Just a few miles west of Louisville is one of the pride and joys of the U.S. inland waterway system. Instead of one channel, there are two 1,200 foot locks side-by-side, one just completed last year. One week ago Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio corn and soybean growers took a trip on a special touring barge through the older lock of the two there, just to see how the system operated.
A tow boat powered the barge by pushing it down river from Jeffersonville, past the Port of Indiana and the grain and fertilizer handling facilities of Continental Grain and Barge.
The trip was sponsored by corn and soybean organizations in Indiana and Kentucky. It's the third year for a river excursion to raise awareness of the value of transportation in the minds of corn and soybean growers. Another tour was held last Friday launching from the port at Mt. Vernon in Posey County.
The Louisville lock and dam, known as the McAlpin lock and dam officially, allows traffic that once was impossible on the river, due to the Falls of the Ohio. Stories still circulate about how as recently as the early 1900s, farmers on the Indiana side could walk livestock to the stockyards in Louisville across the Ohio River bed in some seasons of the year due to the Falls.
Once in the lock, the water level was lowered nearly 30 feet to match the level of the water on the Ohio River below the lock and dam. Being aboard the barge, it was difficult to tell it was lowering, except by watching the freshwater marks appear on the large concrete blocks on the sides of the locks.
If a real barge was going through, a 15 unit barge consisting of five barges long, three wide, would fit into one of the 1,200 foot locks, with 2.5 feet to spare on each side. It's the tow pilot's job to maneuver through tight quarters. Once the boat is inside the lock, a deck hand anchors it off to the side of the lock, using a hay rope on steroids. As the water goes out, a sliding metal pipe with the rope attached gradually lowers itself to the new water level. Then the deck hand unties the boat, and it can move out of the lock as soon as the gates open. The entire process took over half an hour.
If the lock is only 600 feet long, then the barge unit goes through in two shifts, which adds time to the trip down river. While most of the locks on the Ohio, except for the first three farthest up river near Pittsburgh, are 1,200 feet long, only two of 29 on the Mississippi are that length.
Farmers walked off the barge, once back at the docking point, with a better understanding of just how locks and dams work.