Retired lock operator navigates Hales Bar

By Lee Roberts

JASPER, Tenn. (Jan. 16, 2014) – A retired lock operator recently navigated his old work site at Hales Bar Dam during an emotional return visit Dec. 19, 2013. 

Earl Keeler, 91, locked through shipping as an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District at Hales Bar Navigation Lock from 1960 to 1967 before it closed and the Tennessee Valley Authority replaced it with Nickajack Dam downstream in 1968.  Although he still lives nearby, it’s been half a century since he stood on the banks of the Tennessee River at this historical landmark where he served as an employee.

“About all we did was just keep the place cleaned up and lock boats through,” Keeler said.  “And at that time there was a lot of oil being transferred up and down this river.  And across the river over there, there was a boat company and he hauled sand, gravel and everything… and used the lock quite a bit.”

Keeler walked around the now crumbling lock and dilapidated building that the Corps once used as the lock operations center at Hales Bar Lock.  He recalled cold weather conditions he experienced there and peeked into a small facility near the lock chamber where he once opened and closed the gates for shipping that delivered commerce up and down the river. 

Back when Keeler served as a lock operator, he said they also had to do the maintenance.  He remembered where the tools were once stored and talked about their water source, which he depended on before the days of bottled water.

Pointing at the old drinking fountain on the outside of the building, he said, “That came from a tank they had up on the mountain up there… and we drank that stuff.”

Former Hales Bar Dam lock operator navigates old work site from Lee Roberts on Vimeo.

Video: Earl Keeler, 91, recalls working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District at Hales Bar Navigation Lock from 1960 to 1967. The retired lock operator visited the decommissioned lock Dec. 19, 2013 and reminisced about the days when he locked through ships and barges delivering commerce up and down the Tennessee River at the site in Jasper, Tenn. Hales Bar Dam began operating in 1913 and was ultimately replaced by Nickajack Dam in 1968. The local community celebrated the 100th anniversary of the decommissioned Hales Bar Dam and navigation lock in November 2013. (Video by Lee Roberts)

Operating locks was a family affair for Keeler.  His father, brothers George and Jim, and his uncles Jim and John Zormes were also lockmasters in the Nashville District. “It was a good place to work,” Keeler said.

Butch Witcher, who retired as the Nickajack lock master this month, arranged the visit for Keeler to Hales Bar Navigation Lock.  He said he first met Keeler when he arrived at Nickajack in 1980, and credits him and others who were on the job back then with teaching him what he needed to know as a lock operator.

Witcher and Keeler chatted throughout the visit to Hales Bar and bantered about how the old lock operated back in the day. 

The Nov. 13, 1913 issue of the Chattanooga News reported that Hales Bar Navigation Lock stood 59-feet high, although it actually had a 39-foot lift during its operation that made it possible for vessels to make it up the waterway into Chattanooga, Tenn. Although the project ceased operations in 1968, Marion County officials and the local community celebrated its 100-year anniversary in November 2013.

The Nashville District’s lock operators kept the Hales Bar Navigation Lock operating 24 hours a day until its closure.

(For more information about Hales Bar Dam and Lock, follow at https://www.facebook.com/halesbardam.)

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