JASPER, Tenn. (Jan. 13, 2014) — The decommissioned Hales Bar Navigation Lock is crumbling and in an obvious state of disrepair, but remains a historical landmark here on the bank of the Tennessee River for all boat captains who pass by it. A retired lock operator who served there a half a century ago visited recently to recall the days of old when the project operated in pristine condition and it was his job to lock through vessels delivering commerce up and down the waterway.
Retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District Lock Operator Earl Keeler, 91, operated the navigation lock at Hales Bar Dam from 1960 until the Tennessee Valley Authority replaced it in 1967 with the Nickajack Lock a few miles downstream at Tennessee River Mile 424.7.
Keeler toured the 100-year-old Hales Bar Lock site Dec. 19, 2013 with his former protégée Butch Witcher, who retired this month from his job as the Nickajack Navigation Lock lockmaster. The visit followed the Nov. 16, 2013 celebration of the Hales Bar Dam’s 100th anniversary by Marion County officials. Hale’s Bar Lock with its 39-foot lift opened to navigation on Nov. 1, 1913 as part of the first multipurpose dam in the world built on a navigable river to include generation of electricity by hydropower.
“When Butch first called me about going back to the old Hales Bar Lock, I remembered the long steps from the parking lot at the top of the hill down to the lock operator’s building and I had my doubts,” the 91-year-old Keeler said. “However, when he told me we could drive directly down to it I agreed and I am very glad that I did. Many good memories came back as I walked through the old lock operator’s building,” he added.
Witcher arranged the tour as a way to honor one of his mentors who taught him the ropes at Nickajack Lock more than three decades ago.
“Earl Keeler and other Nickajack lock operators took me under their wing when I moved from Cordell Hull Lock on the Cumberland River to the Tennessee River in January 1980,” Witcher said. “They taught me about the swirls, the currents, and the wind directions—how to run the lock at Nickajack. Earl was a role model for me to emulate,” he added.
Keeler and Witcher walked by the lock and entered into the old operation building that also stands in disrepair beside the old Hales Bar Navigation Lock. Keeler talked about the days when he locked through vessels and recalled the little things like where they stored tools. The two lock operation professionals shared stories and Keeler answered questions about how a team of four Corps members worked together to maintain and operate Hales Bar Navigation Lock.
Operating Corps locks runs in the family
Operating navigation locks in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District runs in the Keeler family, Keeler said as he stood alongside the old historical lock.
“My father, uncles and brothers worked on Corps locks. Uncle Jim Zormes was a lock operator on the old Lock A; Uncle John Zormes was lockmaster at Guntersville; and Dad (James Keeler) was lock operator at the old Lock B,” he noted. “My late, older brother Jim Keeler retired as lockmaster at Old Hickory Lock; Brother George was a lock operator at Fort Loudoun and retired from Cheatham Lock. I worked at the old Lock One and old Locks A, C and D on the Cumberland River prior to moving to Hales Bar and Nickajack on the Tennessee River.”
Born and reared near Ashland City, Tenn., Keeler recalled that when he and brothers, Jim and George, joined the Navy during World War II, he had only been to three counties: Cheatham, Davidson and Montgomery. New horizons awaited him.
“George and I were aboard the Battleship Arkansas and we visited seven countries, and I then decided to see more of the United States. I saved all my Navy pay for three years, got out and bought a car, and took another three years visiting all 48 states,” he said with a smile.
The three Keeler brothers continued the family tradition of becoming Corps lock operators.
Upon arrival at his old work site, Earl pointed out places of interest to Witcher and agreed to sit for a videotaped interview, recalling that most of the river traffic at Hales Bar in the 1960’s was commercial, with very few recreational vessels.
When asked if Corps employees still wore uniforms when came to Hales Bar, he said, “Yes, I still have my old Corps uniform and white hat, and I also have my Navy uniform.”
During Earl’s interview and subsequent tour of his old office spaces, expressions on his 91-year-old face changed from slight grins to a bit mischievous, to wistful as memories of old times and old friends came gently back.
Good place to work
“The Corps of Engineers is a good place to work and has good people to work with,” he said.
After recalling several events at Hales Bar, including the cold, uninsulated concrete block building with single pane, push-out windows, and trying to drive the mountain road one winter when they had 18 inches of snow, he told of an incident at Nickajack Lock where he tried to assist a young 2nd pilot not properly aligning his barge tow with the lock.
“I told him on the radio to flatten against the lock wall, or he was going to hit the gate,” Earl said. “He told me to ‘run the lock’ and he would ‘run the boat.’”
The tow hit the gate and in a later hearing, the vessel operator was focusing blame on Earl for not warning him of the impending collision, according to Keeler.
“Pete Brewer, who was captain on the tow boat and goes to church with me, got up and told them just how it was—that I had told the 2nd pilot on the radio he was going to hit the gate unless he flattened against the lock wall,” Earl said.
“I was cleared, kept my job, and Pete fired the boy for lying,” he added.
When asked if he could recall the names of the Hales Bar Lock operators when it closed down he said, “I can’t recall all the names, but Wilmer Hill was lockmaster, and Lacy Privette and Carl Harris were here.”
Later, Keeler remembered that Vernon Capshaw was there.
“I know that Capshaw is still around, but he’s an old man now like me, and the rest of them have passed away,” he added.
Hales Bar Dam remembered
Although credited by some as paving the way for an industrialized south and leading an emerging age of electrical technology, porous rock in the ground below the Hales Bar Dam could not be satisfactory filled and stabilized by the engineering technology available at that time.
The Tennessee Valley Authority acquired the dam in 1939 when it purchased the facilities of the Tennessee Electric Power Company, and reconstructed Hales Bar Dam about 1950, raising it and installing a concrete wall on the face.
However, leakage persisted and TVA replaced Hales Bar Dam with the Nickajack Dam a few miles downstream in 1967.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District continues to operate the navigation lock at Nickajack Dam where Keeler culminated his career and retired in 1983.
(See: ”Engineers on the Twin Rivers: A History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District 1769-1978,”, pp.163-168, for additional information on the planning and construction of Hales Bar Dam and how lessons learned there made construction of future multi-purpose dams successful.)