Thanks to Jim Tarmann for this editorial on Olmsted’s first historic lockage.
Last week on August 30, 2018, after more than 30 years in the making, we cut the ribbon for one of the largest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects in history. The theme of the event was “We are Olmsted.” Yes, the Olmsted lock and dam has finally been completed.
There is no need to rehash the challenges or restate all the economic benefits related to this project. All that needs to be said is: it is finally complete!
More than 800 attendees were expected to celebrate the completion of this engineering marvel. As you would expect, military officials, senators, congressman, representatives from various building trades, farmers, local officials, organizations and even curious locals were in attendance. After comments from several, and a dedication of the site’s new “Wicket Lifter Barge,” it was time for the first lockage. A full 15-barge tow was carefully staged in the lock chamber with the ribbon draped across the lower miter gates. If all went as planned the gates would open, the ribbon would separate, and the tow would exit into history.
Olmsted has had its challenges. More than one speaker pointed out “we’ve learned a lot from this project;” I’d add, “let’s hope so!” The pivotal point of moving forward and finishing this lock (or not) came in 2010 when those who had paid more than their fair share decided it was time for new direction. Talks went on for months, then years, until WRDA 2014 cleared a path forward. Many who were not privy to the intricacies of the project remained skeptical. None the less, the project did continue.
For most of my career ICGA/ICMB remained fully engaged, hanging on to the rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. Individuals in key positions came and went leaving what seemed a hopeless task of educating and convincing new leaders that standing behind this new lock build was still the right thing to do.
For all the experiences I have had on barges, looking at locks and dams, I had never attended a ribbon cutting ceremony for a lock. I was curious, but not necessarily excited, because the project has been a roadblock to many other projects throughout the system, especially the Illinois River.
Early on when I initially heard of the event, I decided to invite my father-in-law who led one of the construction companies in phase 1, the building of the locks. He had not visited the site for nearly 20 years and excitedly accepted. As he and I sat in the hot sun listening to one speaker after another talk about how we got to this glorious day, I sensed an uneasiness in him.
When the formal program ended, we walked toward the lock to watch history unfold with the first official lockage, but my father-in-law was drawn to the lower miter gates. As they slowly opened for the first lockage, he said, “When I left 20 years ago we pre-stressed the band tendons of those gates to a specific tolerance.” I had no idea what that meant.
It wasn’t until the gates were in full recessed position and the 15-barge tow began to complete the lockage did I see his uneasiness subside. It suddenly dawned on me after all these years he still felt accountable to his work on the project and it was finally successfully completed. I’m not sure who was more moved at that point, him feeling proud of his work or me seeing what that moment meant to him.
As the crowd dispersed, I recalled a different meeting early in my career. The master of ceremonies on that evening began to recognize all the notable people in attendance who contributed to building this lock until everyone was standing.
As impractical and silly as it sounds to recognize everyone in attendance at last week’s ribbon cutting, everyone could have stood up for their contribution to the project, from the taxpayer, to the laborer. The successful completion of the Olmsted Lock and Dam did not occur because of one individual or group or a specific congressional action. In the end, it merely took everyone holding each other accountable toward one common goal, just like my father-in-law felt 20 years later.
“We are Olmsted!”