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90.5 WESA's Good Question! series is an experiment where you bring us questions—and we go out to investigate and find answers.So: What have you always wondered about Pittsburgh? Are you curious how your neighborhood originally received its name? Or maybe why the Mon and Allegheny Rivers are different colors when they merge at the Point? Or maybe you've always wanted to know what happened to all of our street cars and inclines? From serious to silly, we're here to help.

What Ever Happened To Allegheny River Lock And Dam Number One?

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Allegheny River Lock and Dam No.1 was built in the late 1800s to help make river commerce easier in the Pittsburgh region. Now, it's been mostly dismantled and is the home of Lockwall One Marina near the Cork Factory Lofts.

Terry Grantz stood on a swaying dock, pointing to a massive, off-white concrete block. He’s the manager of Lockwall One Marina, a private facility in the Strip District below the Cork Factory Lofts.

“When you come down into the area, you can see from the water, you can see the original wall,” Grantz said, gesturing to the submerged block. It looks old, but solid.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
Lockwall One Marina has kept much of the original lock and dam system in place, while adding some modern elements. It's the site of the first such system on the Allegheny River.

Grantz said he learned most of the history of the site from local anecdotes and a few pieces of paper posted on the gates outside the entrance of the marina: an article about Herr’s Island Lock and Dam.

But kayakers and other boaters may never have heard of Herr’s Island or the lock system that used to buzz beneath 23rd Street. Even Allegheny River boating maps leave something out: Lock and Dam No. 1.

From Downtown to the Point, where the Allegheny feeds into the Ohio, there isn’t a lock or dam system for nearly 10 miles.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Grantz said locks were originally constructed on Pittsburgh's three rivers to make them more navigable.

“They were just shallow creeks that were only kind of passable by boats in the flooding and spring seasons,” he said.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
On the gate of Lockwall One Marina is an old Army Corps of Engineers report about Herr's Island Lock and Dam, aka Lock and Dam No. 1. It says the system 'would receive throughout its limits the cheap transfer of coal, coke, ore petroleum, limestone, pit and manufactured iron, and other bulky articles to the great advantage of the manufacturer, and, ultimately, of the consumer.'

Locks and dams were designed to work like water steps through the region’s hills, valleys and varying elevations, making shipping and river commerce possible.

Boats go into a closed-off pool, where they sit while gates shut to stop water from flowing in. Then, depending whether they’re traveling upstream or down, the water level rises or falls to make it easier for the boat to continue on its route.

Steve Stoltz, engineering manager with the Pittsburgh District Army Corps of Engineers, said the western Pennsylvania lock and dam systems are the oldest in the national Corps.

“They all have unique features,” Stoltz said. “From over 100-some years old, there’s a lot of different engineering, a lot of different materials and a lot of the older ones are the ones we have the most challenges with.”

He said a lot of the locks and dams lack consistency because engineers were constantly experimenting with the mechanics. Builders used timber, brick, steel and concrete to create locks of all shapes and sizes.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
Terry Grantz, manager of Lockwall One Marina, says the original first lock was dismantled in the 1940s or 50s and the land was bought by private investors.

Stoltz said when Allegheny River Lock and Dam No. 1 was built, operating it would have been life-threatening. Men had to stand on steamboats and manually open and close the gates.

“It was very dangerous and very unsafe,” Stoltz said. “Even during construction, there were no real hard hats [or] life vests.”

It took several years to complete construction on Allegheny River Lock and Dam No. 1. Workers kept running into problems, Grantz said, mostly natural disasters.

“Floods, I guess a tornado came through—yeah, of all things in Pittsburgh, a tornado—came through and destroyed a lot of what they were working on,” Grantz said.

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

When it finally opened in 1903, it was only the second concrete lock and dam the Army Corps had ever built. Transport flowed through for a few decades as the first step for Pittsburgh-area boaters traveling up the Allegheny.

Then, in 1919, construction began on the Emsworth Locks and Dam on the Ohio River. It was built with the latest and, at the time most effective, technology, like easily movable gates, more sturdy chains to control water level and a larger pool for water traffic.

Credit Katie Blackley/Army Corps of Engineers / 90.5 WESA
Workers raise wickets on a dam in the early 1900s from a steamboat. Back then, working on lock and dam was very dangerous.

Emsworth would replaceAllegheny River Lock and Dam No. 1, along with two others. Water levels had risen in the Pittsburgh region, decreasing the need for so many lock systems that close to the Point.

During the 1940s and 50s, Allegheny River Lock and Dam No. 1 was slowly dismantled and the land was bought by private investors. But Grantz said most of the lock and some of the original dam still remain.

“You can see where the water flows over, it bubbles back. If you get a lot of current, you can see where it rolls back, where it goes over the dam and underneath the water,” Grantz said. “So it’s definitely a piece of history.”

What have you always wondered about the Pittsburgh region? Submit to our Good Question! series and we’ll go investigate and find answers.