Deckhands Jeremy Groves and Dustin Frazee descend from the towboat D.L. Johnson to inspect their cargo: a single barge of coal. They circle the barge, walking along its edges — the gunnels — to make sure everything looks okay.
Satisfied, they pick up kevlar lines and loop them around the barge’s timberheads. A 40-ton winch aboard the D.L. Johnson pulls the barge snug against the boat. That way, the cargo won’t wander as it’s pushed down the upper reaches of the Ohio River.
Captain Matthew Baumgartner watches from the wheelhouse. What they do on the water is important, he said.
“We move a lot of coal for power plants and steel mills, you know, keeps everybody in electricity.”
Baumgartner and his crew are on one of thousands of vessels chugging along the nation’s vast inland waterway system, which stretches for 12,000 navigable miles from the Gulf of Mexico to Minnesota, and a little ways east and west. The towboats carry crews working for weeks at a time: 14 days on, seven days off, or 20 days on and seven days off, depending on the boat.
Moving things by water in Pennsylvania annually generates $6.5 billion, and supports almost 40,000 jobs.
But it doesn’t happen naturally; there’s a lot of infrastructure involved. Dams hold back water to create long, navigable pools. Locks allow boats to move from one pool to the next. Together, they form a sort of water escalator that allows boats to get over elevation changes, said Marc Glowczewski, project manager with the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“They’re silent, but strong.”
Glowczewski and his team recently completed a feasibility study to rehabilitate and replace the first three locks on the upper Ohio River. By 2028, there’s a 50 percent probability that Montgomery, Dashields, or Montgomery could fail, he said.
“I don’t want to say it’s a flip of the coin because that sounds trite, but at a 50 percent probability, that’s just as likely to happen as not. And so that makes it kind of,” Glowczewski paused. “Terrifying.”
Glowczewski said the infrastructure is crumbling. It would take about $5 billion to bring the locks and dams on the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers up to snuff. If a dam fails, there could be flooding, it could threaten the availability of municipal drinking water. Shipping in the region would grind to a halt, said Glowczewski.
“You’d be able to walk across, shore to shore, at the point of Pittsburgh and get your ankles wet, and that’s it.”
Pittsburgh is the reluctant poster child for lock and dam problems. And it stings, because Pennsylvania has always been a great state for water commerce. For starters, William Penn himself chartered the Port of Philadelphia in 1701. In the 1800’s Pennsylvania boasted 400 miles of canal. The Main Line of Public Works linked Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and points west. It cut travel time across the state from 23 days to four. As a result, the economy exploded.
But those locks are mostly gone now. And their immediate descendants, the river locks, are relics.
“No one sees them," said executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission Mary Ann Bucci. "No one understands how much money it takes. No one understands how old they are. No one understand the ramifications if one of them goes down.”
The commission advocates for funding for the Port of Pittsburgh’s 200 river miles, as well as lock rehabilitation. Bucci said updating the rivers’ infrastructures isn’t just good for Pennsylvania, it’s good for the rest of the country, too.
“We are part of a system," she said. "And if we’re not functioning, you’re cutting off part of the highway, so to speak. The more efficient and the more reliable the system is, the more successful the entire system will be.”
A critical juncture
Mike Monahan is president of Campbell Transportation Company, Inc. The marine transportation company owns towboats, a fleet of barges, and shipyards where they can build and fix barges. The idea of losing a lock or dam worries him. But he’s also worried about Pennsylvania’s long game.
“You look at future economic investment. I don’t think anybody in this country would take a 100-year-old foundation and build a new home on it,” he said.
In this analogy, the 100-year-old foundation is the region’s water infrastructure, and the new home is “building out new petrochemical plants and using all this energy resource that we have with fracking, and coal, and all the other products we have up here,” Monahan said.
This summer Shell Chemical Appalachia announced it’s building a $6 billion ethane cracker plant in the region. But Bucci said it looks like they’ll only be using the waterways during the construction phase. Shell did not return a request for comment.
The future is coming on fast, said Monahan. Unless Pennsylvania acts, we’ll miss out.
“I have a saying, it’s probably a little hokey, but 'prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance.' We need to have that planning and we need to reinvest so we’re ready for this world economy,” Monahan said.
While it will take years, several billion dollars, and some serious coordination, everyone is hopeful the region can fix its aging locks and dams. After an extended hiatus, Congress is now back on schedule to approve and fund projects. Monahan calls the waterways system a blessing for this country from God. But getting around on them, he said, that’s up to us.
Amherst Madison deckhand Ryan Gilleran describes life on a towboat transporting barges full of coal, and other materials, up and down America's waterways. When they deliver road salt to towns in the winter or coal to power plants in the middle of the night, Gilleran says he and his fellow "towboaters" feel like unsung heroes, helping to keep the roads clear and the lights on. Produced by Ryan Loew for The Allegheny Front's series Headwaters, exploring the Ohio River, in partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds.