Column #146 - September 2, 2001

by Glenn Tunney

         Many local residents remember old Lock 5 at Brownsville, a taxpayer-built and operated facility that operated until the mid-1960's.  Not many folks realize that it was preceded by an earlier Lock 5 at Denbo, part of the Monongahela River's first slackwater navigation system.  The Denbo facility was constructed and owned by stockholders of the Monongahela Navigation Company (MNC).
         The privately owned MNC built four locks and dams between Pittsburgh and North Charleroi prior to 1845.  In the years that followed, coal mines continued to open further south on the Monongahela River.  By 1856 two more locks and dams, MNC Lock 5 at Denbo and MNC Lock 6 at Rice's Landing, were placed into operation.
         Where was Lock 5 at Denbo, and what did the dam look like?  The lock was a single chamber, located on the west (Washington County) side of the river and made of smooth-dressed cut stone.  It was 50 feet wide, 158 feet long, and could lift a boat about eleven feet.  (Compare that to Maxwell locks, each of which is 84 feet wide, 720 feet long with a lift of 19 feet.)  The wooden lock gates at Denbo were hand operated by means of chains wound around hand- powered capstans located on top of the lock walls.
         The Denbo dam was 620 feet long and built of stone-filled timber "cribs," large logs stacked alternately at right angles to each other.  These open cribs of seven to nine feet each were filled with stone and gravel.  Interestingly enough, the dam at Denbo did not cross the river in a straight line.  Its shape was a gentle curve with its convex side upstream.
         MNC Lock and Dam No. 5 at Denbo commenced operations in 1856 and was immediately  busy.  The Monongahela River was carrying more tonnage than any other inland river in the United States, despite its relatively short length, and that eventually spurred the U. S. government to get involved with the locks and dams on the Monongahela.
         In 1879, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers built Lock and Dam 9 at Hoards Rocks, West Virginia.  It was the first facility on the Mon built by the U. S. government instead of the Monongahela Navigation Company, and it incorporated new technological innovations for filling and emptying the lock chambers.  At the same time, the Corps of Engineers was also constructing Lock and Dam 8, the first to use steam-powered lock gates.
         The federal government's growing presence did not escape the notice of boat operators, who paid a toll for each boat that passed through an MNC-owned lock.  In the 1880's the boat operators lobbied the federal government to take over the entire Monongahela River navigation system and operate it for free.  In 1884, federal politicians tried to oblige.  Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to purchase all or part of the seven locks and dams owned by the MNC.  There was just one problem.  Those locks and dams were earning so much money for the company's stockholders that they refused to sell.
         The federal government initiated condemnation proceedings to forcibly acquire the MNC's properties, and the company fought the government tooth and nail, all the way to the Supreme Court.  In the largest condemnation suit in American history prior to 1900, the Court ruled in favor of the government.  Stockholders of the Monongahela Navigation Company were paid almost $4 million for the company's property, which was officially taken over by the Corps of Engineers.  For the first time, there was a free unified slackwater navigation system between Pittsburgh and Morgantown, West Virginia.
         MNC Lock and Dam #5 at Denbo was over forty years old when it became the property of the U. S. government.  It was physically deteriorating, its small lock unable to accommodate the long tows of coal barges that were becoming common as Pittsburgh became the steel-making capital of the world.  The Corps of Engineers decided to build a new Lock and Dam #5, but not at the same location.  The new facility would be built two and a half miles north of Denbo at Brownsville.
         When those plans were announced, one man in particular was paying very close attention.  That man was Denbo lockmaster Charles W. Keibler.  Keibler and his family lived in the lockmaster's house at Denbo, a house about which there is still a bit of controversy.  Let me explain.
         The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission recently conducted a study of the system of locks and dams on the Monongahela River.  The commission's purpose was to gather data preparatory to nominating the entire Monongahela navigation system for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.  The  PHMC sought to identify any remaining parts of past or current lock and dam complexes along the river.  This would include any buildings related to lock and dam operations.
