Atop the Cannelton dam, Lockmaster Kenny Schaefer has a view of just about the entire locks complex, including oncoming barge traffic. In the background is the powerhouse, the hub of operations, where lockmasters monitor and log vessels passing through the channel. Last year, more than 61 million tons of goods made its way through the cannelton site. Staff photo by Stuart Cassidy
Atop the Cannelton dam, Lockmaster Kenny Schaefer has a view of just about the entire locks complex, including oncoming barge traffic. In the background is the powerhouse, the hub of operations, where lockmasters monitor and log vessels passing through the channel. Last year, more than 61 million tons of goods made its way through the cannelton site. Staff photo by Stuart Cassidy
Viewing it from the highway, the Cannelton Locks and Dam sticks out from the other scenery. Amid the cliffs, trees and picturesque riverscape, the concrete edifices tower above the river. Though not overly imposing from afar, an opportunity to walk across the gate with only the metal mesh grating below your feet and a handrail at your side creates a bit of internal thrill. Ascending staircases headed to the hoist house, puts another few dozen feet between you and the water below.

On a 1,200-foot stroll from the Indiana shoreline toward the end of the dam, which overlooks the recently developed hydroelectric plant, Lockmaster Kenny Schaefer gives insight to what actually takes place at the Cannelton Locks on a daily basis. Explaining that the dam assists navigation on the “marine highway,” including barges, tugs and pleasure craft, he said there is typically a 25-foot difference in elevation between the up and downstream sides of the locks.

With water running through the various 12 100-foot-long tainter gates located at the Cannelton dam, “when we’re running at 15 feet, it gets pretty rough,” he said, highlighting that rapids result from the currents created below the surface as water is channeled from one elevation to the other.

Schaefer has been a mainstay at the locks and dam for more than 25 years, hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1989.

Pointing out that much of the equipment in use today is original to the dam’s construction, Schaefer said the mechanical components are trustworthy and they rarely experience problems with the 1960s technology.

Looking at a large gear – probably six feet in diameter – in the hoist house that works in conjunction with a set of cables to lift the gate straight up, Schafer acknowledged that it may be older tech but “it works just as goods as when it was new.” That’s a distinction from the more modern fully electronic and fiber-optic systems that are prone to faults and breakdowns.

Cannelton’s efficiency is a tribute to the crew that puts in long hours making sure everything runs like clockwork. As Schaefer continued the tour, a few of those workers were busy making some minor repairs. Among the maintenance staff were Neal Schwartz and Kevin Dixon, who were preparing to replace a pintle shaft on a large crane that traverses the length of the dam. In between passes to grind off the old weld, Schwartz said he has worked with the Corps of Engineers for more than a decade, starting out as summer help with a crew at Patoka Lake. Dixon, who put his welding skills on display refastening the lever, has spent the last five years at the Cannelton locks, hailing from a military background.

In fact, many of the workers at the dam served in the armed forces. With horns blaring nearby – signaling an OK for approaching barges to enter the lock channel – Schaefer said he was a member of the Coast Guard before transitioning into his current position as a lockmaster, a job that entails quite a bit of administrative functions.

Having grown up in Tell City, Schaefer has an endearment for the river life. Owning a pontoon boat, he and the family get out on the water every so often. So, it’s not surprising to hear Schaefer say that he was first drawn to the opportunity to work with the Corps because he just loves being around the river.

A quick glance into the water reveals a school of nice-sized catfish swimming near the surface. The sight spawned a question about the good fishing that must be available for the crew. It’s no secret that boaters looking to reel in the big catch have had great successes fishing near the dam. However, Schaefer said he’s never put a line in the water from atop the dam and he couldn’t recall ever seeing any other coworker try it either.

A walk to the power house offers a glimpse of the central hub of operations. There, fellow lockmasters Kevin Hall and John Flood manned operations, monitoring river traffic and logging activities such as craft names and commodities hauled. In 2015, river traffic carried a reported 61 million tons of goods through the locks and dam. Not surprisingly, the biggest commodity hauled was coal – but just about any type of goods imaginable made it’s way via barge, as more than 100 different products were logged.

Helping to streamline transportation of cargo, Schaefer also pointed out that one barge carries almost as much as 70 over-the-road trucks, and a tandem tow supplants nearly 1,700 trucks.

Helping to compile their in-house data is done by several means. Using a combination of computer programs, the lockmasters can see in real time all of the boats on the river for miles in each direction and know which crafts are incoming long before arrivals are radioed in. Barges coming from upriver are expected to radio when they reach Rocky Point and down-river travelers should have communicated by the edge of Cannelton city limits. Small crafts need not radio, as there is a bell near the Indiana side river wall that alerts of needed passage.  

On average, the Cannelton locks open about 20 time each day for passage.

For Flood, that means he’s seen upward of a hundred thousand vessels pass through the gates over his 31 years there. Joining the Cannelton team in 1985, he’s the most tenured of the group. And like Schaefer, Flood shares an affinity for river life, making his career with the Corps very enjoyable. Starting out initially at Rough River in Kentucky, and speaking fondly about his other pursuits, Flood said, “the river, it’s been a part of my life forever,”

Flood’s long time with the Corps is in contrast to his cohort, Hall, who started just this past January. Hall was long employed with Owensboro Municipal Utilities. Growing up in Hancock County, Hall said he and his dad often fished at the dam, but he really didn’t know that much about how it functioned before getting hired. That has changed over the last few months, as Hall is now well versed in the many facets of operations, quickly answering questions about how things work, including the gridwork of valves and hydraulic pumps that help keep the river and its traffic flowing smoothly.

In all, Schaefer said the Cannelton group is the most experienced of any Corps teams along the Ohio River.

But regardless of the amount of time on the job, it is the collaboration of efforts that help keep the 50-year-old Cannelton Locks pristine and in prime order.

Copyright 2021