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.