The Ohio River is far from being the longest in the United States. In fact, there are 11 rivers that are longer in their course. The Mississippi length is 2,530 miles long. The Missouri stretches from its headwaters in southwest Montana 2,341 miles before joining the southern flowing Mississippi. The St. Lawrence River is 1,890 miles long and carries millions of tons of cargo on its waters that connect the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Ohio River is one of the greatest American Rivers from my viewpoint for its role in the early growth of our country's movement west. Perhaps if Samuel Clemens had grown up in Hannibal, Ohio, instead of Hannibal, Mo., the adventures of Huck and Tom may have taken place on the Ohio River. Twain's American classic would have immortalized the historical river.
Stretching from the confluences of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at the point in Pittsburgh to its joining of the Mississippi River in Cairo, Ill., it has played a key role since first explored in 1669. England purchased the land from the Native Americans and laid claim to the territory and the rivers that flowed through them. The French and Indians wars were fought over the disputed land and rivers' ownership.
Lockmaster Jim Beavers oversees the Hannibal Locks and Dam, which was built beginning in 1967 and in operation by 1975.
Since those early days, the river has played an important part in the industrialization of our country. The first steamboat, named the New Orleans, was built near Pittsburgh and proved the river could play an important role in developing the river's potential. By 1835 hundreds of steamboats traveled the river, moving cargo and passengers.
The major drawback to the river was its constant changes in water depth. But that began to change in 1878 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the first dam near Pittsburgh. The Davis Dam proved it was possible to control the river and maintain a constant depth of six feet for river traffic.
Between 1878 and into the 1920's, the Ohio River's level became controlled through a series of wicket dams built by the Corps of Engineers for its entire 981 mile length. No sooner had they finished the 50-year project that it was realized the locks were already becoming too small for river traffic.
After World War II, the tow boat quickly became powered by diesel engines and the cargo they could move greatly increased. New dams had to be built to handle the ever increasing river traffic. One of the last dams to be built in the modernization of the Ohio River project was the Hannibal Locks and Dam. Construction began in 1967; the state of art high lift dam was completed and was in operations by 1975.
When records were first kept in 1917 the Ohio River carried 5 million tons of cargo that year. In 2010 the Hannibal Locks alone passed over 42 million tons of cargo through its two chambers. Transporting coal, chemicals, petroleum, and manufactured goods make up a great deal of the cargo that moves up and down the river. One jumbo barge can carry as much as 58 semi-trucks and 16 large railcars. Modern tow boats can push 15 jumbo barges. That is equivalent of two-and-a-quarter unit trains which would stretch two-and-three-quarter miles or 870 big rig trucks and when spaced 150 feet apart would stretch 34 miles. The single tow boat and its 15 barges would stretch one quarter mile. It is one of the safest and least expensive ways to ship bulk cargo.
The Pittsburgh District covers the daily operations of 23 locks and dams, six of those on the Ohio River. The district also has the responsibility to maintain 17 older dams on the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. This operation area represents some of the oldest navigation systems in the country. It is estimated it would take over $1 billion to upgrade the aging system that is much in need of backlogged maintenance work.
Dams and locks in this district are vitally important to river commerce for industry. They also play an important role in maintaining pool water levels for recreational needs and water supplies for cities. The stable river level also is important to the many industries along the rivers that use its waters for its many needs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have built dams and maintained our waterways since Congress first charged them with the responsibility in 1824.
Lockmaster Jim Beavers at the Hannibal Dam gave me a tour of the dam's operations not long ago. He explained that on a normal day two employees work the lock and dam operations. A Team Leader and a Lock Operator perform a variety of operations. The Lock Operator's job is to allow boats into the lock chambers and raise or lower water levels so they can be on their way. The Team Leader keeps an eye on the up river level and maintains a navigable channel depth of nine feet. Beavers explained the first job of the operations is to maintain the river level. The second is to lock river traffic through and the third is to maintain the facility.
The dam also has job titles known as Equipment Machine Leader, Head Mechanic, and Equipment Mechanic. These workers help to maintain the dam's mechanical operation. When larger jobs are needed to be accomplished, repair teams from Neville Island, known as the Pittsburgh Engineering Warehouse and Repair Station, also known as PEWARS, perform the work.
In 2010, the Hannibal locks passed a total of 41,219 barges through its locks. While I was visiting, two large tow boats with barges passed through the lock chambers. One was upriver bound with its cargo and the other heading toward the south. The southbound tow had 13 jumbo barges of coal. Last year 33,202,685 tons of coal passed through the Hannibal Locks. America's power energy supplies are being met by this economical way of transporting millions of tons of coal. Many of our nation's bulk cargos are moved each day over these important commercial waterways with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Lockmaster Jim Beavers and his team are part of 38,000 civilian and military personnel who work to maintain the large number of dams, canals, and flood control projects throughout our country. They not only play a roll in river navigation, but help to keep and maintain outdoor recreation areas for the public. The Corps also controls and helps insure water for hydroelectric plants, such as the one in New Martinsville. Without the Corps' help, dependable flow of water to power generation stations would be difficult to maintain and have predictable water levels.
Before leaving I asked Jim what was his worst day at the dam. He explained, "It is when the river is making ice in the winter and our skilled team is having a hard time keeping the ice controlled." Then I asked about his best day on the job. He quickly answered "every day". He and the dedicated men and women of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers go largely unseen in their jobs. For over 236 years America has been made better by the many projects they have built and maintained as I saw it Thru the Lens.