West Linn man devises way to pull driverless ferry through locks

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: SANDY CARTER - The trial run of the unmanned lockage experiment went off without a hitch, as rope handlers eased the Bernert equipment down through the portions of the canal that are of concern to the Corps of Engineers. Here is the final unmanned segment, in chamber two. The empty tugs and barge were picked up by another tug when theye moved into chamber one, where crew was allowed.After a year of working through levels of permission, waivers and special insurance requirements and technical engineering details, West Linn’s Dave Bernert orchestrated an historic “unmanned lockage” Jan. 8 at the Willamette Falls.

Bernert, owner of Wilsonville Concrete Products and Marine Industrial Construction, made news in November 2011 when the Corps of Engineers stranded a goodly portion of his tug and barge fleet below Willamette Falls by unexpectedly closing the 140-year-old West Linn navigation canal. Since then, he has been working to devise a safe way to retrieve his fleet and bring it back upriver.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut down the locks with concern that gudgeon anchors, which are used to connect the gates to the wall, were corroding and not safe.

The Corps decommissioned the locks indefinitely with a non-operational status because of the risk of “catastrophic failure.” Prior to that, the locks were opened occasionally and were being maintained.

Also cut off in the sudden closure of the locks was the Canby Ferry, which was due for repairs in Portland. The ferry became the test case for Bernert’s newly approved technique.

Marine Industrial Construction’s tugboat the Sarah B. showed up at the ferry’s moorage the afternoon of Jan. 7. Using lines, the tugboat was attached to the front of the ferry and set off downriver to a staging point at the upper mouth of the locks, ready for an early morning passage around the 52-foot falls. Marine Industrial Construction also planned to reposition some of its own fleet and equipment on Jan. 8 using the unmanned approach.

Because no one can be in the locks, Bernert devised a system to pull the boats through the locks using ropes and manpower.

According to Sandy Carter with the One Willamette River Coalition, “The One Willamette River Coalition has been working diligently behind the scenes to move ahead with identifying a new future owner/operator for the locks, as district officials have verbally agreed to having a transfer plan in place in the next year or so. by: SANDY CARTER - Rope handlers carefully pull the unmanned ferry and tug from the third locks lift chamber into the second chamber. Because of the rope's size, Bernert staff and Corp staff had safety meetings to rehearse their plans for the manual lockage.

“The actual ID-ing of the new owner should be facilitated by data that we're commissioning on economic impacts of keeping the locks available as a reliable option for commercial and other transportation needs.”

One Willamette River Coalition has been working for six years to keep the 1873 Willamette Falls Navigation Canal and Locks operating. The group picked up some powerful new friends May 22, 2012, with a joint public announcement by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Historic Preservation League of Oregon.

The West Linn locks were listed last year as one of nine on the Historic Preservation League of Oregon’s 2012 list of the state’s most endangered places. Each year the preservation league publishes a list of historic buildings, sites, districts, structures and landscapes that are at risk of losing their significance and integrity.

According to HPLO, the Willamette Falls locks were the first significant navigational improvement on the Willamette River and in the greater Columbia River drainage basin. Today the locks are unique in Oregon and a rare example of an intact piece of America’s canal building era.

As a National Treasure, the Willamette Falls Locks are among other irreplaceable, critically threatened places across the country that the National Trust will take direct action to protect.

For more information about the locks, visit > SANDY CARTER - The Rainbow B, piloted by Captain Tim Bernert, picks up the Canby Ferry and the Sarah B. before backing out of the locks entrance with them on the last unmanned leg.

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