Saturday, August 27, 2016

Big Sandy River navigation

Last night was the opening night for most high school football teams here in West Virginia. But I had other places to be. At one point I found myself in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, standing on the remains of Lock and Dam 1.

It was hot and humid down there on the old concrete lock wall. The valley is narrow, the land next to the river is wet, and the lock wall itself is covered in moss or lichen or something green and probably slippery. The river there is deep, and I didn't want to fall in, so I walked carefully.

Others were there. To my left, toward the mouth of the river, a man, a woman and a teenage boy had set up a tent. It looked like they were getting ready for an overnight fishing adventure. Upstream a johnboat moved from the shore out to the river channel and back. It was occupied by two men. One sat and one stood, shirtless.

When I go to those places, I can't help but throw myself back a few decades to imaging what it looked, sounded and smelled like. In this case, Lock and Dam 1 was the lower structure on a system that had three dams controlling the Big Sandy 27 miles upstream to Louisa, KY, and Fort Gay, WV.  The Big Sandy's two forks -- the Levisa and the Tug -- each had a lock and dam to provide slackwater navigation on them.

Lock and Dam 1 was completed in 1905. At low water on the Ohio, it provided a 21-foot lift to keep coal and other commodities moving out of or into the Big Sandy. It had one lock, on the Kentucky side, measuring 55 feet by 160 feet. But as Leland Johnson pointed out in his great book "Men Mountains and Rivers", the Ohio River lock and dam system had not yet been built. Actually, in 1905 the Ohio River system was four years away from approval and funding. So at times of the year when the Ohio ran low, Lock and Dam 1 was more or less a dead end to navigation on the Big Sandy.

Another thing that didn't help was that by the time Lock and Dam 1 was finished, the Norfolk and Western railroad had already finished its main line on the WV side of the Big Sandy, and the Chesapeake and Ohio had finished its main line on the Kentucky side. The railroads were taking business that formerly belonged to the Big Sandy.

The Big Sandy got its name for a reason. Even today the Corps of Engineers has to dredge the river to remove the sand and silt that collects in the navigation channel. Sand and silt were major problems to keeping the Big Sandy open and the locks usable back a hundred years ago.

But the locks did their job.

Lock and Dam 29 on the Ohio River at Ashland, KY, was finished in the 1920s. It kept a navigation pool at 498.5 feet above mean sea level. That improvement reduced Big Sandy Lock and Dam 1's lift to 13.5 feet.

The Greenup Locks and Dam on the Ohio River raised its pool in or about 1961. That meant the removal of four old dams on the Ohio -- 30, 29, 28 and 27 -- and Lock and Dam 1 on the Big Sandy.

Today navigation is limited to the lower eight miles or so where the Corps of Engineers dredges to keep the river open for some coal docks and industrial installations. Back in the early 1980s the Corps studied the idea of restoring navigation all the way up the river and onto the Tug and the Levisa. A few people liked the idea, but most shippers said it would be a waste of resources, and the idea died.

The lock wall is a spot for fishermen of various species. As I was about to leave, a heron landed about 20 or 30 yards away. It was the closest I'd everi been to a heron that was not lost or ill. I tried walking toward it, but it walked away from me, matching my speed. I had no desire to walk a long distance on the wet concrete in those conditions, so I left without getting a sharp, clear picture. The heron won.