Locks part of local, Ohio history

Muskingum Lock and Dam system open for public use

CHAD PLAUCHE-ADKINS The Marietta Times Cody Wagner explains how the Devola Lock and Dam works to Bentom and Allie Moore on Friday.

For more than 175 years, the lock and dam system on the Muskingum River has done more than just help control flooding in the valley. It has served as a symbol of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Ohio’s past.

When construction began on the 11 locks and dams along the Muskingum River from Marietta to Dresden in 1837, it was the largest capital improvement project ever taken on by the state. After its completion in 1841, it enabled river boats to travel from the Ohio River to Lake Erie. Since its opening, the locks have been hand powered by the pioneers that helped the state grow and prosper since its inception.

Cody Wagner, current lockmaster at the Devola Lock and Dam, said working at the lock for the last three years has been the ideal job for him.

“It’s great being outside on the river,” he said. “I love being near the water.”

As boats transverse the river and approach the lock, it’s Wagner’s job to manually turn a crank that opens the gates at either end of the lock. After the boat enters the 184-foot-long lock, Wagner turns a crank that opens valves that either flood the lock until it reaches the river height above the dam, or drops it to the height of the river after the dam. Wagner then has to operate another crank which open the 25-to-30 ton gates at the other end of the lock in order for the boat to continue its journey.

CHAD PLAUCHE-ADKINS The Marietta Times As the dam in Devola regulates water flow in the river on Friday, Cody Wagner demonstrates how to open the gates of the lock.

But Wagner’s job as lockmaster requires more than just the physical constitution needed to operate the mechanisms on the lock. It also requires the ability to act as an ambassador for the 112-mile water trail.

As Wagner explained the operation of the lock Friday, Janet Crum of Marietta and her grandchildren, Bentom and Allie Moore, 7 and 5, exited their vehicle in the lock and dams parking lot and approached him.

“You have to turn that to open the doors?” asked Bentom as he pointed to the handle on the crank mechanism.

After Wagner explained the operation and history of the locks to the visitors, he said he felt honored to be a part of the legacy of his unique trade.

“Not too many people have the experience of working on locks like these,” he said.

Wagner backed up his statement by saying the Muskingum River Parkway is the only hand-operated lock and dam system left in the country.

Even though there isn’t much commercial boating along the river, Wagner said he is kept busy by the pleasure craft that frequent his lock.

“The Valley Gem comes through at least once a week. It’s a tight fit in the lock,” he said. “Last July 4, I had 68 boats come through. I was worn out after that day.”

Wagner said a new policy from the Muskingum River Parkway hopes to make those numbers rise like the river after a hard rain.

“The fees have been waived this year for boaters coming through the locks,” he said.

Wagner said the standard $35 annual fee to use the locks has been removed in order to promote more recreation along the river. He also said the lock system is an inexpensive and fun way to spend a few days on the waterway.

“Boaters can camp at any of the locks for free,” he said.

Wagner said he recently sent a group through his lock that annually traverses the entire length of the waterway over a five-day period, camping at different locks along the way each night.

Throughout its existence, the lock and dam system has survived many changes in the society that it serves while still preserving the values and traditions of 19th century Ohio.

“You can definitely feel the history,” Wagner said.

Starting Friday, the locks are open Friday through Monday each week through Sept. 9. From Sept. 14 to Oct. 13, the locks are open on Saturday and Sunday.

For more information about the locks or their hours of operation, visit the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website at parks.ohiodnr.gov/muskingum river.

At a glance.

•The Muskingum Lock and Dam system is open and free for the public to use.

•Built between 1837 and 1841, the system is the last hand-powered lock and dam system in the United States.

•If built today, the system would cost more than $26 million to construct.

•The 112-mile long system spans from Marietta to Dresden and offers free camping to boaters.

Source: Times research.