Still Working: How A 100-Year-Old Navigation System Keeps Pittsburgh Running

Nov 20, 2015

Don Zeiler stands on a wall in the middle of the Monongahela River. In work boots and a bright orange jacket, the lockmaster at Braddock Locks & Dam is dressed for dance.

“When you’re dancing with your partner you take a step, they need to know where to go: when I’m doing this, then you do that, then I’ll do this, then you do that. So that’s basically what locking is,” he explained.  

Rivers are finicky. They twist, they turn, and their water levels vary, so “locking” (not to be confused with the actual dance style, popping and locking) is how a boat moves from one level to the next. Think of a lock as a water elevator, with two sets of doors. A boat steers through one gate, which closes behind it. The lock fills with water. Once it’s high enough, the boat continues out through the second gate.

Like dancing, locking a boat is an activity for two. A leader and a lock operator, working at different ends, coordinate the passage of boats through the lock. For their safety, and for the operation’s efficiency, they have to communicate and depend on one another, said Zeiler.

For such a small operation, those teams of two move really big boats. John Dilla is chief of the Locks and Dams branch for the Pittsburgh District’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said 17 to 18 million tons of commodities move through Braddock each year.

“The biggest benefit obviously is the economic benefit. That’s the biggest value that we bring to the area,” he said.

It’s been that way for a long time. The Braddock Locks & Dam were built in 1906 as part of a larger system. The locks created long navigable pools that made river travel reliable and efficient, two qualities that appealed to business. Boats delivered raw materials and shipped finished products.

While other locks have been torn down, Braddock was rehabilitated in 1953 and is expected to generate hydroelectric power in the near future. Sitting at his desk, Zeiler pulls up a satellite image of the United States on the computer.

“If you look here, let me see here,” he said, zooming in over Pittsburgh. “We’ll pull up a towboat.”

He hovered over a dot moving slowly up the green brown of the Monongahela.

“You have a towboat right here, Robert D. Moore, heading upstream. Comin’ under the Smithfield bridge,” said Zeiler.  

The Robert D. Moore is one of the thousands of towboats and recreational boats that will travel through Braddock this year.

“We impact almost everybody's life one way or another in the region,” Zeiler said, but people don’t realize how much they depend on the materials moving through the rivers. A towboat can push 15 jumbo barges. Each one carries 1,500 tons, filled with petroleum for gasoline, aggregate to make asphalt or road salt to fend off winter’s worst.  

But primarily what the barges haul is coal, and on a recent Saturday morning, Kyran Mangold looked down at six full barges being pushed upstream. The ropes holding them together made the air vibrate with a low hum; they cracked and groaned.

“That noise you hear is the creaking of the ropes on that barge right there. The pilot of the boat has to keep working backwards to keep strain on all the ropes and cables,” he said.

Mangold worked at the Braddock Locks & Dam for 32 years. He listened to the sound of the ropes working.

“You hear them lines going 'riv-riv-riv.' It's when they get real quiet that you get scared. Because it's going to probably break,” he said.  

Mangold remembered one shift when six barges broke away from their towboat. To stop them from crashing or capsizing, Mangold and a deck hand ran the length of the wall, from pin to pin, working frantically to rope in the barges.  

“[It was] a long way,” he acknowledged, “and you just don’t stop.”

Neither does Braddock. Every day, at every hour, the Locks & Dam are open, moving boats up and down the river. 

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