Lock and Dam #50
Ohio River Mile

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I worked ten years on a maneuver boat like this. It is steam powered. These men are putting the dam down. You see one wicket falling to the bottom. These wickets are hinged to the bottom of the river. When they are down they will lay flat on the river bottom. You can see the water current sweeping around the edge of the boat. There is a long steel cable attached to the far bank and a steel drum on the back of the boat.

Walking on the water, little footprints like puffs of smoke trailing behind. Up to speed and into the air.  The little black feathers beat first at the water and then into the air. I watched as others glide down and around the boat unaware of any danger, the ride on the water is their pleasure. They dive down into the boils and pop up somewhere down stream. When their ride is done, they run on the water and fly upstream to repeat their joyous ride. We stop and watch amazed, knowing the dangers of so swift a current. We marvel at the little black ducks as they perform their dives, glides and flights.
In one moment, I walk out the door and look up at the dark sky.  I see the northwestern sky light up. Thunder, lightning is off in the distance, no sound is heard. I look at the same skyline and see a planet or star now in the darkness. I look down and see the river still and dark. I hear a flop and turn around and see a large splash of water. Some great creature from below the water has surfaced. As I walk away rings, ripple the water in the still of the morning night. This was only a moment in this life, not more than ten-seconds in time.
This river is rich in organic matter, in late summer it turns green. The water has a smell to it, a green smell, a mossy woods smell, a turned compost smell.
Delta Queen

 I have always tried to paint, the imagination is there, but the skill, smooth glide and grace are lacking.
 I guess the same can be said for my writing, but I do not need to clean my keyboard very often with turpentine. There are two thoughts that have come into my mind this morning. Little things are sometimes amazing. The first thought (these are really paintings in my mind) that I want to put on canvas, will start in the morning. A red and grey morning, fog coming off the Ohio river, the sun trying to poke through the red and grey. These colors are the warm reds and warm greys of morning. The fog coming off the water is drifting slowly. We have the background, now for the action.
 Sunday morning at  Lock & Dam 50 on the Ohio river. The western world is in bed.  The young boys are delivering the Sunday paper. We are still in the same picture mentioned above? I am working the midnight shift on the lockwall. I have blown the horn once, which is the signal to depart the chamber. The vessel in the chamber is the paddle steam wheeler "The Delta Queen." She is painted white with gold trim, the Eagle is gold, and the paddle wheel is red. She steams out of the chamber into the morning fog playing ragtime music on her calliope, her paddle wheel raising more fog, her amber night lights sparkle in the morning light of red and grey. She disappears into the pink fog, into the eastern skies, I can still hear "Camp town Races.....do da do da."
Flooding on the Ohio River

Click here to see a large high water photo of Lock 50 reservation.
The river is moving south, great trees are carried swiftly around the concrete walkway  of
dam. The speed of the chocolate current is mesmerizing and menacing. I avoid looking in
that direction until I am safely above it on the towering portion of the dam, where I can
safely look at it in leisure. I keep my eyes focused on the concrete path, the current is swift
by my side. Sometimes the power of the water is overwhelming.
High humidity, haze, the sun bares down on the earth.
You squint your eyes to see the glares off the gray water.
While walking across the dam I encountered our first Mayflies of the year.
Every year we see thousands and thousands of these insects as they fly out of the water.
They fly and land on your clothes. I wave my arms in a constant motion to keep them out of my face.
Every year they cover the dam like a hanging gray moss. When you walk by they swarm.
I try to keep my mouth shut during these summer walks.
Sometimes you can see your footprints as you walk though these swarms of Mayflies.
It is not pleasant, only bearable; I never look forward to these times of the year.
My friend and I keep a snow shovel at the entrance to the dam.
When they die they must be removed immediately or they will stink badly.
January 2, 2001, 3:00 – 11:30 P.M. Dam # 78 (Smthland Locks & Dam):
Last night when I crossed the bridge into Illinois from Paducah I could see ice floating in the river below the bridge. It was winding down the Illinois shore like a white snake. When I got to work I saw the river above the lock covered with ice as far as I could see. Apparently the Wabash River overflowed and sent its ice into the Ohio River. The ice looked old and worn, muddy and broken. It slowed down the locking of towboats and barges, as we had to clear the ice with air before we could swing the gates open. If ice is allowed to be pressed to the lock walls or gates it hardens and becomes impossible to move the gates back flush against the recessed walls out of the way. We also have to make ice lockings. We ask a towboat with barges to shove into the chamber as far as he can go without smashing the ice into the lower gates. As he moves into the lock chamber the ice compacts in front of his barges. Then we ask him to back up above the lock chamber and tie up. We close the gates and lock the ice that has been pushed to the far end of the lock. Last night we lock about five hundreds feet of compacted ice before we could come back and lock the towboat on the upper wall.

