A History of Emsworth’s Edwardian Locks and Dams

Nestled on a small parcel of land along Pennsylvania’s Ohio River is the historical Emsworth Locks and Dams. While a lock and dam system might be an odd place to discuss on a blog, it’s one of the most historical locals within a two mile radius of my home.

The Emsworth Locks and Dams was a childhood staple, and this little piece of historical property down in the valley below the Ohio River Boulevard will always, always remind me of my maternal grandfather. Nearly every family picnic saw us down at the tracks, squishing pennies under the train wheels and looking for treasures along the sleepers. I’ll be remiss if I neglected to mention the fact that, not once, did I think about its history as a child.

The Emsworth Locks and Dams was a childhood staple, and this little piece of historical property down in the valley below the Ohio River Boulevard will always, always remind me of my maternal grandfather. Nearly every family picnic saw us down at the tracks, squishing pennies under the train wheels and looking for treasures along the sleepers. I’ll be negligent in my blogging duties if I failed to mention the fact that, not once, did I think about its history as a child.

So now, here we are. While very little of the original Edwardian structures remain due to many many years of upgrades, there are still several buildings standing. Most notably buildings 5 and 7 of the Tejan Coal and Supply Company.

This area is a unique junction of transit, convalescing in one of the first spots along the Ohio River in a large network of dams. Pictured left, it precedes the Dashields and Montgomery Island lock systems before the Ohio continues on into the Buckeye State itself. Let’s take a look at the history of the first in a long line of locks and dams along one of the longest waterway systems in the US.

The Tejan Coal and Supply Company

Upon arrival off Interstate 65 (also known to locals as Ohio River Boulevard, or simply “The Boulevard) you’ll see an equally historical building with “Tejan Coal and Supplies Co.” painted on its side. This company is a bit of a mystery, as there’s very little known about it. Incorporated in 1941, it’s mentioned in this 1944 news article from The News-Harold, a paper once printed in Franklin, PA:

SOURCE

“[the] Chief purpose of the group will be to urge residents to place their coal orders soon for their next winter’s coal supply so that distribution may be spread over the summer months at the convenience of the few remaining private truckers.”

What a sign of the times. In 1944 coal was still being used to heat homes, with anthracite coal being the better choice for domestic users. However,

By the mid 1930s, fuel oil burners finally became safe and reliable. By the beginning of the building boom right after the Second World War, coal for heating was seen as old technology.” source

Even though coal was still being used in the 1940s, its popularity was dwindling in favor for more efficient choices. So I imagine this group was a collaborative effort to bolster their sales.

The Emsworth Locks and Dams

While the Emsworth Locks and Dams may no longer have their original Edwardian structures in place, the historical significance of this place isn’t lost on this historical adventure writer and blogger. In fact, I’ve incorporated many a location from Pittsburgh’s own rivers into several past works in progress. Is there such a thing as “river history?” I’m sure there’s a name for that; I’m just not thinking of the correct scientific name.

I digress.

Several sources agree on the following basic historical facts:

  1. “They are the oldest and smallest on the Ohio,” said Chris Dening, the Pittsburgh Engineer District’s project manager for the Upper Ohio Navigation Project […].” – source
  2. “[…] construction on Emsworth Locks and Dams in 1919 to replace Davis Island Dam, the first lock and dam facility on the Ohio River, and Lock and Dam 2. The Emsworth facility was completed in 1922.” – source
  3. “The Davis Island Lock and Dam site […] existed from 1878 to 1922, designed by William Emery Merrill and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Davis Island Lock and Dam was the first dam that was constructed on the Ohio River. It officially opened on October 7, 1885, with a large dedication ceremony. The Davis Island Dam was the largest Chanoine dam built in the 19th century, and one of the first concrete structures built by the Army Corps of Engineers. It was the first of 51 Chanoine type dams that were built by the Corps of Engineers between 1878 and 1929. – source
  4. The dam is one of only two dams on the river with vertical-lift gates; dams built on the Ohio after World War II generally have Tainter gates, which rotate up and down on trunnion-mounted hinges. – source
  5. “The dam, which replaced three wicket-type locks that had been operating since 1877, improved navigation in the Pittsburgh area by stabilizing the local water level and enabling commercial industry to transport coal and other commodities by river year-round.” – source
source: bergmannpc.com

As I wrote this article, I realized I am three days off from sharing a birthday with a rather significant piece of local history. I don’t think the engineers behind this system realized just how long it would serve the Pittsburgh communities and beyond, nor do I think they realized the hours of enjoyment it would bring this dorky little kid in the mid to late 1990s.

The Allegheny, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers have played integral roles in Pittsburgh’s founding and lifetime since its establishment as a city in 1816. Travel and commerce have changed dramatically throughout the centuries, but the rivers remain to be constant reminders of what once was and what can be in the future.

With the strategic placement of the Tejan Coal and Supply Company, the rail lines, and the locks and dams themselves, it’s easy to see why two out of these three entities are still around today. And I, for one, look forward to what the future holds for this historic Pennsylvania location.