Contractors working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District install a 23-foot-tall concrete shaft enclosure weighing approximately 120,000 pounds as part of the guard wall at the Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, Nov. 16, 2023.

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Olmsted Locks and Dam sets record, replaces first wickets

Louisville District
Published Sept. 15, 2021
Updated: Sept. 14, 2021

Near the confluence of the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers is where more commerce passes through than any other location on the entire U.S. inland waterways, making the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District’s Olmsted Locks and Dam one of the busiest locks in the country. More than 70 million tons of commerce passes through the Olmsted, Illinois, facility each year. 

Olmsted Locks and Dam is very different from the other locks and dams on the Ohio River because it is the only one with a wicket dam. 

“A wicket is a type of moveable dam structure,” said Ryan Lawrence, Louisville District Locks and Dams assistant operations manager. “During higher flows, wickets lay flat at the bottom of the river. This allows the river to flow unrestricted and for boats to pass the dam without utilizing the locks. As flows and river gages decrease, there becomes a need to lift this moveable dam into the raised position to impound water to ensure a navigable river depth upstream to Smithland Locks and Dam, Barkley Lock and Dam and Kentucky Lock and Dam.”

Olmsted has 140 wickets, weighing approximately 36,000 pounds each, and the Olmsted staff is responsible for raising and lowering them each time. 

“The first time we raised the dam, it took about seven days, and now we are down to about ten and a half hours to raise the dam,” said Brad Stout, Louisville District Locks and Dams operations manager.

This process takes a minimum of seven people, but typically 8-10 are utilized to provide redundancy in key positions, according to Lawrence. Each wicket is lifted one at a time by a wicket lifter operated by one of the three trained employees until all 140 wickets are standing.

Already this year, the dam has been raised ten times – the most it has had to be raised in a year since the facility went into operation in fall of 2018. 

“We are well beyond average operations and setting the record for number of dam operations in a single season,” said Waylon Humphrey, Louisville District Operation Division deputy chief.
In addition to having to physically raise and lower the dam, the Olmsted team must also maintain the wickets, which adds additional duties.  

“It is different here because of the amount of responsibility we have,” said Shane Byassee, Olmsted Locks and Dam lockmaster. “We have the two [lock] chambers. We operate and maintain the 140 wickets. We have to have a floating plant section, that is not typical at any other lock and dam in the nation. We also have a tow boat, a smaller work vessel, derrick boat cranes, two wicket lifters on-hand and a large amount of floating plant equipment that we have to operate and maintain.”

Maintaining the wickets means replacing 14 of them a year as part of routine maintenance, and on September 14, 2021, the team made project history by replacing the very first ones. 

“The first wickets to be replaced at Olmsted Locks and Dam as part of the annual maintenance requirement was successful due to the dedicated personnel and teamwork throughout the process of methodically planning, testing and executing the replacement with minimal unforeseen issues,” said Stout. “Although we have had success in the past with replacing wickets at Locks and Dam 52 and 53, the Olmsted Locks and Dam wickets presented a new challenge, and our site personnel were up to the task.”

The team first identified which wickets they wanted to remove and replace. Then the day before, they set a dive box around those wickets. The dive box is similar to a three-sided box that sits on the bottom of the river floor and blocks the flow of water, so divers have better access to the wickets and aren’t fighting against the river current. 

“We selected these two wickets because of how the dikes are created on the Kentucky bank – it’s a lot slacker water over there and allows us to work through our processes easier,” said Stout. “The divers are crucial to the wicket replacement operations and diving here is substantially different than what we faced at Locks and Dams 52 and 53.”

Once everything was set in place with the dive team ready to go, a crane was hooked to the top of the wicket to help move it. Stephen Panter, marine machinery repairer, was the first diver in the water. Panter went in and out of the river multiple times during the removal process. He was responsible for several critical tasks, all taking place under water.   

Once the wicket was completely detached and the hardware was removed, the crane operator lifted the 36,000-pound wicket out of the Ohio River. 

After the older wicket was out of the way, the crane placed the new wicket in its spot. This time, it was Jesse Hall, lock and dam equipment mechanic, who dove into the river to make sure the castings lined up – as it all has to fit in perfectly like a puzzle. Once everything was in the correct position, Hall descended into the river once again to put in the required hardware and lock everything in place. 

The entire operation took about nine hours for the first two wickets to be removed and replaced. Any old wickets that are replaced will be rehabbed and staged for future use.

“The locks and dams are here to provide safe and reliable navigation,” said Lawrence. “If the wickets are not maintained and are not raised in time to meet the targets, vessels could become grounded due to insufficient water, city or industry water intakes could be impacted, and biological impacts could occur, such as exposing mussel beds. That is why both operation and maintenance of the wickets are so important.”  

As Olmsted Locks and Dam hits another milestone and continues to set records, the facility proves yet again how critical the infrastructure is in keeping America’s water highway moving. 

Chick Lock

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