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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Stop! Look! Lock!

Nashville District
Published Jan. 21, 2022
Updated: Jan. 21, 2022
Tow prepares to tie up as it approaches the Wilson Lock chamber. (USACE Photo: Heather King)

Tow prepares to tie up as it approaches the Wilson Lock chamber. (USACE Photo: Heather King)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Jan. 20, 2022) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates locks across 14 dam projects crisscrossing the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and their reservoirs. The Tennessee River flows for 652 miles, with locks providing safe passage for barges and other commercial vessels from Knoxville, Tennessee to the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky. Annually, 25,000-30,000 commercial barges and 6,000-8,000 recreational vessels crisscross the Tennessee River and its reservoirs each year. The Cumberland River flows for 688 miles through southern Kentucky and north-central Tennessee to its confluence with the Ohio River near Paducah, Kentucky, and the mouth of the Tennessee River.

Navigating the Tennessee and Cumberland River and their tributaries has certain protocols to ensure safe passage for all vessels.  Knowing and understanding the safety procedures for navigating the river, especially locking thru, can guarantee a safe experience for everyone. Inattentiveness, complacency, and disregarding these procedures can have devastating consequences.

According to the 2020 Tennessee Boating Incident Statistical Report published by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, there were three fatalities caused by improper dam/lock procedures. Fatalities, potential injuries, and/or damage to watercraft are avoidable by following a few safety measures.  

A safe lock thru begins with the approach. Approaching a lock poses several safety issues, so each vessel should approach with caution. Remain vigilant and stay clear of locking underway. Government and commercial vessels have priority; recreational vessels should expect to wait until priority vessels have moved out of the lock.

Each lock along the Tennessee River is equipped with traffic signals, exactly like road traffic signals. When the traffic signal is red, the lock is not ready for use and watercraft should wait. When the traffic signal appears yellow, the lock is getting prepared for use and approach with caution. If a red or yellow light is displayed, if possible, sit down in the boat while waiting. For recreational watercrafts, it is critical for everyone to wear a life jacket and to have all children sitting and remaining in a safe place.   

A green light accompanied by a long sounding of a horn, signifies the lock is ready for use and one watercraft at a time may enter. As the vessel enters the lock, it is critical to pay attention to the lockmaster/operator who guides each vessel in while directing them to also avoid the spillways, which can present other safety hazards.

Brian Brewer, lockmaster at Wheeler Lock and Dam, stresses the importance of paying attention to the lock operators. He said “The Nashville District has the best trained operators in the country, and they know what they’re doing. We aren’t in a hurry; we will not rush you. Take your time and be safe coming in and tying up.”

Brewer also mentions all vessels should, “treat the lock approach and chamber as a “no wake” zone,” to provide a smooth transition from portion of the river to the next. Once inside the chamber, make sure permission to tie up is granted by the operator. It is imperative to have a good line to tie up with as well as, good bumpers. Effective bumpers protect boats from damage caused by hitting the concrete walls and are especially helpful when locking upstream. Do Not untie the safety line on the floating mooring platform until signaled by the short horn blast alerting it is now safe to exit the lock.

The most important safety tip, according to Lockmaster Randy King, is to “listen to the operator.” It is easy for seasoned boaters to get complacent and ignore the lock operator because the process seems so familiar. However, every lock, though similar in structure can have minor differences which can cause major problems. Whether these differences are the filling system, discharge area, floating bits, or where the powerhouse is compared to the lock; the lock operators intimately know their locks and are the best source of instruction.

The hazards are different at each lock. At Pickwick Lock, the main chamber in front of the upper gates is filled. This can cause a significant draw on the tows and could pull them into the gates, causing damage to the boat, the crew, and the lock. Vessels are directed to tie up 600 feet out on the long wall to prevent boats from getting carried away.

Lock operators have a keen understanding of the different situations arising from low water levels or in a flood stage which impact the lock itself. For example, locking a recreational or tow boat when the river is at 355 feet compared to the river at 375 feet makes a difference in the turbulence in the chamber. This information allows the lock operator to determine the best floating pin for the ride up, therefore safeguarding vessels throughout the process.

Ignoring the lock operator and safety procedures can unnecessarily put people, the lock structures, and watercraft in danger, therefore lock operators can refuse lockage. Alcohol is strictly prohibited while operating a boat of any kind. Failure to comply can result in a refusal to lock as well as a call to the authorities. The best practice is to simply not consume alcohol when operating a boat.

Typically, information on each lock and their safety procedures is found on the Nashville District’s public webpage. Additionally, local marinas and boat dealerships may have informational pamphlets. However, if in doubt, call the lock, and staff is on hand ready to answer any questions!

Contact information for navigation locks the Nashville District operates on the Cumberland River, Tennessee River, and Clinch River is available at

More information about “how to” lock through a navigation lock is available at

(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at

Chick Lock

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