PITTSBURGH – Thousands of Pittsburghers and visitors stood on bridges, parked along streets, and floated on boats near the Point of Pittsburgh to enjoy the first downtown fireworks show on the Fourth of July since the pandemic cancelled last year’s event.
Brightly colored lights burst in the night air and shimmered in the water. Boaters had one of the best vantage views below the exploding lights where Pittsburgh’s three rivers converged.
Yet boaters could not have navigated the rivers to enjoy the show without the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District’s locks and dams, which operate year-round.
“We’re that hidden backbone that nobody sees, but everybody needs,” said John Dilla, the chief of navigation for the Pittsburgh District.
Dilla, who has worked 23 years for the district and has held just about every job from equipment mechanic to lock master at the locks, oversees navigation for all 23 locks and dam facilities on the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers within the district.
When people think of Pittsburgh, they don’t often think of navigable lock chambers. They think of bridges. Yet, without its rivers, many of Pittsburgh’s bridges wouldn’t exist. And without locks and dams, those riverways would be too dangerous or impossible to navigate during flood seasons or dry summer spells.
“During summer months, some areas would be low enough where you could wade across the Ohio River,” said Matt Reisinger, the lockmaster for the two Allegheny River facilities closest to downtown.
Reisinger’s and other lock sites' crews worked this Independence Day, just like they do every holiday and weekend, to provide freedom of movement for recreational and commercial traffic.
“I never miss the opportunity to simply think about our Army employees who are out there, seven days a week, on holidays, supporting the economy and supporting recreational traffic. Many of us are sitting at home enjoying our families, while they’re out there working to keep the rivers going,” said Dilla.
The Allegheny River Lock and Dam 2 is one of the busiest in the region for recreational boaters. Last year, this facility locked more than a hundred recreational vessels on Independence Day weekend, and that was without the fireworks pulling visitors downtown. This year, lock operators worked to provide safe passage to a steady flow of boaters as safely and as efficiently as possible.
Boaters played music and lounged in the open sun while locking through the water elevator.
“Everybody’s in a good mood. They’re just happy to be out there celebrating our day of independence,” said Reisinger.
To keep everyone safe while boating, two of the district’s rangers spent the holiday at Lock 2 to remind everyone to wear life jackets and by warning boaters if they approached dangerous restricted zones close to the dam.
“I’m happy to be out here working on the holidays because people are out there enjoying it,” said MiKayla Newman, the river ranger for the Pittsburgh District, who works every weekend throughout the summer. “I’m able to help keep them stay safe, while enjoying the freedoms that we have.”
Newman and other district employees have missed their large share of holidays over the years.
Dilla said one thought helps him keep the mission in perspective.
“We always have to remember who our customer is, who we’re serving. It’s the American public. Keeping that in mind, from our perspective is highly important. It’s a key driver of what we do for everything. It is our purpose to be here,” said Dilla.
Based on the 2019 reported numbers, nearly 14,000 recreational vessels pass through the Pittsburgh District locks annually. Those numbers do not include the more than 180 million tons of bulk commodities – including coal, sand, fuel, and others – traveling the regional rivers on commercial barges annually.
Commercially, industries using river transportation to ship bulk materials benefit from using the locks. They saved an estimated $3.3 billion in transportation costs by using local riverways, compared to other means, such as by truck or rail.
Gabriel Stala, an economist with the Pittsburgh District, said without its rivers and navigation facilities, the region would have a different economic look.
“That’s hard for me to even imagine. I think we’d be looking at a completely different economy in the Pittsburgh region without the locks on the waterway,” said Stala. “I think people don’t realize just how much the waterways have benefited the region.”
Pittsburgh may always be more famous for its bridges than its locks and dams. Nevertheless, those locks and dams are as much a part of the city’s identity and its culture as pierogi races and sandwiches stuffed with French fries.
Without the lock operators and Pittsburgh District employees working holidays, the fireworks would look very different without boats floating below the sparkling lights.
“I just think that is something to be admired, that our lock operators are out there, taking time out of their personal lives instead of being at home with their families. They’re out there providing a service to the people across the nation and in our local area,” said Reisinger.