Winter 1977-1978, Lock and Dam 50

Ice gets behind the upstream lock gates and prevents them from opening properly. Here Dickie Holshouser of Tolu and Lockmaster Lewis Kelly use poles to push chunks of ice 6" to 8' thick from behind the gate. Tows such as the Iron Charger, at right, use their propellers to flush ice away from the lock gates. Notice the ice that is hard frozen to the water line of the gate; barges rub against the gate pressing and packing  the ice; this has to be removed by the lock personal with steel poles standing above with spikes which is very hard and dangerous. The Towboat R. H. O'Neil behind Dickie is facing up-stream toward Caseyville - Dekoven as it flushes the ice over the dam. The river curent is moving from right to left. We were working 12 hour shifts seven days a week.

In this aerial photo of lock 50 shows us a good example of towboats shearing ice away from the lock. One of the main examples of shearing is the top group of barges that are placed at an angle away from the lock approach which guides the river flow of ice out toward the dam which is at left in the photo. The other boat shearing is the towboat at the end of the lock chamber that is guiding ice away from our fleet. The other two towboats are using their propellers to flush ice away from the upper guide wall. A towboat making an approach to the lock with barges would have to come below the top shear towboat and back up toward the Kentucky bank then come down the shore toward the lock. The towboat ( it may have been the Rose Conchita; I do not know for sure; it was a triple screw towboat that ran in the Mississippi River system) at the end of the lock protecting our fleet was so powerful that it actually pushed the top two foot of concrete over into our valve trench. All it broke was some rebar and when the winter was over we placed the concrete back into place without any harm to the lock.
In the bottom left of the photo is the lower bull nose (stubby portion of river wall below the lower gates). I have seen towboats ram that wall with a fleet of barges that are frozen together (like hamburger patties) and did not come apart. I have also seen us lower the water in the lock chamber and see the barges in the chamber stay level and not go down as the water level went down. It seems that ice freezes under the barges and when we lower the lock the barges just move down six inches and settle at the bottom of the lock. In those cases we have to raise the chamber back up and have the towboat back out of the lock and remove the ice in whatever way they can from beneath the barges.
Click here for more photos
My struggle is no different than any other man. Man has labored from dusk to dawn to survive.
Some have struggled as slaves and some as wage laborers. They have all toiled in salt stinging sweat and some have toiled in cold shivering icy weather.
I have come to work and walked from one end of these lock walls to the other ends of these walls for eight hours. I have walked up a cold icy wall to relieve another lockman, turned and faced and icy blizzard while holding a lock line for a towboat. The deckhand will stand on ice that has splashed over the front of the barges the towboat is pushing. The ice looks like chocolate milk that has dropped from a baby's high chair and flown back up and froze in place. The deckhand works the heavy line while standing on the cold steel deck of the coal barge. It is slow moving and cold, I walk and place a line on a mooring pin on the lock wall, and I walk swiftly away as the line tightens, narrows and sings. Then the line slacks and I move forward and retrieve the line and walk another fifty feet and repeat the process. The line tightens, narrows and sings again, I have moved away swiftly knowing that the line will kill if it breaks and flies threw the air like a rubber band. The icy blowing snow and air still stings my face and numbs my feet. The line is taught the cumbersome mass of cold steel and coal slowly, slowly, very slowly moves closer to the wall. I stomp my feet and the cold pain move slowly up my legs. We all wait, we are cold but we all wait for the mass to be aliened with the wall. The water current tugs toward the middle of the river pulling the heavy weight away from the wall. There is a constant battle between the line and the water current. The coal-sooted line is so hot that it smokes with friction as it moves around the timberheads. We are moving closer to the lock. Fifty feet at a time we move the line and repeat the process. We are numb, we are paid to be numb and cold and to catch and walk the lines. The lock is getting closer and as soon as the front of the barge is inside the protective walls our numbing chore ends. Once he is inside I can walk to the center of the lock and log what time he entered the lock. My hands shake as I remove my gloves and grab a pencil. The log is supposed to be neat but shaking hands and drops of melting snow make it impossible. The small guard type shack is small; the floor is covered with wet melting snow, it is a painted gray wood. The paint is worn white by the constant movement of heavy boots. I shake my hands and try to warm them in this confined area. My nose and cheeks are red and wet. In a minute or two I'll continue on to the other end of the lock and help the deckhand secure the barges.
Sometimes the weather is balmy and nice, at other times the temperature is ninety degrees and the humidity is eighty, water and sweat run until your clothes are wet, sopping wet. The steel barges retain the heat and cook the bottom of your soles. The salt cakes around your eyes and burns you.
Walking on rip rap

