Blocked rivers can happen anywhere, even here
The recent blockage of the Suez Canal brought world-wide attention to what happens when you block a waterway. Hundreds of ships backed up behind the Ever Given as crews worked to free the 1,300-foot-long ship that was wedged into both sides of the shipping artery. Sitting along two major rivers, Marietta has had its share of full river stops in the past, although none of them caused the global issue the Ever Given did.
River traffic on the Ohio River is about the same length as the ship that got stuck in the Suez. A string of barges that you may watch while along the river are around 1,200 feet long and 110 feet wide. They are designed to just fit through the locks along the river. The Ever Given is just slightly larger at 1,300 feet long and 200 feet wide. In terms of cargo, it is much larger because it can carry so many stacked containers.
The 20 dams along the river were built to control the depth of the river. Without them the river would be as shallow as three feet in some areas. The dams create what is basically a series of lakes, or pools, that allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain navigable depth of around 15 feet. When they were put in place in the 1970s, they raised the river in most areas, including Marietta. If you look at old photos of Marietta, they show a river that was shallow compared to what it is now.
The work on the Ohio eliminated the need for Lock and Dam #1 on the Muskingum, which was removed after the river level on the Ohio was raised. The Muskingum is home to 10 locks and dams. Finished in the 1840s, the Muskingum River system served the same purpose as the modern system on the Ohio, to move goods from one location to another. It was designed to connect the river to canals that then connected to Northeast Ohio. The canal system was damaged in 1913 by the flood and never recovered. Today the dams keep the river at an artificially higher level, while the hand operated locks allow passage around them.
Just as was the case on the Suez, the Ohio and Muskingum rivers do from time to time get blocked, closing the rivers to through traffic. The Muskingum River at Beverly currently has such a blockage. Repair work must be made to the 180-year-old lock chamber. To do the work, crews have built a pair of massive gravel dams on either end of the lock. No boats of any kind will pass by Beverly until sometime in June unless they can be manually carried around the lock.
Disruptions on the Muskingum do not cause global shipping issues because there are very few commercial vessels needing to use it. The locks were built when shipping needs were smaller, and they are not very big by modern standards. The Valley Gem was built to fit into the locks and frequently do so on seasonal trips.
The Ohio River is another issue. Disruptions on it are a big deal. Coal for power plants is transported on it and a delay can cause shortages. This happened in the late 1970s when the river froze so solid the barges could not plow through. It also happened in 2005 when a few barges broke free and got wedged in the gates of the Belleville dam down river from Marietta. We are in the Belleville pool and the drop made for major issues in Marietta. The Muskingum, without the benefit of the removed dam, had a small rapid form as it passed Muskingum Park. The riverbanks in several areas collapsed into the river since they no longer had the pressure of the river holding them back. It took a week to remove the barges from the dam and return the river to a normal level.
In 1988 the removal of the old Williamstown Bridge created a multiple-day closure. The first section removed was directly over the river channel. The old steel was tougher than first thought and crews struggled to cut the pieces apart after they were dropped into the river. Barges backed up on both sides of Marietta waiting for the bridge to get out of their way. The photo on page 2 of today’s Times shows a workman cutting the bridge span that was blocking the river. Other bridge removals on the Ohio River have caused temporary river closures as well.
The Suez issue was amplified because of the enormous amount of traffic that passes through the canal. Around 50 ships per day use the canal.
Art Smith is online manager for The Times. He can be reached at