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Army Corps’ Repair Fleet

By Staff | Sep 18, 2013

The Ohio River runs 981 miles from it source at The Point in Pittsburgh to where it joins the Mississippi. The major waterway has for over 200 years played a part in moving people and goods along the river towards the west. Beginning in 1885, the first dam near Pittsburgh has worked to help control the rivers level for river going boats. With the advent of modern dams, the river has experienced an ever increasing flow of materials since man first used the waterway. Level control dams were first completed in 1926. Those early wicket dams maintained the river level until they were replaced over 40 years ago by new high lift dams.

The US Army Corps of Engineers oversees 21 dams along the Ohio River. It is divided into three districts along its length that maintain the structures. The Pittsburgh district covers the Ohio River along with the Allegheny and Monongahela locks and dams. The Huntington district covers from the Willow Island pool down river to this side of Cincinnati. From there to the Mississippi the Louisville District manages the river system. They are part of seven districts in the Lake and River Division of the Corps of Engineers.

The locks and dams on the river are maintained by repair fleets which are based in each of the districts. Each fleet is comprised of specialized equipment outfitted to service locks and dams. Periodic inspections are the foundation for jobs that can be as much as two years in the planning. This foresight gives time to budget and prepare materials to be on hand when work begins.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit such a repair site where the Pittsburgh Fleet was performing repair work on a lift gate at the Willow Island locks and dam. The lift gates hold back water to control proper navigation depth in the pool above the dam. Each gate is lifted by cables to allow water to flow down river. The US Army Corps of Engineers goal is to maintain a constant pool level behind each dam. To make sure that no problems occur, periodic inspections and service for the locks and dams are needed.

Willow Island is part of the Huntington District on the Ohio River. Normally its districts repair fleet would perform work that may be needed. On my visit, I found the work being performed by fleet crew members and equipment from the Pittsburgh Repair fleet. Bob Szemanski, project engineer from the Pittsburgh Fleet group, explained sometimes neighboring repair fleets perform work when scheduling allows. Szemanski works alongside David Carter, project engineer from the Huntington District, to coordinate the work at Willow Island project. Carter specializes in projects where derrick boats with heavy lift cranes would be in use during the job. Both men are civil engineers by training.

The gates are raised and lowered by cables attached to a pivot point on the front of each gate. As the gate moves, the cable connectors rotate, preventing cable stress. Over time the rotating of the cable on the attachment point had begun to not pivot as operators would have liked. To prevent any problems in the future it became necessary to replace the pin that allowed rotation of the cable on the gate. This is no easy task considering the gate is 110 feet long, 32 feet high, and weighs approximately 285 tons. Not to mention that on the up river side the water in the pool is several feet above your head. But for the Army Corps of Engineers such projects as this are all in a day’s work.

The first obstacle to overcome is to isolate the lift gate from the up-river side. A metal gate called the emergency bulkhead/closure system is first put into place. The system consists of three individual bulkhead sections stacked on top of each other. Each bulkhead section is approximately 10 feet tall by 110 feet wide, weighing 138 tons each. Once in place, the bulkhead gate now protects the repair crew from the river above the dam. The next step is to position the lift gate so the cables can be taken lose from the gates front side. David Carter calculated the work barges could now be safely put into place under the lift gate that was to be serviced. Two work barges are now ready to be move into place so the gate can be lowered onto their deck.

With the upper river water now controlled and the gate lifted out of the river the next step begins. Captain Dale Hohman of the towboat MV-EVANICK must now maneuver the repair and derrick barges into place with only inches to spare. To make it even more difficult the captain cannot directly see where he is going to move the bow of the barges in under the lift gate. But, with teamwork, along with years of experience, the repair crew and the pilot work together and maneuver everything into place safely. The gate is lowered and secured; now the work to service the gate can begin.

Captain Hohman has been a pilot for 24 years with the Corps of Engineers. Before that he had been pilot on the river for many years. The boat he is piloting was put into service in 2006. It is 34 feet wide and 125 feet long. It is powered by two Caterpillar diesel engines that produce a combined 3,500 horse power. Those engines turn two propellers seven feet in size under his boat.

There was one other crew member I met that day. He is the Chief Engineer for the boat, John Zatezalo. The engine room and compartments below deck were kept at top condition as if they were his very own. He showed a great sense of pride in his work and job. I came to realize that he and the others I had met that day were professionals who cared deeply about their work for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The repair fleets on the Ohio River go about their work each year with little or no fanfare. Their work goes unnoticed by many of us that pass the locks and dams each day. But without the repair fleet’s dedication and work skills the locks and dams that make it possible for millions of tons of products to move up and down the river would not work as well as it does today. To understand how important a towboat and its barges are in their ability to move tonnage on the river, here is an example. A 15-barge tow is equivalent to a train that is two-and-a-quarter miles long. Semi-trucks each separated by 150 feet would cover 34-and-a-half miles to carry the same tonnage. The river barge system helps to make movement of large quantities of products both a dependable and an economically sound method. The US Army Corps of Engineers and its repair fleet will make sure that reliability continues for many more years.

I thank the members of the Pittsburgh and Huntington Repair Fleet who took the time to show me the work they perform with pride and dedication as I looked Thru the Lens.