One family’s devotion to the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has endured for three generations.
Two brothers, Dennis and Bill Campbell, followed in their family’s footsteps when they started working for USACE as chief lockmasters.
“It’s the best job in the world,” said Dennis Campbell, a chief lockmaster for the Soo Area Office. “You’re at the top of the world, you get all the scenery and nobody bothers you, couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Together, Dennis and his brother Bill have served USACE for almost 60 years combined; both were promoted to chief lockmaster some years ago. When they were each promoted, they were following in the path of their father along with a cousin. Both grandfathers also worked for USACE in other capacities, making USACE and the Soo Area Office a family affair.
The Soo locks, located on the St. Marys River in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron; they are operated by lockmasters for USACE, Detroit District, Soo Area Office.
A lockmaster has a bird’s eye view of all maritime traffic coming into the locks. They have to monitor all water traffic in the Great Lakes and sometimes direct traffic when it comes into the locks, so there is no ‘bottle necking.’ Being a chief lockmaster often brings on more responsibility than just what is in the water.
“After hours our main responsibility is the whole installation. We’ve got to handle all of the security issues and anything that comes up whether normal or abnormal. We work with every law enforcement agency around here,” said Dennis.
During the winter months, when the temperatures are often in the negatives; their job duties change along with their hours, making the winter their favorite season to work. The lockmasters change from working three, 12 hour shifts to eight hour periods, five days a week. During this time they perform their winter work with the rest of the lock crews; winter work may include installing ice suppression systems, replacing hydraulics and anchorages, repairing the sills and cracks, readjusting the gates and cleaning muck out from under the locks. Discovery Chanel’s ‘Dirty Jobs’ came to film an episode spotlighting the winter work a couple years ago; giving both brothers their ‘15 minutes of fame.’
“Dirty jobs was a very good experience, working with Mike Rowe, I enjoyed it, really I did,” Bill said about the experience.
On March 25, spring begins for the Soo, winter maintenance is completed and the locks start operations again, and all lockmasters go back to directing maritime traffic. Constant communication with the ships is a requirement in order to map the ship’s location and speed.
“I enjoy talking with the captains, the thing I enjoy most in this job is relating to the captains on the ships and working with them,” said Bill.
He often talks more with ships’ captains than with his coworkers. However, spending time with coworkers is how both Bill and Dennis learned how to be lockmasters. They were both taught by their predecessors’ when they took the time between shifts to learn the craft.
Bill said a lot has changed since he first started, because mapping out the ship’s location had to be done with math either in his head or with pen and paper. Now it is done automatically on the computer; the calculations are used to determine how long it will take a ship to come in once the ship’s captain calls from the mandatory check point. The computer system, called the automatic identification system (AIS), is able to track ships via satellite making the equation easier.
“Technologically we have come a long way, we have the new AIS system here which is really nice because it tracks the ships in the river systems,” said Bill.
One thing Bill is unable to do with technology, is to tell the future. He had no warning when a sailor fell overboard, but he was still able to help out the only way he could.
“All I could do was sit up here, and watch the camera, looking at him face down in the water,” Bill said the ships cannot stop right away, so the crew was unable to help. “I could do nothing personally to help him, but luckily I got on the radio and hollered ‘mayday’ for any small crafts within a two block area to please assist. Sure enough within a matter of minutes one came down the river real fast; two fishermen pulled him out and started CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation.)”
This life saving moment happened over the summer, and is just one memory he and Dennis share while performing their duties as lockmasters. Dennis, who retired in September, hopes to travel via the railroad, leaving Bill as the last Campbell to carry on the family tradition.