Most people who picture a lake think of a unified body of calm water. Yet, from the sky, Stonewall Jackson Lake resembles a series of lightning bolts striking in different directions than a traditional lake.
What seems like endless creeks, forks, and tributaries give shape to the reservoir. Navigating its waters on a boat requires sharp turns around hidden curves. The high West Virginian hills and staggering mountains envelop the waters in their steep topography.
All kinds of boaters visit the lake: fishermen, kayakers, jet skiers, and motorboat speedsters all share the water. Bird watchers and nature enthusiasts come from across West Virginia to observe a range of wildlife, from osprey swooping in to catch fish to ordinary squirrels, rabbits, or white-tailed deer.
The reservoir’s 26 miles of sprawling waterways flow north. West Fork River is the largest tributary, merging with Skin Creek, Sand Fork, Glady Fork, Wolf Fork, and more to form the reservoir. Their waters converge into a single point, where a 90-foot concrete dam stops their current.
Stonewall Jackson Dam forms the youngest of 16 reservoirs within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. The district manages them within the watersheds for the Allegheny, Monongahela, and upper Ohio rivers.
“It’s the baby of the district,” said Scott Hannah, the lead park ranger who is more than a decade older than the dam he manages.
The dam’s construction began in 1986 and began operating in 1988. At least half of the other dams in the Pittsburgh District are 70 years or older, making them more than twice the age of Stonewall Jackson. It took 107,000 cubic yards of concrete to build the dam, enough to cover a football field with a concrete block nearly five stories high.
The dam offers flood protection to the communities living along the West Fork River, which flows into the Monongahela River. Since it became operational, Stonewall Jackson has prevented more than an estimated $423 million in flood damages.
The team includes a few park rangers, a maintenance crew, and a resource manager who manages the dam, its waters, and the surrounding federal lands.
“I think our team is one of the smallest, but we pack a pretty good punch,” Hannah said. “We take a lot of pride in maintaining and improving our areas.”
The team won the district’s esteemed “Project Site of the Year” award in 2023 for improving the visitors’ experience. The team built a handicap-accessible overlook area, a fishing deck, a sand digger pit for kids, picnic tables, pavilions, and a sandbag tossing game, among other amenities, for the public’s enjoyment.
“A big theme for us is to do everything we can in-house,” said Jeff Toler, the resource manager at Stonewall Jackson. “We want to complete as many maintenance and improvement projects ourselves rather than contracting them out.”
The maintenance crew recently added a second viewing deck near the dam with a direct line of sight across the water. From the overlook deck, visitors can watch deer and turkey feed on a small field of wheat and clover. Toler’s team planted the feeding area away from any hunting zones.
“Visitors have already come up to us and told us they love it,” Toler said.
The team aims to tie in as much environmental stewardship into the recreation experience as possible. Toler, like his rangers, has a heart for wildlife conservation.
“We want to give back to the wildlife with our reservoir wherever we can,” Toler said.
The team partners with local nonprofits who help raise funds for improvement projects. Toler calls them their “dance partners.” They help provide materials for new structures, and his team of talented maintenance workers put in the labor to create the amenities.
“We strive to make it the best place we can for people to visit,” Toler said. “I’m very proud of this team. They have the work ethic and attitude of, ‘Let’s get it done. Let’s do it.’”
Toler said keeping the projects in-house increases his sense of pride in their work while decreasing the cost to taxpayers who visit.
Toler said Stonewall Jackson had very few amenities for the most of its years, making it challenging to attract people to the dam. Some people would stumble upon it almost by accident without realizing the dam existed, but there was not much to encourage people to spend their day there.
About four years ago, Toler and his team emphasized adding more recreational benefits so families could visit the dam and stay for a picnic, go fishing, or sit down at the new park benches and enjoy the scene of the dam spewing water downstream.
Next, the team plans on adding a pollinator garden to attract bees and butterflies and park benches for people to sit and enjoy while reading a book, Toler said. For the first time since the pandemic, the rangers have also resumed weekly dam tours, which people can register to attend. The goal is to teach visitors, especially children, about the dam’s mission of flood-risk management so more people can appreciate why the dam exists.