Some are small, some are large. Some stones are firmly in place, some are loose.
Some look firmly in place, but are loose. Some look loose but are firmly in place.
You never know what will happen as you place your feet on the stones.
Your foot may want to lean to the left or maybe to the right.
You are always balancing, constantly adjusting your weight over the stones.
Like everything else in life, these stones are a constant source of pain, because they are not meant to walk on.
Some of us have to travel on difficult paths. We do not have to put our selves in these positions, but we do.
Twisted ankles and scuffed knees, arthritis, stomach ulcers and head aches, aliments that we all endure.
I read in Peter Coyotes’ book “sleeping where I fall” where a being walked more than five miles one-way
(maybe more) to get some fuel in cold and freezing weather.
They persevered for their cause, they moved their body where it did not want to go, they did a job that had to be done.
We have all placed our bodies in places where are bodies did not want to be.
Pain has sometimes moved though our nervous systems when it did not have to.
We endure, we place our bodies in strange places for a cause, sometimes menial, sometimes meaningful.

 The Cat

My wife had her knees operated on during the summer. She was told by the doctor to take care of them, that’s all you got.
Winter: I am working at the dam, the job is tough. There is ice, snow and oil on some equipment. It is an outside job and I have to clean some ice off of some outside large gears. I step over one of the gears and as my leg is stretched over the gear my back foot slips backwards in the ice and the unseen oil. I did the splits, my body drops hard on the gear. I was put out of commission for three or four days. My drive home was not uneventful and that is another story.
(You’ll have to add some extra growls and groans as needed and you will have to add some time between these sentences)
Like the rest of the world we have pets and that is where our story begins. That afternoon after seeing the doctor and settling down on my chair with a great amount of pain, walking is almost out of the question. My wife Laurel informs me that she hears a meowing sound coming from the acrylic bath tub enclosure. I said to her don’t worry about it if it is a cat they find a way to get home. That was about seven in the evening. About ten that night I decide to move myself to bed. I fight my way out of the chair and crawl down the hall to the bedroom. This is one of those places where you'll have to add a lot of groans and a lot of time to this story. In the dark and in the quiet of the night we are in bed listening to the quiet meows of the cat. Our wheels are turning; I am seeing dead cats in the walls; heaven only knows what Laurel is thinking. My wife says do something and I say I can’t. It is eleven at night and it is cold out. My wife says that she is going under the house and see if the cat is there? I explain to her where the cat might be, somewhere near the bathtub drain. She goes out in the middle of the night in a warm jacket, flashlight and nightgown and opens the crawl space door. She crawls in the damp dirt dragging herself and the flashlight on her hands and knees to where I had asked her to go and shines the light up into the bathtub drain. This is also one of those places where you'll have to add a lot of groans and a lot of time to this story both for Laurel and for me as I maneuvered out of the bed and onto the floor and crawled to the spot directly above Laurel. No cat, she calls and meows. She hears the cat but decides that there is nothing to do under the house. She crawls in the damp dirt dragging herself and the flashlight on her hands and knees back to where the crawl space door leads out into the cold frozen darkness. She is back in the house, her knees are in pain and her cloths are a sight to see. We go to plan “B”. My wife is not walking too swiftly. I crawl to the wall where the bath tub fixtures are. I ask my wife to bring me a keyhole saw. She looks at me puzzled? She hobbles back with the saw. I cut a one foot hole in the wall and remove the drywall. I crawl out of the way Laurel gets on her knees and with the flashlight shines her light under the tub. She hears the cat but she does not see it. She shows me the holes in the floor that need to be covered. She hobbles off to get me some foil. (You’ll have to add some extra growls and groans as needed) We decide that the cat is at the other end of the tub. I am in a painful daze as I crawl to the other side of our bedroom. We both roll a cabinet out of the way on our hands and knees. I cut another one foot hole in the wall at the back of the enclosure; I crawl out of the way. My wife takes the flashlight and looks behind the tub. No cat and there is no sound, no sound. She meows and hears the cat. She shines the light toward the ceiling, I sigh and grumble. She is gone and returns with a folding chair. I will not let her stand on the chair that she brought into the room. I roll onto the bed and roll toward the chair. ….add a lot of groans and a lot of time to this story. With a great amount of effort I am standing on the chair and cutting another hole in the middle of the top of the enclosure. I collapse onto the bed and my wife climbs onto the chair with the flashlight in tow. She says the cat is there, it is sleeping on the warm bathtub light fixture. She begs the cat to come over with some cat food. I am out of it, I am numb, I am starring at the ceiling, I’m gone.
Life on the River, High Water Marks

