Pittsburgh is the city of rivers and bridges, so it’s no surprise that there are a plethora of boat tours to choose from. But beyond just the standard sightseeing cruises, our Gateway Clipper Fleet offers a variety of other unique trips with different themes. One of these is the Locks & Dams Cruise, which takes you through the Emsworth Locks & Dams. Since Michael has never been through the locks and dams, and since I only have been as part of a terrifying memory in my childhood, I thought, hey! We should totally do this!
(As a heads-up prior to your embarking upon this entry, we took over 100 photos on the cruise, and while I tried to narrow it down to the most important, this is still going to be rather photo-heavy.)
The Locks & Dams Dinner Cruise sets off on certain Wednesday nights from the Gateway Clipper’s Station Square dock. We managed to get absolutely perfect weather at the tail-end of a heat wave, so prior to the start of the cruise, I wandered around the outside decks to take some photos of our gorgeous city.
And of course, before the official dinner begins, you can order drinks and appetizers. We got an order of the giant nacho plate, which was awesome. The chips were extra-crispy and covered in a generous amount of cheese, tomatoes, and green onions. I wish green onions were on all nachos (Pittsburgh sports arenas: here’s your chance!).
The full buffet dinner itself begins as soon as the boat leaves the dock. Honestly, this was my only complaint of the night. We were getting called up to the buffet just as we were passing some of the more beautiful sights of the city (the Point, the inclines, etc.). I know they timed it so the majority of people would be done with dinner by the time we reached the locks, but I’m bummed that I missed some prime photo opportunities.
Although, the dinner buffet was pretty great, so I can’t complain *too* much. The Locks & Dams cruises feature a ‘classic American buffet,’ which I think translates roughly to southern and picnic food.
As dinner wound down, we continued our journey along the Ohio River to our final destination of the evening, the Emsworth Locks and Dams. We passed by Neville Island, home to the Neville Chemical Company and the Shenango Coke Plant (that’s what’s pictured here), and our ship captain playfully threw in a ‘people actually live here!’ comment. I’ve always been fascinated with the goings-on of the Neville plants, most of which you can see from across the river on Ohio River Boulevard. (And I also got to tour the Neville Chemical Company back in the early ’90s, which was SUPER interesting – wish they still did that!)
The purpose of the locks and dams is to allow bigger ships to come into what would otherwise be a shallower river in some areas. Basically, having locks and dams around the Pittsburgh area allows the rivers to be more consistent in their depths, which allowed Pittsburgh to be active in the trading and transporting world back in the day (and still allows today, although maybe not to the same extent). The average depth of the rivers around Pittsburgh is 9 feet, with the deepest areas only being about 16 feet (our captain informed us that he would gladly ‘go down with the ship’ if necessary, because you can stand on the top deck and not even get your feet wet if the boat were ever to sink lol).
Just outside the locks, we had to wait for an ammonia barge to pass through toward our direction. This is when the old terrifying fear of the locks and dams started to really build for me. Even though the ammonia barge was going through the large lock, and our boat would go through the smaller of the two, we had to wait, because ammonia barges are that damn scary.
(I read up on ammonia barges, and guess what? They transport ammonia. And that ammonia can totally make all sorts of things explode under the right – err, wrong – circumstances. And that’s why you can’t have two boats next to each other in the locks if one is full of ammonia. The more you know!)
The way that the locks work are roughly this: your boat goes into the chamber with the front closed and the back open. Once you get all nestled in there, the back closes behind you. If you’re on the high end of the river, the water drains out gradually (although rather quickly), and once you reach the level of the river on the other side, the gate in front of you opens and you cruise on out. If you’re on the low end, you enter in the same fashion, but facing the opposite direction, and then the chamber fills up with water once the gates are closed until you get as high up as the river on the other side. (There’s a pretty neat animated graphic about this process here.)
The process makes a lot of sense, and everything works very smoothly, but there’s still something creepy and eerie about going through the locks, in my opinion.
My early memories of going through the locks are scary as hell. We went through them when I was little on my dad’s friend’s boat, and I was certain we were all going to die. It was a good terrified – like the kind where you know you’re going to be really scared if you watch that one horror movie, but you do it anyway, even though you sleep with the light on for the next month or so, but terrifying nonetheless!
But we survived! And I’ll be honest, it wasn’t *quite* as scary as I remembered it from 1987. Maybe because I’m older and wiser, maybe because we were on a bigger boat this time, maybe because there was a *real* ship captain and not my dad’s work buddy… who can tell?
But it was definitely a significant descent in the lock! As you can see by the watermark on the wall, moving north-and-west-bound through the locks drops you down a great deal. This is what I found so scary back when I was a kid – what if we never stopped dropping?? What if we dropped under the river and under the earth’s crust and OH NO.
Okay. Maybe he’s right.
After we made it through the locks to the lower side, we were back into the chamber to go back up and return to the ‘Burgh. I want to say the filling-up-of-the-chamber was less scary, but then I was like, ‘WHAT IF IT JUST NEVER STOPS FILLING UP AND WE GO INTO THE AIR AND REACH THE SKY AND EXPLODE INTO THE SUN???’
(I don’t think I even need to tell you Michael’s reaction to this.)
Inside, there was a rockin’ dance party under way! The Locks & Dams Cruise features a country music DJ, although he wasn’t afraid to bust out some non-country line dances, and the Wobble just broke the dance floor open! All in all, I loved the selections he played – lots of Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, and my girl Reba!
We also loved our captain for the journey. He was funny and informative and full of all sorts of great information about our city, its history, and the mechanics of life along the rivers. While we were passing under this railroad bridge, a train was going by. Our captain informed us that if you are on a boat, traveling under a railroad bridge with a train going across it, and you hold onto a button (any button – doesn’t have to be your own), you can make a wish and have it come true. Pretty complicated wishing, but we all gave it a shot!
We also passed by one of my favorite creepy Pittsburgh buildings, the Western Penitentiary (or as we Yinzers simply call it, ‘The Pen’). (You can read more about The Pen from our Urban Hike post from last September.)
And finally, just after 9:30pm, we returned to the Point and our cruise reached its end. I loved being able to see the recently-remodeled fountain all lit up from out on the river! Can you imagine what it would be like to come into Pittsburgh for the first time from a boat on the Ohio River, and have this be the first sight of the city that you see?? That gives the view coming out of the Ft. Pitt tunnels a run for its money!
Our trip on the Locks & Dams Dinner Cruise was SUCH a great night. Good food, good music, and overall an excellent entertainment value. Tickets are just $30, which includes your buffet dinner and the tour, and it’s truly a unique-to-Pittsburgh experience. Sure, you may have seen the city from the rivers, but have you experienced the drama and excitement of the locks and dams? We recommend that you do!