“We are trying to offer our public more and draw them in so we can tell our story and give them something to enjoy,” Toler said.
“Headwaters Highlights” is part of a story series to highlight every one of the facilities or teams that make the Pittsburgh District’s mission possible. Pittsburgh District’s 26,000 square miles include portions of western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio, western Maryland, and southwestern New York. It has more than 328 miles of navigable waterways, 23 navigation locks and dams, 16 multi-purpose flood-control reservoirs, 42 local flood-protection projects, and other projects to protect and enhance the nation’s water resources, infrastructure and environment.
A groundbreaking ceremony in the Pittsburgh region set the stage for updating the Ohio River’s oldest navigation system.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District welcomed industry, community and political leaders for the ceremony, digging shovels into a pile of dirt at the Montgomery Locks and Dam facility Aug. 11. The event marked the start of a construction project with benefits that will flow into the nation’s economy.
“You’ve probably noticed driving on site today. Construction is already underway,” said Col. Nicholas Melin, the commander of the Pittsburgh District.
“It’s only fitting that we lift our shovels and take this step together continuing the tradition of great partnership,” he said.
Melin shoveled the dirt alongside U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Austin Davis, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania; Mitch Landrieu, senior advisor to the President and White House for infrastructure; Jaime A. Pinkham, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; Mark Gentile, the president of Trumbull Corps; and Mary Ann Bucci, the executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.
“The Southwestern Pennsylvania economy couldn’t function without the Montgomery Locks and Dam. I worked to secure this investment from the infrastructure law so the Army Corps can upgrade the locks and dam to keep commerce flowing through our region,” Casey said.
“This is a celebration of a commitment of investment to a critically important project, not only for Beaver County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, and not only for our commonwealth, but for a significant region of the United States,” he said.
Montgomery is part of the Upper Ohio navigation system, which sees 15 to 20 million tons of materials pass through its river chambers annually. The Upper Ohio Navigation Project is expected to support 28,800 jobs over its construction life, and 5,400 jobs annually after completion.
“The investment we make today will pay dividends, not for years or decades but for generations. Long, long overdue,” Casey said.
Overall, the Pittsburgh District operates 23 locks and dams on the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers, saving shippers and consumers approximately $4 billion in transportation costs compared to using other means such as trucks or rail.
“Our inland waterways are a critical artery sustaining the nation's economy and families by delivering goods to our homes, connecting us to global markets, and bolstering employment. The investments we are making today will reinvigorate navigation and make it resilient to provide significant benefits for years to come,” Pinkham said.
The Corps of Engineers started constructing Montgomery Locks and Dam in 1932 and finished in 1936. The auxiliary lock has reached the end of its operational lifespan and is experiencing structural aging.
Plans for a new chamber will bring new life to the facility thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has provided more than $900 million in funds for construction on the Upper Ohio River.
“What makes this project critical is the potential for structural failure of the lock walls, which would cause major interruption to river transportation,” said Chris Dening, the project manager for the construction of the Upper Ohio project.
“Many of the walls have significant cracking along and across their lengths. We have observed leaking within the lock walls during operation, which confirmed the seriousness of the situation,” Dening said.
If one of the lock walls failed, it would impact operations for several months. An unexpected failure would cause industry shippers to react, scrambling to find new ways to reroute shipments at the last minute.
“The upgrades we are making at Montgomery Locks and Dam are just the first of three major investments to modernize the upper Ohio River navigation system,” said Steve Fritz, the Mega Project program manager for the Pittsburgh District.
“We are building larger, newer, better locks that will provide a resilient navigation system in the Pittsburgh region for the next 100 years,” he said.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided a significant boost to a much-needed infrastructure investment on the upper Ohio River.
In the meantime, the Pittsburgh District has taken several measures to address structural issues to avoid sudden failures. Pittsburgh’s engineers increased the frequency of their inspections at Montgomery and developed contingency plans for any potential emergency.
“However, those contingency efforts are costly, which is why we need to recapitalize the lock with a new construction,” Dening said.