Ron told me that when he lived and worked on the Kentucky river lock #10 that he could see high water marks on the old trees on the rivers banks. He was told that Dan'l Boone cut one of them marks when Dan lived in the area. People have been carving the sides of trees for centuries to mark high water.
Two men, one man off and one man on duty manned these small locks on the Kentucky River.
If you travel along the riverbank you can see where boats were tied to trees on the high side of the banks some thirty feet above the normal rivers edge.
When I visited my sister at her cabin on the Licking River in Kentucky. I walked down to the river following a trail that wound down the steep slope. I spied a steel cable hanging from one of the upper trees right down to the rivers edge. A Jon boat was tied by rope to the cable. I asked Jimmy, "Why the long steel cable?" he said the river rises so fast in just three hours that you do not have the time to take your boat out of the water.
Ron said that on the Kentucky River you had to rely on the folks up river to keep up with your chores on that river. If you did not have a warning of three hours ahead, the river would beat you and you would loose. You would not accomplish what you needed to do before the river ran you off. So a long line of communications was established to forewarn the dam down river from you. It was a custom/common courtesy to call the other lock below you. You were not far away from a phone when you were on duty.
Hold the Moisture, Be Like the Cactus
Water has always run to the sea when the snows of winter have melted. We the human beings have always tried to live near these pools or streams of clear fresh water. Our friends the beavers have always tried to contain this fresh water.
I do not have any clue why this is so or do I know?
I think I know.
Beaver dams are everywhere in this large country of ours. Man has taken advantage of this and built his home near these beaver dams. Man has also created very large dams built of cement instead of wood. Beavers find these large pools of water that man has created very convenient. This does not stop them from building smaller pools in the feeder streams that travel to these large lakes.
We have also learned to move this water to our homes mechanically.
These pools of water also evaporate into the air and travel to others parts of the country and fall to the ground as rain.
So if more pools of water stand as lakes in any area across this country the more there is a chance of rain nearby. These large lakes put moisture into the atmosphere as does watering the lawn. Water does not disappear as it moves and water is plentiful on this vast planet, we just have not learned how to hold water in our soils.
Keep the "chemicals out and compost in", on the piece of earth near you.
If you live in a desert climate it is important to bring into the soil organic material to hold the moisture. If everyone in a community held moisture in their soil the chance of creating an oasis is much better that letting the sand take over? Learn from the cactus, they have learned to hold the moisture.
If these pools of water are not cleared of sediment they soon fill up and create high rivers.
The volume of water is lost and the great-created lake fills with soil.
There is the other extreme where the lake is so big that it creates
a great deep cavern of uncontrolled volume of water
that could cause havoc.
Somewhere there is a happy medium where the country has plenty of water to fulfill all our needs.
There is fog, there is a mist.
Laurel asked,"Did you hear that weather report?" as she was getting ready for work.
I said, " I do not listen to them anymore."
I thought to my self, I used to listen to the weather every day. I would listen just to find out what to wear to work. Since I had to walk 3/4 of a mile across that dam and up 80 or more steps up. Maybe seven stories tall, I am not sure? I would have to carry in a backpack just about all year a raincoat and a jacket, matches and a newspaper in the winter to unfreeze the locks. Ice cleats when the water froze on the dam. It would sometimes be about six inches thick.
I would walk across that dam when it was zero out and the wind blew out of the north.
It seems almost frightening now.
Every step a conscious step, I was well aware of my existence for each step could be my last.
If I fell off the dam on one side I would fall fifteen feet on to boulders maybe just cracking my skull open and
if I fell on the other side I would be churned to death by the volatile turbulence of the water
not to mentioned the cold in the winter.
I carried a backpack everyday. In the summer when the humidity was 80 and the temperature was about 95 I was like a pump. By the time I got to the top of the steps my heart would be pounding and the sweat would be flowing. Buy the time I reach the lock walls my shirt would be soaking wet. The other fellows in Illinois that just parked their cars and walked just 100' did not understand. It started out with four of us walking from Kentucky to Illinois in 1980. We are now all retired. I was the last to walk across that dam. I retired this last New Year.
But now I do not worry about the weather or carry a backpack. I just sit and relax, work out in the garden or in this home.
I live in peace.
I did pop on the Internet and got Laurel her weather report.
The weather, mist and fog this morning, high about 86 degrees today with a chance of rain tonight.
I think I'll plant some watermelon seeds.
There is fog, there is a mist.
At 6pm:
     As I crossed the bridge in the dark I saw lights off in the bottoms below.
     A farmer is rolling the old corn stocks into the earth in the darkness of early evening.
A light in the blackness.
At midnight:
     Amber lights fade off into the gray fog of autumn on these concrete walls.
     I walk shrouded in fog along the bridge above the dam.
The damp brisk cold is felt on my face.
Dampness is at the end of my nose, a sure sign of coming winter.
Fog on the river.
At 6am:
     Most mornings when you drive into the sun it blinds you and is somewhat annoying but this morning was different.
Because of the heavy fog on the river the road home was layered in fog.
As I came around a corner I was looking strait at a oak tree that had lost it's leaves.
What was remarkable was the sun which was poking through the fog and through the tree.
The rays of the sun were deflected by the fog and as those rays hit the tree those
     rays were deflected again by the wet limbs of the great oak.
The oak looked like a wonderful painting of fog, tree and sun.
I wanted to snap the photo and I guess I did.
Fog creates some wonderful sights is this world of ours.
Hard as Brick
Our little home is made out of bricks. It is small and economical.
Yesterday I drilled two holes in the side of those bricks to hold my trash containers.  They have been flying around the yard because of the storms so I thought I would tie them down. It took me about a half hour to drill one hole about 2" deep. I burned up one drill bit and had to come in and get my new bit. My back is sore this morning. I was reminded of old Lock & Dam # 50 on the Ohio River where I used to work. The Lock was built out of river gravel and almost impossible to drill into. You could spend days with a star drill pounding away at that solid wall and get nowhere.

