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    Lock operators work super safely near mega construction projects

    Lock operators work super safely near mega construction projects

    Photo By Leon Roberts | Lock Operator Kenneth Hammock monitors a recreational sailboat as it moves barges into...... read more read more



    Story by Leon Roberts 

    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District

    NASHVILLE, Tenn. (March 8, 2023) – Operators at navigation locks could easily wear capes for the super work they do to ensure the safety of the public, not to mention employees that maintain these projects in the Cumberland and Tennessee River systems. At Kentucky Lock in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, and Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga, Tennessee, ongoing mega construction projects to build larger new locks pose additional hazards for these vigilant protectors of people and resources.

    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District lockmasters and operators have full authority over the movement of boats as they approach, enter, and depart a lock chamber. Throughout the lockage process, safety is the prime consideration.

    At Kentucky and Chickamauga Locks, which are Tennessee Valley Authority projects, they also have to coordinate with construction teams that are operating extremely close to the active lock. Activities sometime impact navigation, so lock operators keep a constant watch on the movement of construction teams, work barges and vessels moving in the tailwater and headwater areas, and cranes moving supplies and equipment overhead.

    Lock Operator Julie Howell has 20 years of experience as a maintainer and operator in the Nashville and Louisville Districts, and has been moving vessels through Kentucky Lock on the Tennessee River since 2008. She said the main challenge when it comes to safety is making sure everyone is on the same page.

    “Communication and coordination with the contractors, our maintenance, and the towing industry keeps us on our toes,” Howell said. “Safety is our first and foremost priority.”

    Construction of the new 1,200-foot-long by 110-foot-wide lock has required close planning and coordination between operations and construction officials. Over the years the project has involved building new highway and railway bridges, relocation of utilities, earth excavation, and construction of the downstream lock monoliths.

    Resident Engineer Jeremiah Manning said installation of downstream cofferdam monolith shells in 2018-2019 were complex activities that were frustrated by historically high river conditions.

    “Whenever Engineering and Construction Division takes on navigation projects, our teams focus early on how to deliver while minimizing impacts on the navigation industry and our Operations Division partner,” Manning explained. “When in the execution phase, we are deliberate in planning and managing our communication leading up to and through activities that directly or indirectly impact navigation’s workflow.”

    In 2022, 13,631 loaded barges carrying 26,729,160 tons of commodities, and 11,594 empty barges passed through Kentucky Lock. It is one of the busiest navigation locks in the Inland Waterway System. On an average day, lock operators move six 15-barge tows through the lock, which is twice the tonnage of any other navigation lock in the Nashville District.

    Lockmaster Wayne Chapman is a retired U.S. Coastguardsman and has been serving the navigation industry at Kentucky Lock for more than six years. He said his team is subjected to constant noises, such as jack hammering, drilling, and blasting, but nonetheless, they keep their eyes and ears open to keep these vessels moving safely up and down the Tennessee River.

    “We all have to remember that we have to make compromises so that the construction work continues to move forward, and we are still able to lock vessels safely and speedily,” Chapman said. “It all has to get done and working together makes things go smoother.”

    Chapman added that he works closely with Caleb Skinner, Navigation Business Line manager, the resident engineer, and construction team members like Alex Carr, T.J. Ward, Chris Thomson, Jody Robinson, and Safety Officer Chris Byrne to mitigate safety concerns and impacts to the active lock.

    He also lauds his team of lock operators and mechanics that keep the lock operating.

    “They are all a great bunch of men and women dedicated to the Corps of Engineers and Kentucky Lock,” Chapman said. “When I leave work each day, I have a smile on my face because I know that I am blessed to work with the best.”

    Lock Operator Kenneth Hammock has eight years of experience as a lock operator in the Nashville District at Chickamauga Lock. He said he often communicates with the construction crane operator and scans ongoing construction when locking boats through the active lock. He then turns his attention to working closely with vessels to make sure they navigate safely up and down the Tennessee River.

    “I personally walk them through it,” Hammock said. “I explain to them what the procedures are, and once they enter the lock, I leave the control stand and assist them with locking their boat.”

    Hammock added that helping people use the navigation lock for the first time gives him a good feeling because he takes pride in teaching them about the lockage process and ensuring they have a safe and enjoyable experience.

    From February 2022 to February 2023, a total of 3,433 pleasure craft and 1,022,186 tons of commodities moved through Chickamauga Lock. No other lock in the Nashville District comes close to the number of recreational vessels that use this lock.

    Lockmaster Cory Richardson has 20 years of experience with the Corps of Engineers, including 10 years in charge of operations at the lock on the Tennessee River. He said a lot of effort goes into maintaining the 82-year-old project that is being replaced by the new 600-foot-long by 110-foot-wide lock that is under construction.

    “There is always something broken and things needing replacement. My maintenance team does an excellent job of keeping up with the multiple jobs that pop up on a daily basis,” Richardson said. “They are always looking for ways to improve the old lock for the benefit and safety of our users and ourselves.”

    Richardson said one of the biggest challenges with a large construction project nearby the active lock is dealing with limited space to place the “stuff” needed to build the new lock. Flexibility working and communicating with the construction team and contractors is also part of ensuring public safety, he stressed.

    Since the Chickamauga Replacement Project began, there have been highway relocations, steel lock gates and valves fabrication, concrete approach wall beam fabrications, cofferdam construction, and earth excavation. Construction of the lock chamber and upstream approach walls is underway.

    Resident Engineer Tommy Long began working on this project as a project engineer and contracting officer’s representative in 2009, and assumed his current position on the project in 2017. He said the placement of precast segmental cofferdam boxes in 2009 greatly impacted navigation and required a lot of coordination with Matt Emmons, the lockmaster at that time.

    “Setting the boxes safely, within tolerances, and as quickly as possible to reduce disruption to industry took a coordinated effort,” Long said. “The relationships built during that time between Operations and Construction continues to this day, through Cory Richardson and our teams.”

    Seamless communication between the contractor, the Resident Engineer Office, and the navigation lock allows Operations to build trust by keeping navigation industry partners informed of outages and hazards.

    “I’ve strived to be as flexible as possible toward the contractors. I remind them as often as possible that I want them here,” Richardson added. “I want the new lock built and I want it built to the best of our abilities – no corners cut on anyone’s side. I want men and women 200 years from now to look at it and think, ‘These guys knew what they were doing.’ I want them to succeed because their success is our success.”

    Kentucky Lock and Chickamauga Lock operate super safely because of the superheroes of the waterway… the lock operators, maintainers, and the construction and navigation leaders that coordinate, mitigate risks, and promote safety.

    (For more information about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, visit the district’s website at on Facebook at, and on Twitter at Follow us on LinkedIn for the latest Nashville District employment and contracting opportunities at



    Date Taken: 03.08.2023
    Date Posted: 03.08.2023 09:23
    Story ID: 439920
    Location: NASHVILLE, TN, US 

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