The new locks construction will directly benefit commercial navigation by replacing older, smaller chambers, avoiding future bottlenecks and slowdowns, and saving costs to transportation industries.
“The river navigation system provides a cost-effective method for transporting bulk commodities. It is also environmentally friendly and reduces road congestion,” Dening said.
Transporting commodities on the waterways is four times less expensive than trucks and 33 percent cheaper than rail. Towboats on Pittsburgh’s rivers can push up to 15 barges at once, each carrying the same amount of material as 70 large semi-trucks or 16 rail cars.
The Upper Ohio Navigation project includes three locks: Emsworth, Dashields, and Montgomery, the first three on the Ohio River downstream from Pittsburgh.
The BIL provided $857 million for Montgomery construction and $77 million for Emsworth in 2022.
The 2022 funding places the Ohio River as the second-largest funded infrastructure project within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The BIL helps alleviate the problem of inconsistent funding experienced in the past several decades, which has caused major inflation in timeline and project costs in the past. For example, the district had received only $40 million combined in the five previous years for the Upper Ohio project.
Montgomery is the first facility to receive a larger 600-foot-long by 110-foot-wide lock chamber on the Upper Ohio system. District engineers plan to replace the smaller auxiliary chamber at all three facilities.
“[What] brings us here today is moving commerce from ships to shelves. This is just an incredible waterway that’s critically important to the economy of the entire United States of America,” Landrieu said.
The economic impact of a one-year closure at Montgomery Locks and Dam would cost the U.S. economy nearly $180 million. The roughly 12 million tons of cargo would require over 100,000 railcars or 400,000 trucks to compensate for the closure.
The BIL funded the district for about half of the required cost up front, allowing Pittsburgh to begin work at Montgomery as early as 2024, significantly speeding up the district’s timeline for construction.
The navigation system also plays a vital role in the developing of local industry. The cargo includes mainly coal, but industry also transports coke, petroleum products, raw and finished steel, and aggregates. Various companies use the system to transport large components for construction in the Pittsburgh region.
“Some of these components could not have been transported by other means due to their size,” Dening said.
The average age of the three Upper Ohio facilities is 96 years old, with aging conditions that could lead to major navigation shutdowns. The auxiliary chambers at the three facilities are the smallest on the Ohio River, causing bottlenecks and slowdowns during maintenance periods, proving too small for today’s commercial barges.
The Pittsburgh District has already completed project phases to prepare for the upcoming chamber construction. The plan includes removing the auxiliary chamber to expand the lock size, which will cut into the gated dam currently on the river.
The next phase will bring a batch plant on site, allowing engineers to mix and pour concrete in place much faster than cement trucks. The new lock at Montgomery will require about 400,000 cubic yards of concrete, equivalent to a football field covered nearly 200 feet high, or 1.6 billion pounds. The plant will produce nine different concrete mixes used in various types of construction, such as underwater, structural, and mass concrete, among others. An onsite laboratory will sample and test the concrete to ensure quality.
“It’s taken over a decade of dedicated effort from an interdisciplinary team to get us here today,” Melin said.
“This team has developed and delivered a solid plan that we are now ready to execute,” he said We’re lucky to have the same team moving forward to deliver a quality product that will sustain the navigation needs of this region.”
When thousands of gallons of water flow through a dam, it generates a lot of force and power.
But what happens when you harness that power? You could provide electricity to a community or two, of course.
Recently, a developer announced they will construct four new hydropower plants at locking facilities on all three major rivers in the greater Pittsburgh region.
“Partnering with developers to provide hydropower to the community is an important function,” said Benjamin Sakmar, the hydropower coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. “Especially in this day and age, the push for renewable energy is getting a lot of focus. We want to be good partners with companies looking to provide hydropower construction within the district.”
Rye Development, a developer of low-impact renewable hydropower generation, will construct facilities at Emsworth Locks and Dams on the Ohio River, at Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4, also known as Charleroi, and at the Allegheny River Locks and Dam 2.
“The Pittsburgh region has some of the most productive low impact run of river hydroelectric opportunities available in the U.S.” said Ushakar Jha, vice president for project engineering at Rye. “The economic benefit of constructing these projects will be felt by the local labor force in the region.”
