The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Damn, that’s one heck of a Dam

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

The United States Army Corps of Engineers’ Montgomery Locks and Dam is one of the giant honking pieces of infrastructure an inquisitive wanderer might encounter in Pennsylvania’s Beaver County, while scuttling along the Ohio River. This isn’t too far from the currently undefended border of the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the now infamous East Palestine locomotive derailment occurred. Up the Ohio towards Pittsburgh, you’ve got the Shell Cracker Plant mentioned on Monday and just down the river, there’s a nuclear power plant.

USACE has a page at their site which describes their operations on the Ohio in this region, which can be accessed here. To summarize – this monster dam and gate system was built between 1932 and 1936, and it replaced three earlier (late 19th century) wooden locks and dams.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The mechanics of what this facility does involves mechanical lift gates and spillways which regulate the amount of river flowing through them. This outfit works in concert with other lock and dam installations to allow the Corps to maintain the “Pittsburgh Pool” and other navigational areas, but it isn’t intended to control the flooding issues which had previously bedeviled the region. A lot of Federal cash went into not having anything like the disastrous St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936 happen again, but there’s a completely different set of infrastructure prophylactics in place for that sort of work. This is one of the many things that I’m reading up on at the moment.

See? I’ve learned, and am learning, new things since moving here.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On the opposite shore, USACE has two lock systems, one for large ships and commercial vessels and another for smaller private or pleasure craft ones. The commercial lock is 600 feet long by 110 wide, and the secondary is 360 feet long by 56 feet wide. It’s costs about $6 million a year to keep this machine running, or so I’m informed.

The Ohio River is just under 1,000 miles long. It starts in Pittsburgh and eventually intersects with the Mississippi River at the southern tip of the State of Illinois. A river of cities, industry, and commerce – and a de facto extension of the Mason Dixon line between north and south – the westward flowing Ohio is also considered to be the most polluted waterway in the United States over the course of its length. It actually edges out Newtown Creek on pollution, but unlike my beloved creek, the Ohio is a source of drinking water for many of the communities found on its banks – parts of Pittsburgh, or West Virginia’s Wheeling for instance. The Ohio is thought to be the sixth oldest river in North America, and several civilizations have depended upon the ancestral waterway for its riches, including our own.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Having followed the aforementioned group of fishermen whom I had noticed leaving a pickup for a trail towards the water, one soon found himself staring into the lift gates and spillways at the heart of the operation. I had prepared for my afternoon with a “full pack” camera bag and I had all of my toys and tools with me. These are all tripod shots with the lens wearing a 10 stop ND filter to slow down the scene and mellow out the visual distraction of water ripples and that sort of thing. Generally speaking, it was pretty bright out and these are 8-10 second captures.

When I’ve got a few extra bucks in my pocket, somewhere down the line, I’m planning on replacing my current set of old school screw on filters with the more modern magnetic snap on kind. So much easier to deal with, the magnet ones. You screw the receiver onto the lens and then just “click” the filter onto it. The screw on kind are dust collectors extraordinaire, are quite “fiddly,” and it is very, very easy to scratch your expensive lens with the exposed metal edge of the screw fitting on the thing. Yeah, I know, camera nerd stuff… sorry.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The weather was definitely on my side for once, with temperatures in the low 50’s and a bright sky. It’s been a pretty warm winter here, but that’s also seen a lot of super cloudy days with dismal lighting. Back in NYC, this sort of atmospheric season would see me riding a lot of Subways out to distant stations and “shooting trains.” The subway system presents a series of horrific challenges, photography wise. Mastering that environment, which you’ll soon learn the rules of, is a fantastic exercise for learning how to work a camera.

One of the other things I’ve learned here in Pittsburgh is that when the skies are good, you take advantage of that. Pittsburgh is one of the cloudiest regions in the entire country, with something like 200 days of the year (on average) being cloudy or overcast. This is apparently caused by the shape of the terrain, which causes most storms to fly around or over Pittsburgh. Other surrounding communities less than an hour’s drive away will get walloped by snow or thunderstorms whereas in Pittsburgh itself you just get clouds and drizzle. Not a meteorologist, can’t tell you why, but it has something to do with being located in what’s considered “the foothills of the Appalachian Range.”

Where I was standing had signage indicating that this was a park, and in tune with that the thing that’s surprised this transplanted New Yorker just about everywhere I’ve visited – there was a Porta Potty available to the public to take care of business if the need arose. To a former New Yorker, this is acknowledgment of human biology is nepenthe.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A humble narrator enjoyed a short chat with a young fellow working as a contractor for the Feds doing maintenance on the dam and its spillways. He described what sounded like an incredibly dangerous job freeing debris and mud from occluding the gate system, one which pays less an hour than a job working a cash register back in NYC. I headed back up the hill to the Mobile Oppression Platform, whereupon my gear was packed away and the camera settings returned to my ‘catch as catch can’ handheld settings, and away from the landscape and filter setup.

Tomorrow, something different at this – your Newtown Pentacle.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Buy a book!

In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at for $30.

Written by Mitch Waxman

March 22, 2023 at 11:00 am

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