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In this episode of Yinzer Backstage Pass, we head to the Charleroi Locks and Dam and learn how the whole operation works.

Every once in a while, we have an epic edition of Yinzer Backstage Pass and this is definitely one of those. A few weeks back, Annie (our camera operator) and I drove 20 miles south of Pittsburgh to Charleroi, where the Army Corps of Engineers operates Locks & Dam #4 on the Monongahela River. It’s a massive complex — and it needs to be — because barges carrying thousands of tons of material and measuring nearly 700 feet long are passing through these locks daily.

We were lucky enough to be there while two tugboats pushing loads of barges happened to be passing through. Alan Nogy, the lockmaster at the facility, explained every step of the process. It was thrilling to watch up close as the giant lock doors opened to receive the boats. The folks from the tugboat worked with lock workers to tie up the boat. The rope needs to be at least 75 feet long to allow for the change in elevation that’s about to take place. Soon, the tugboat and barges start dropping thanks to a gravity-powered system that matches the water level inside the lock chamber with the water level of the other side of the Monongahela River. Within 30 or 40 minutes, the tugboats and barges are on their way.

The current lock chamber is around 90 years old, and the Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of constructing a new lock chamber right next to the old one. Alan introduced us to Steve Fritz, a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, who led us over to the construction site so we could take a look.

I’m not kidding when I write that it’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. It looked like the construction of the Death Star. There was a massive rectangular pit in the ground full of totally unrecognizable machinery and dozens of construction workers milling about. As we watched, they used a huge crane to pull something resembling an X-wing fighter out of the site.

If you want more Yinzer Backstage Pass, check out our trip to Carnegie Museum of Art where we visited the Conservation Lab.