The Pittsburgh District already has nine licensed and operating hydropower plants at their federal facilities, including five at locks and dams and four at reservoirs. Private industries or local governments run the plants to provide electricity to residents.
“Hydropower uses a resource that we have plenty of in our region: water,” Sakmar said. “We have the ideal topography, which channels the flow of water into our rivers and into our reservoirs. Some of our projects have been around for 100 years, so they already have energy built up, ready to harness with hydropower plants.”
Generally, hydropower plants work the same way on the river as at reservoirs. They take the force from water flow to spin large turbines connected to generators, transforming mechanical energy into electricity.
“The market in this region is incredibly advantageous from a power-offtake standpoint. These are some of the most productive projects with a clear line to commercial operation,” Jha said.
The capacity of each project will vary, but Rye estimates the four facilities will generate 250,000 megawatt hours annually for the next 100 years or more, enough to power 25,000 households per year.
Once construction for a new hydropower plant begins, completion may take 24 to 36 months. Rye has not yet set a date for breaking ground.
“The Pittsburgh District is critical to realizing these projects,” Jha said. “We are excited to work with the district moving forward, and this effort represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Pittsburgh region.”
The Emsworth location will host two hydropower plants because of its two dams. Emsworth is adjacent to Neville Island, located on the main channel of the Ohio River, just downstream from downtown Pittsburgh. Allegheny County has entered into a power purchase agreement with Rye to supply renewable electricity to the county from the Emsworth Project.
The Allegheny River Lock and Dam 2 is next to the Highland Park Bridge. The project will provide the University of Pittsburgh with on-demand, locally generated renewable power.
The Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4 at Charleroi is finishing up a significant construction project to enlarge a chamber that began nearly 20 years ago. Rye will pursue hydropower construction sometime after the chamber is complete.
The constructor expects each project to generate 150-200 family wage jobs. In addition to providing renewable energy, some facilities include investment in new recreational fishing sites and a walkway leading from a parking area with designated parking spaces to the fishing platform.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not select the locations for new hydropower plants. Developers – whether private companies or local governments looking to provide power to their citizens – choose sites based on economic factors. Namely, they determine whether licensing, designing, planning, and constructing a hydropower plant will produce enough power for enough customers to remain in business.
“Choosing a hydropower site all boils down to economics,” Sakmar said. “Developers need to be sure choosing a location is going to be economical and profitable for them. Sometimes that includes making sure they have buyers for their electricity and investors ahead of time.”
Even though the Pittsburgh District operates 23 locks and dams and 16 reservoirs, only nine of those locations have hydropower plants in operation. Together, they have the potential to produce 570 megawatts, able to power 670,000 households per year.
In addition to the nine already in place, Rye and other developers have licensed 12 total hydropower facilities yet to be constructed.
Developers who want to build a hydropower facility must submit their plans through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC has the authority to decide whether a developer can build and operate a hydropower facility at a requested location. In addition, FERC performs environmental reviews to ensure facilities will not degrade the environment. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assists with design reviews at various planning stages.
“We work with the developer every step of the way,” Sakmar said. “We make sure a new facility isn’t going to cause any undue risk to our infrastructure, the public, water quality or the environment.”
Hydropower has several environmental requirements to maintain quality downstream, including water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, and flow.
Safety and impact on water operations are other important factors. The Pittsburgh District does not change its outflow projections at reservoirs or locking facilities to produce more electricity. Instead, the district determines outflow at reservoirs according to its mission to reduce the risk of flooding, keep river navigation flowing and meet specific water quality projections.
“Our primary mission is to protect lives and support inland navigation. We want to make sure new hydropower plants are not going to impair the mission for why our dams were built in the first place,” Sakmar said.
Reviewing a proposed plan and licensing each facility can take several years before construction can begin. It can be a long, arduous process, but one that helps ensure the quality of the nations’ waters while boosting local economies.
