NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Aug. 18, 2016) – The repair fleet in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, a mainstay of the Twin Rivers since the 1800s when crews first began opening the region’s waterways to navigation onboard canoes, flatboats and keelboats, is marking the end of an era as people and resources are reorganized into a regional light fleet Oct. 1, 2016.
While some maintainers are being reassigned to the district’s locks and dam projects, others are going to join the new light fleet physically based at Old Hickory Dam, but under the direction of regional managers at the Huntington District.
The men and women who have served on the district’s repair fleet for more than 150 years have a rich history of public service from pioneering the development of the Cumberland and Tennessee River basins to maintaining the modern-day dam projects.
In light of the reorganization, Nashville District officials recognized past and present members of the repair fleet, presenting them with certificates of appreciation for excellence and service to the nation during a ceremony at Old Hickory Dam in Old Hickory, Tenn., Aug. 15, 2016.
Lt. Col. Stephen Murphy, Nashville District commander, said it’s an appropriate time to recognize the lineage of the repair fleet and faithful service of so many people who devoted their lives to maintaining locks and dams, which kept commercial and recreational vessels moving on the waterways and supported the nation’s economy.
“There’s just something about working for the Corps of Engineers, when your life’s work, your sweat, blood and tears, goes to make America better. I was talking to a gentleman and he served longer in the Corps than I’ve been alive, which is humbling,” Murphy said. “It’s the end of an era. It’s the end of an organization, and I very much appreciate everything you all have done.”
Since taking command of the district in 2015, Murphy has watched the great work being done by the repair fleet, and he visited a number of dewaterings, most recently at Chickamauga Lock, where repair teams emptied the lock chamber to inspect and repair components that are normally under water for years at a time.
“Considering how dangerous and hot and difficult the work you do is, really it just astounds me how great your safety record is,” Murphy said.
Members of the repair fleet were almost always on call, prepared to deploy at a moment’s notice to make necessary repairs to the dams and locks, spending long periods of time away from their families. On the job site, the repair teams had to find solutions to the problems they faced, doing the “dirty work” in the grit and grime.
Greg Cox, chief of the maintenance section and supervisor of the repair party, said everyone in the repair fleet sacrificed, but nonetheless forged ahead, making the most of diverse personalities, different thought processes and approaches, working together and contributing to the success of each and every project.
“I’m thankful for the time we’ve spent together and I appreciate everything you’ve done,” Cox said.
The commander of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division made the decision in 2015 to reconfigure four river district repair fleets into a regionally managed, geographically dispersed repair fleet. The intent of this effort is to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies while improving affordability, workplace safety, fleet management and predictability of the system.
When the Regional Repair Fleet stands up in October, the Huntington District commander becomes responsible for managing a heavy weight capacity fleet based in the Louisville District, middle weight capacity fleet based in the Pittsburgh District, and light weight capacity fleet based in the Nashville District.
Jeff Neely, who will be in charge of the light fleet when it stands up, said the Nashville District will absorb about half of the current employees in the current repair fleet at various project locations, and some members of the team will join the new light fleet.
“I’m excited personally about it,” Neely said. “It’s going to be pretty interesting to see how it shakes out and what types of different work we might get into in the future and the different projects we may get to work at. We are going to cover an area from Pittsburgh down to the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. So our footprint is going to expand.”
Retirees who worked with the fleet were in attendance at the recognition ceremony and spent time catching up with old friends and reminiscing about their experiences.
James M. “Fuzz” Walker, said he started working for the fleet in 1958, and eventually took charge of the fleet’s plant section from 1968 until 1997.
“The Corps, if you look at it, goes back many years, and the fleet is what started it. There wasn’t no locks or dams or powerhouses or anything like that. It was all the fleet. They did snagging, dredging and made it possible for commercial traffic on the river,” Walker said.
The repair teams had a history of responding quickly throughout the district and would always overcome the challenges, no matter how difficult.
Wayne Hickman, who began working for the Corps in 1965 and retired as the chief of the Maintenance and Engineering Branch in 2001, said he remembers just how hard the guys in the repair fleet worked, how well they worked together and their dedication.
“You couldn’t find anything that was too hard for them to do,” Hickman said. “There were so many untold things they did that were unbelievable to me.”
Hickman said in his early days that people were lucky to have a typewriter, and so he would write most things, including presentations, in longhand. By the time he retired he used a computer.
Although technologies improved over the history of the repair fleet, it really came down to the willingness of the maintenance members to sacrifice, to make the difference and do whatever was necessary to get the jobs done.
Lynn Midgett, who began working for the Corps in 1962 and retired in 1997 as the chief of the Physical Support Branch, oversaw the repair fleet and 1,200 miles of waterways and maintenance of 14 navigation locks. He said the level of service was always first rate and the people earned a lot of respect for their efforts in difficult situations.
One situation he remembers involved a dewatering of Kentucky Lock in 1989, when it took the entire repair party and most of the lock and dam mechanics 100 days to repair and return the deteriorated lock back into service.
“I don’t think any organization in the country with the number of people and the equipment and the funds that we had could have gone in there in 100 days and accomplished what we did,” Midgett said. “We did major things machinery wise, structural wise, sandblasted the gates, with two 10-hour shifts, seven days a week.”
He said everyone took the job to heart and were excited when the lock reopened.
Midgett said he remembered the old timers who had great knowledge and would make a point of passing it along. On the first day he went to work for the Corps 50 years ago he recalled the guy in charge with 50 years of experience who shared what he knew with him.
Technology is another area Midgett said improved fleet operations over the years. He recalled when Polaroid photos would sometimes be hand carried to the district office from a project site to help with decision making.
“That was one of our ways of communicating,” he said. “Now once we got the fax machines, oh man, we were first class then. We could communicate like you can’t believe. And now when I see these things today that you can see live… it just blows my mind.”
Murphy said it was good to see and interact with the repair team and retirees who spent their lives working on the river projects and kept the shipping lanes open.
(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at www.lrn.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nashvillecorpsand on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps.)