“Lock Fest” provides up close view


Last Saturday, May 18, the public was invited to Lock Fest at the Emsworth locks and dam, located at 0 Western Ave. along the Ohio River. The locks and dam are north of and downstream from Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to create the Ohio River. The Emsworth locks and dam is one of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Pittsburgh District’s six major river facilities on the Ohio River.

A multitude of people attended Lock Fest, from young children to senior citizens with both water/boating enthusiasts and interested land-lubbers present. Groups of a dozen or so people were escorted through the facility, with educational explanations and exhibits observed along the way. The event was free.

After going through a tunnel (with walls adorned with numerous old-time photographs showing various stages of construction when the facility was built between 1919 and 1922) to pass beneath Norfolk Southern’s railroad tracks, visitors came upon the structures, which are much larger than they appear in glimpses from driving along Ohio River Boulevard.

Safety was the theme of the day, and it began with each visitor putting on a personal flotation device. Coast Guard statistics state that more than 84 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket. Life preservers help a person stay afloat while awaiting rescue, help one conserve energy, and may offer some protection from cold water hypothermia. It should be noted that the law requires at least one PFD for each individual on board. On vessels under 16 feet long, including canoes, kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards, a PFD must be worn at all times. Many people were also surprised to learn that having a sound emitting device on board (capable of producing a sound signal audible for one-half mile), such as an athletic coach’s whistle, is also a legal requirement for motorboats less than 65 feet long as well as for operators of unpowered boats including canoes, kayaks, rowboats and paddleboards.

The purpose of a lock is to allow a vessel to move from one level of water to another, such as near a dam. A lock is a water-tight compartment. Going downstream, a boat enters a lock, the gate is closed behind it, and using gravity, valves are opened, and water is drained from the lock until what water remains is level with that on the other side of the front gate. Then, the front gates are then opened, and the vessel emerges. Going upstream (toward Pittsburgh from Emsworth), the process is reversed: the back gates are opened, the vessel enters and the back gates of the lock are closed; valves open to allow water to enter into the lock. When the water level has risen sufficiently, the front gate is opened, and the vessel continues on its way.

The Emsworth facility has two separate locks; one is 600 feet long by 110 feet wide and generally used for commercial barge traffic. The smaller lock is 360 feet long by 56 feet wide and usually used by recreational vehicles. Emsworth averages 470 commercial lock throughs every month (mostly barges) and almost 400 lock throughs each month of smaller vessels, generally recreational watercraft, in the smaller lock.

The first visitors to arrive at the 10 a.m. opening of Lock Fest, saw the huge gates of the larger lock open to allow the entry of the “Luciana Moore,” a steel vessel pushing a number of neatly and tightly packed side-by-side empty barges. Once she had entered and the gates of the lock closed, visitors actually walked across the top of that larger lock to get to the area between the two locks. The “Luciana Moore,” was heading downstream; passing through the locks is a time-consuming process, and she was still there waiting to continue her journey when the first tour group returned to dry land.

Visitors were instructed on the rights of way: military craft have first priority, followed by commercial passenger vessels, commercial tows, commercial fishing vessels and lastly, pleasure craft. Entering the lock is not necessarily a first come, first served, venture; one may be outranked and have to wait until the higher hierarchy boats have been allowed to enter. Then the “how-to” procedures of contacting the lock master, entering the lock, instructions on tie-ups (the boat is attached via a cable to hooks on the side of the lock while the water level is lowered or raised), exiting the lock and overall lock etiquette.

Users of recreational water vehicles were warned they should always be cognizant of the extremely large “blind spots” of tow boat operators. Simply put, often the captain in the pilothouse cannot see for hundreds of feet in front of the barges being pushed. Additionally, a string of barges cannot turn or stop quickly; it can take up to three miles for a string of loaded barges to stop. Thus it is imperative that recreational watercraft not travel in the path of barges.

Moving freight by barges is environmentally friendly. One string of 15 barges carries the same amount of weight as 216 railroad cars pulled by six locomotives or 1,050 semi-tractor trailers. And the barges don’t negatively impact vehicle traffic on the roads.

Walking along the top of second lock and watching a small tug boat pushing several filled-with-coal barges approach the smaller lock, it appeared the combination would be too large to enter. Visitors were reminded that there is generally less than four feet of space between the outer side of the barges and the wall of the lock. (Think of that, the next time you’re trying to park a vehicle into a small parking space. And barges can’t back up or easily be turned.)

Returning to the land side of the locks, children had the opportunity to spin a Wheel-of-Fortune-like device, and where the wheel finally came to a stop, indicated which prize would be received. Top prize was a personal floatation device!

Life jackets were returned, and all the guides from various departments associated with the locks and dam were thanked for the fascinating tour. Emerging from the tunnel, the early arrivers observed a long line of people waiting for their turn to experience the Emsworth locks. Also, the Dickson Log House, an example of a structure common to the area during the 1790s was open for viewing. The house was relocated and reconstructed in during the 1980s, using the original materials of the structure.

Juxtaposed near the two and a quarter century old log house, Lock Fest also featured a huge military vehicle on display along the Emsworth Volunteer Fire Company’s brand new fire truck. And in contrast to the stone fireplace of the Dickson Log House, a food truck provided the opportunity for visitors to obtain beverages and something tasty to eat.