks and dams take on critical importance. During the winter months, snow and rains raise the river's depth.
Within the 2,200-foot navigable section of Olmsted, boats pass over a series of 140 steel wickets, which can be lowered during times of high water to allow barges to pass without locking through. The Corps completed the main chamber in 2004, modeling the control tower after an alternate tower at the McAlpine Locks and Dam in Louisville, Kentucky.
"To see that level of impact that we, as an organization, can have on a body of water as large as the Ohio River, it's truly an engineering feat," Humphrey said.