Wilson Dam Lock

Passing Through the Dam

The locks at Wilson Dam are significant feats of engineering. The initial lock harnessed hydroelectric power. This page will discuss the technology that made this lock possible and how it has shaped engineering.

Hydroelectric Lock

Division 1, under the supervision of Joseph Wright, was responsible for the construction of the lock section. Work on this section began in 1922 when the federal government allocated $7.5 million after funding temporarily ran out. The lock was necessary because of the drastic drop in elevation from the east to the west side of Wilson Dam. At the upper portion of the river, the waters were 97.6 feet deep, a significant enough difference to require a two-chambered lock with a lift of 90 feet. Locks were nothing new in the region; the Muscle Shoals Canal also needed a lock to carry vessels through the craggy shoals. However, the lock at Wilson Dam would not use a manual lift lock like its partner at the Muscle Shoals -- it would use hydroelectric power.

Wilson Dam did not invent hydroelectric power generation -- the technology saw previous use as early as the 1880s -- but its implementation as an efficient power source increased during the 1920s. Once work on the dam section wrapped up in 1925, workers shifted their attention to completing the lock section. The mechanism would have never worked were it not for its electric pump, which powered the lock's hydraulic system. The electric pump siphoned its power from the in-house hydroelectric turbines, making it completely self-sufficient. Today, hydroelectric power is still a common source of renewable energy employed wherever rivers flow. Years later, when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) assumed control of Wilson Dam, it used this technological asset to provide cheap power to thousands of rural Alabamians.