“Partnership with developers is key to transitioning our dams to meet 21st century needs,” Sakmar said. “Each of these partnerships we have with developers is beneficial in harnessing resources and energy we already have, rather than trying to depend on non-renewable materials. This is just one little piece of the puzzle to help solve the overall energy needs we’re all looking to navigate.”
There is only one locking facility on the river located between a steel manufacturer and the iconic Pittsburgh theme park, Kennywood, forming the perfect metaphoric sandwich of the city it serves.
The Braddock Locks and Dam, officially known as the Monongahela River Locks and Dam 2, quietly passes barge traffic and other boats on the river. The facility operates with a view of a steelmaking plant on one shore and a steel-themed roller coaster on the other.
In fact, coke and coal are two of the top commodities to pass through Braddock’s locks, both of which are critical to manufacture steel. Coal is also used by power plants and other industries.
“Our mission is to make sure the towing industry can move commodities up and down the river to wherever the economy and our country need them,” Brad Bucheli, the facility’s lockmaster, said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District operates the facility 24 hours a day, all year long, including holidays. Braddock is one of 23 locks and dams in the district, the closest to the point of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River.
“There’s a lot of coal, coke, salt, steel scrap, and then there’s fuels and liquids that come through here,” said Roger Edwards, a lock operator at Braddock.
Despite its perfect location and the amount of traffic that comes through here, the facility is nowhere as renowned as Kennywood, nor as notorious as Pittsburgh’s other staple of coleslaw and French fries stuffed between two thick slices of Italian bread. However, the locks’ impact on the national economy should make it equally “almost famous” as Pittsburgh’s monstrous sandwiches.
Braddock’s location personifies Pittsburgh perfectly, but it is the people who work at the locks every day, year-round, who embody the spirit of the city and bring life and purpose to its mission.
“We have a great crew here,” said Bucheli. “The lock operators and maintenance crews are the ones who get things done. They are the ones who keep this river flowing for our economy.”
Lock operators keep the locks running 24 hours a day, quietly keeping the economy afloat even when most people are asleep or enjoying boardwalk fries across the river.
“I like being outdoors and I believe in serving my community in Pittsburgh,” said Ed Schrock, a lock-operator leader who has worked for the corps for 23 years.
Schrock has a family history of military duty, including his own 13 years in the U.S. Navy, four of which with the Navy Seabees, the famed construction battalion.
“I’m trying to give back and continue my service in federal government,” Schrock said. “I love my job and I like being here. It’s very satisfying, and I feel like I’m contributing to the navigation industry.”
Construction for the original locks at Braddock began in 1902, just a few years after Kennywood opened in 1899. After several decades of use, the district completed major rehabilitation to Braddock in 1953. In 2004, the facility converted from a fixed-crest dam – which uses a submerged dam that is hardly visible from upriver – to a gated dam that raised the pool level by six feet.
“There have been a few rehabs over time but most of the equipment and hydraulics were installed in 1948, so we’re operating with 70 to 75-year-old equipment,” Bucheli said.
Bucheli relies on his maintenance crew to keep old Braddock running as new. Each maintenance worker has his own specialty, from welding to electrical, to construction and mechanical repairs.
Bucheli said their diversity of skills completes the team. They all come together to solve complex maintenance needs, relying on one another’s specialty.
“We are always busy with something different. It could be an electrical panel one day, a concrete repair the next, and then welding something another day. Everybody is always helping and learning from one another as we fix equipment,” Bucheli said.
The lockmaster also praised his lock operators, who work night shifts while the rest of the city sleeps to provide reliable inland navigation at all hours.
“Their goal is to accomplish the mission, and it gives us some pride to say this place runs despite its old age. We have people here in the middle of the night to keep it running,” Bucheli said.
“Headwaters Highlights” is part of a story series to highlight every one of the facilities or teams that make the Pittsburgh District’s mission possible. Pittsburgh District’s 26,000 square miles include portions of western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio, western Maryland, and southwestern New York. It has more than 328 miles of navigable waterways, 23 navigation locks and dams, 16 multi-purpose flood-control reservoirs, 42 local flood-protection projects, and other projects to protect and enhance the nation’s water resources infrastructure and environment.