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“Sticky Wicket” Clogs Ohio River Traffic

US Army Corps of Engineers
A closeup view of the wickets of Dam 52 near Paducah, Kentucky.

A 25-mile section of the Ohio River from Smithland, Kentucky, to Brookport, Illinois, will be closed to shipping traffic later this week for up to four days of emergency repairs. It’s all due to something called a “wicket.”

“It looks like teeth in the river,”  explained Army Corps of Engineers Public Information Officer Todd Hornback. The wickets, which are about four feet wide and 20 feet long, are crucial to controlling the water levels for river traffic.


“You have several wickets that are crossing the Ohio River, and when those are pulled up that helps hold back water and helps maintain a pool for the lock and dam,” Hornback said. “And then when they’re lowered water can go through and then also navigation can go through.”

Hornback said three wickets broke free from their bases at Dam 52, near Paducah in western Kentucky. The closed section of river carries approximately ninety million tons of waterborne goods annually.

“It is that critical to the nation,” Hornback said, “and so we’re moving forward to get this corrected and get through this crisis.”

How long the river is closed will depend in part on river conditions and whether Mother Nature helps raise the water level.

“Rainfall is part of the process and we can’t control that ,” Hornback said with a chuckle.

Credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Jon Fleshman
A repair crew at work on Dam 52 in 2013.


The wicket system dates back to the 1920’s when the lock and dam was built. All wickets are raised and lowered by hand and all repairs must be made by hand. 

The age and deteriorated condition of the wickets makes frequent repairs necessary to keep Dam 52 functioning. The ArmyCorps is at work on a replacement project downriver at the Olmsted Locks and Dam, scheduled for completion in 2020.

Becca Schimmel is a Becca Schimmel is a multimedia journalist with the Ohio Valley ReSource a collaborative of public radio stations in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio. She's based out of the WKU Public Radio newsroom in Bowling Green.
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