PITTSBURGH – The work of a maintenance fleet is not exactly medical surgery, but when it comes to repairing massive machinery on the water, it’s close.
“It’s like an emergency room setting. We just come in to a facility, we do whatever we need to keep it operational, and keep the traffic going up and down the river,” said William Lynch, the superintendent for the Medium Capacity Fleet.
The fleet is composed of crewmembers, mechanics, captains, divers, multiple tow boats, barges, and cranes, able to navigate anywhere east of the Mississippi River for one purpose: to provide maintenance and repairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the water.
The fleet is headquartered at Neville Island, just 10 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh, but it operates under the Huntington District.
Right now, the fleet is at the Montgomery Locks and Dam to perform four weeks of repairs as part of a larger, multi-phased effort to restore the facility before major construction begins.
“We’re basically condensing 10 years of maintenance down to about two-and-a-half years. It may be causing headaches [for navigation] now, but it will make things a lot smoother in the future,” said Derek Callihan, project engineer for the Pittsburgh District.
Montgomery was originally completed in 1936. It was designed to last 50 years, but 85 years later, it is the second oldest facility on the Ohio River and in bad need of repairs. Montgomery underwent 26 emergency repairs in the past four years, covering anything from fixing hydraulic pumps to replacing seals or gear assemblies. The last time the facility received a major rehabilitation was 40 years ago.
When the fleet arrives on site to perform work, it stands out from anything else on the river, said Callihan.
“I don’t know of any other group of people who could do the work they do with us, anywhere near the effectiveness they do,” said Callihan.
The fleet is equipped with cranes able to lift huge miter gates, which are large enough to crush a two-story home. The fleet has specialists and welders who can fabricate most of the materials and parts they need for the job.
“We couldn’t ask for a better partnership. Everyone is focused on finding the best solution we can and making the best use of the resources we have,” said Callihan.
Montgomery has two lock chambers, a main and an auxiliary. The facility averages 300 commercial lockages every month, plus another 150 lockages of recreational boats during busy summer months. Industries rely on Montgomery to navigate along the upper Ohio River to transport coal and other commodities.
Montgomery’s main chamber is approximately four times larger than the auxiliary chamber. Beginning in 2024, the Pittsburgh District will replace the auxiliary chamber with one the same size as the main, measuring 600 feet long by 110 feet wide. When that happens, Montgomery will operate only on one chamber. Right now, and until 2023, the medium fleet is providing maintenance to the main chamber to prevent future emergencies, especially during construction.
“We’re trying to do everything we can in this large chamber, so when they start construction on the new chamber, this facility does not get shut down for any reason,” said Lynch.
This August, the fleet is replacing hydraulic cylinders that operate the miter gates, and inspecting and repairing valves that drain and fill the chamber with water. Within two years, the Pittsburgh District will also address the miter gate anchorage systems and other projects.
The current work is expected to rejuvenate the main chamber, giving it at least 10 more years of life. Once the Pittsburgh District completes the new chamber, it will extend Montgomery’s lifespan even further. Unlike medical surgery, these efforts take years, not hours in the operating room, but the intent is to extend the life of facilities for the future.
“We’re trying to do our best to maintain what’s been handed down to us and build the best we can for the generations that coming after us, and continuing that tradition,” said Callihan.