Back before there was the Ohio River as we know it today, and after there was the Ohio River in its natural state, there was the Ohio River controlled by a series of small locks and dams.
About one-third of the way down the river from Pittsburgh to Cairo, or one-half if you measure travel by the time you have to stop and make a lock, there was Lock and Dam 27 near the small incorporated community of Proctorville, Ohio.
Located at Mile 301.0, Lock and Dam 27 was one of four small wicket dams, also known as low-lift dams, that were replaced by the Greenup Locks and Dam at Mile 341 in 1961.
The low-lift dams were authorized by the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1909 to provide a nine-foot navigation channel for the entire length of the Ohio River, thus making the river navigable even in times of drought. The river was once described as being a mile wide (in flood season) and a foot deep (in summer). While the old packet boats were said to be able to float on a heavy dew, that was not enough.
So Congress authorized a series of 54 locks and dams. Not all were built, and some were replaced in the 1930s, particularly those near Pittsburgh and those in what would become the pool of the Gallipolis Locks and Dam, which was built to improve navigation on the Kanawha River.
A lot has been written about steamboats of that era. Boats can be exciting, and some are still around. But dams are dams – boring old things that just sit there and don’t do anything exciting. But dams are what made the Ohio River as we know it.
I’m most familiar with Lock and Dam 27, so let’s take it as an example.
Here, in some old navigation charts, are dimensions, elevations and other numbers associated with Lock and Dam 27.
As you can see, the drop in elevation going from the pool above Dam 27 to the pool below was 6.4 feet, or a bit less than half of how deep Crounse Corp. loads its coal barges today. The dam used huge wood-and-steel members called wickets to hold back the river. The wickets were raised to hold back water when needed and were dropped to the river bed when they weren’t. When the wickets were down, boats could pass over them in a section known as the navigable pass.
When the Hannibal Locks and Dam was built in the Pittsburgh District, a section of wickets was preserved and put in display so people could see how the old dams worked.
There was also a section called the beartrap weir, which was used to control the upstream river level when minor adjustments were needed. And there were other wickets that dropped automatically when river levels allowed for it. That was called the Bebout weir.
Remains of the old machinery, more than a half century after they were taken out of service.
I don’t have a picture of Lock and Dam 27, but it was similar to Lock and Dam 28, which you can see here.
If you want a lot of detail, I recommend the book “Men, Mountains and Rivers” by Leland Johnson. It’s a history of the Huntington District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was published in 1977.
From “Men, Mountains and Rivers”:
The finishing touch at each lock and dam was the operations building and the neat frame, brick, and terra cotta homes adjacent to the lock, built for the use of the lockmaster and his chief assistant and their families. The lockmaster and his assistant were on twenty-four hour call; other operating employees lived nearby and commuted. Gardening was permitted, and great care was lavished on maintaining sturdy fences, well-tended buildings, and closely clipped gr4ass at the lock reservations. The reservations were a pleasant place to spend a lazy summer afternoon, and the first funds spent for public recreation in the Huntington District were invested in picnic tables and basic facilities at the lock reservations.
Greenup raised its pool slowly. Lock and Dam 27 was the last of the four in the new Greenup pool to be removed, work that was accomplished by the Dravo Corp. Below Greenup the Meldahl pool is 485 feet above mean sea level ( MSL), and the Greenup lift is 30 feet. Lock and Dam 30 at Mile 339.4 kept its pool at 490.5 feet. Lock and Dam 29 at Mile 319.0 at 498.5, and Lock and Dam 28 at Mile 311.6 at 505.6
Can you imagine the traffic on the river today having to stop at all four locks and do double cuts?
The powerhouse for Dam 28 is now a senior citizens center, and people live in the houses next to it. The Dam 29 property was acquired years ago by Allied Chemical and the buildings demolished. The last I knew of the Dam 30 powerhouse was decades ago, and I think it was the Greenup County school board office, but I don’t know if that’s still the case.
If I still worked at the Huntington newspaper and had access to its old archives, I could tell you more about the four old dams and when they were taken out of service, but I no longer have access to that information.
The Greenup pool, at 515 feet above mean sea level, is three feet higher than the old Dam 27 pool. Because of that, part of the lock remains. The upper and lower guide walls are still there for people to walk on or fish from. Part of the grounds are a public park. One of the old buildings now houses the offices of the Fairland Local School District. In the 1980s, I covered several school board meetings there in my duties as Lawrence County reporter for The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington.
On Oct. 2, 2008, the upper level of old Lock and Dam 27 was where I got my last photo of the Delta Queen on its final trip down the Ohio. I was not the only one at the park. I saw two boys, probably in their early teens, hanging around on the lock wall. They didn’t act as though they knew the significance of the boat passing them. Maybe they did, but they didn’t care as much as people like me. And this heron likely wasn't impressed, either.
The park at old Lock and Dam 27 has its visitors. I’ve seen markings on the ground for a middle school cross country meet. I’ve seen a man almost my age climbing a tree to recover a remote-control airplane. And as this picture shows, I have seen the boat ramp there used for at least one baptism. What this picture doesn’t show are two or three guys sitting nearby, doing their best to ignore the ceremony going on behind them.
Going back to the Leland Johnson quote above, I sometimes wonder what it must have been like living and working at one of those old dams. I guess I could go back down to Paducah and Golconda, assuming the lockmasters still live on site and assuming the Corps would even let me in, considering the post-9/11 security measures it has taken. There are pictures of maneuver boats out on the river, but I haven’t seen many pictures of living at an Ohio River lock and Dam from the age when the wicket dams kept the pool. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places.
It’s like many other things, though. I look through my old pictures and I am reminded of what I didn’t photograph with my little Kodak Instamatic back in the 1960s – the loafers at my father’s country store, by siblings and I taking in hay, the produce market in Huntington where the Big Sandy Superstore Arena stands today, my friends in that small community where we rode bikes and played basketball – and more. The old locks were like that, I suppose. A lot of people got pictures of the steamboats, but apparently not many wanted pictures of the locks themselves.
Lock and Dam 27 was taken out of service in 1961. I doubt that many people who worked there are still alive. A few, maybe. If anyone knows of any, I would like to talk to them.
The father of my onetime best friend, who passed away recently, was the final lockmaster of one of the wicket dams upriver. I hear he was the last person to lock the gate when it went out of service. In 1980, I saw the place and got some pictures. The paint on the wooden welcome sign was peeling and vandals had had their way with the buildings. The facilities leading down to the esplanade were overgrown with the brush and tree that take over everything in southern Ohio. My friend’s father passed away in the 1990s, I think, so his stories are gone.
The two old dams on the lower part of the Ohio -- Locks and Dam 52 at Paducah, Ky., and Metropolis, Ill., and Locks and Dam 53 at Golconda -- are still in service. Back in the 1970s, I think, "temporary" 1,200-foot locks were added to accommodate modern traffic. As things tend to go, temporary became permanent, as the Olmstead Locks and Dam has taken forever to be built.
Anyway, there it is, the very rough first draft of my first chapter on the old locks and dams on the Ohio River. This year or next I want to get down to Paducah again and visit Locks and Dam 52 again, as I did in 1986. And I would like to stop by Locks and Dam 53. Three decades gives a person time to sort his thoughts on what’s important and to see what and who has changed.
And I will continue to visit Lock and Dam 27, thinking about the pictures I can get and once in a while imagining what it was like in the 1920s through the 1950s.