         An 1887 Congressional document listed the structures that were part of the lock and dam complex at Denbo that year.  Mentioned were a frame office, a frame collector's dwelling, a stable and carpenter's shop, a corn crib, a shed and a privy, all standing on a one acre lot adjacent to the lock.  So what did PHMC researchers find at Denbo?  Is  any of the original MNC Lock and Dam #5 complex left?
         PHMC's experts concluded that very little of that complex remains.  According to the PHMC, all that still exists of the entire complex is the stone land wall of the lock and its approaches.  But wait!  Aren't they forgetting Charles W. Keibler's house?
         Tradition has it that the building that housed the Hankins-Paulsen (later Marcus-Paulsen) company office was formerly the lock collector's house.  In fact, a non-PHMC study done in 1998 reached that same conclusion.  But the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission isn't convinced.
         "This has not been verified," says the PHMC.  "The building's location seems to be the same as that of the collector's house shown on an 1897 plan, but the configuration is different."
         What about looking at the building's deed?
         No dice, says PHMC.  "Deed research was of no assistance in determining the original function or construction date of the building [that is there now]."
         When I told some of my on-line readers a few weeks ago that I would be writing about the local locks and dams, I received an e-mail from Hannah Millward Fisher of Corona, Arizona.  Hannah is a Brownsville native, as was her grandfather.  Who was her grandfather?  He was Charles W. Keibler, the last lockmaster at Denbo.
         "The Keibler family," Hannah wrote in July, "lived in a house that later became the office for Hankins-Paulsen."  So says Keibler family oral tradition.  Hannah told me this without my having mentioned the Denbo lock and dam or the collector's house to her.
         The mail also brought another unsolicited bit of evidence.  Hannah's brother, Robert Millward of Indiana, Pa., sent a copy of a family-owned photograph.  Robert identified the house in the picture as "the old home of Charles and Hannah Keibler at Lock #5, Denbo."  The photo shows Charles Keibler, his wife Hannah, and three of their children on the front porch.
         I have carefully examined the house in the photograph that Robert Millward sent me.  I have compared it to a photograph of the former Marcus-Paulsen office building that was taken by the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.  After comparing the two pictures, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the former Marcus-Paulsen building and the former collector's house for Lock and Dam #5 at Denbo are one and the same.
         If PHMC were to agree with me, would the building be placed on the National Register of Historic Places?  Probably not.
         "In any event," says PHMC, "the building has lost integrity through the application of asbestos siding and alteration or blocking of many window and door openings."  In other words, it has been too significantly changed to retain its historic significance.
         "The site of MNC Lock and Dam No. 5," PHMC continued, "has suffered a serious loss of integrity through the removal or obliteration of most navigation-related features, grading and filling associated with its conversion to a concrete manufacturing facility, and the addition of numerous modern buildings and sheds.  The site is only marginally identifiable as an historic navigation facility.  Although the stone land wall should be considered a contributing element of the National Register-eligible Monongahela River Navigation System, the boundaries should encompass only the footprint of the wall, and should not include the entire one-acre property formerly owned by the Monongahela Navigation Company and federal government."
         The bottom line is, the first lock and dam ever built near Brownsville, MNC Lock and Dam #5 at Denbo, is too far gone to be awarded national historic recognition.  Nevertheless, its builders and operators were important pioneers in our river valley's history.  It was their efforts that made the coal fields of southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia accessible to Pittsburgh and to the world.  Without those locks and dams, our history over the past century would have been very different indeed.
         Next week, we'll follow Charles W. Keibler and his family as they empty their home in Denbo and board a train bound for their new house in Brownsville.  You see, when Charles lost his position as lockmaster of the closed Lock #5 at Denbo, he was assigned to another job.  He became the first lockmaster at the brand new Lock #5 at Brownsville.

Readers may call me at 724-785-3201, e-mail me at or write me at 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA   15442.  

CLICK HERE to return to Glenn Tunney's Column  Home Page.