Lawrence “Mac” McClellan (Left) -  Lock # 51 and Smithland Locks & Dam
I.W. Cook (Right) - Lock # 50, Lock # 52 & Smithland Locks & Dam
 Christmas Dinner, December 13, 2001
Smithland Locks and Dam

March 10, 2005

A good friend, I.W. Cook, passed away last Saturday.
 “Dub” and I worked together on the Ohio River, first at Lock and Dam 50 and later at Smithland Locks and Dam.  The river was hard on us but so was the land.  I remember our working together during the hard winter of 1977 when the river was frozen over and we pounded on ice twelve hours per day, seven days a week to keep the old, tired Lock and Dam 50 functioning.  I was tired and ready to go home. He often told me at the end of our grueling, backbreaking shift that he had to go home to feed his cattle and break ice in his pond so his cattle would have something to drink and eat.  He would have to repeat this process again and again.  Now, that's hard work and I had a new found respect for I.W. as lock man and farmer.

As lock men, we had to work outside in all sorts of weather. We had to make quick decisions to keep the flow and depth of the water in the river correct and the flow of towboat and barge traffic moving without delay through the locks. Lockmen had no time for thought, we just pointed in the direction we wanted traffic to move and that is the way we moved traffic though the lock. The closest thought to mind is the traffic controller at an airport or a traffic cop at an intersection. All this was done while walking on a narrow 5 foot path of hard uneven ice covered concrete, the swiftly moving river on one side and the lock on the other in the bitter cold. At every pass by our small logbook shack we recorded our water flow data and gages and our river traffic times and tonnage in logbooks, with our hands, numb, shaking, cold and wet. At Smithland the computer came to the lock wall and I.W. was one of the first to grasp its meaning and understanding.

Work on the dams was difficult and always dangerous.  There were no time-outs at those locks.  We had to avoid broken lines that flew like rubber bands while we stood nearby during the locking procedure. We had to avoid falling into the river or lock.We had to make on-the-spot repairs to the dam. There were no appointments to be made at the old Lock and Dam 50. It was always “do it now.”
We sometimes had to avoid wildlife and swarms of insects.

There were also easier times when the river was not so harsh:  during lunch at our table at old Lock and Dam 50, whenever we had a few minutes rest during the high waters, we played “cut-throat Hearts” with Sonny and Ron.
And years later at the state of the art Smithland Locks and Dam,
as we rode together to work across the ferry during “Dub’s” last days working on the Ohio River.

Wicket Home Page
Lock and Dam 2007 Christmas Reunion at Newburgh Locks and Dam
Tom's Lock and Dam Stories
Tom's Lock and Dam Ice Photos
Lock and Dam 50 Highwater Photo
Lock and Dam 50 Photos and Stories
The Mississippi Queen at Lock 50
The Mississippi Queen Up Over the Pass at Dam 50
Lock and Dam 52 Photos and Stories
Weston Photos and Stories by Bonnie Gass
Blowing up Lock and Dam 50
Lock and Dam 50 Today
A Time to Dredge
Ohio River 3 Day Forecast
Lock 50 Today Video 

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