River Tour Celebrates Reopening of Hildebrand, Opekiska

Morgantown Dominion Post
15 June 2015
By Amanda DeProspero

The buzz phrase on the river Saturday morning was “victory tour.”

Despite a downpour, politicians, officials and other guests didn’t let anything rain on their parade as they celebrated the reopening of Hildebrand and Opekiska locks and dams while seeing the Monongahela River from a different perspective.

In 2012, due to staffing problems, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the Hildebrand and Opekiska locks to recreational traffic.

Saturday’s tour, arranged by the Upper Monongahela River Association (UMRA) — which worked in conjunction with area councils and commissions to reopen the locks — was a celebration of sorts and took a boat full of people through the Morgantown dam, up to Hildebrand and then back the other way to the Point Marion dam. It is one of three tours happening this year; the next two will be Saturday and June 27.

Marion County Commission President Randy Elliott was along for the four-hour ride.

“The fact that we were able to keep the locks open here is vitally important to both Marion and Mon County, and since we’ve been successful in that endeavor, we’re just going to take a look today and go down through the locks and get a good look at everything that’s going on,” he said.

“It took a long time coming to get these locks to stay open. It’s a matter of, like most things, dollars and cents. When there’s not enough money and not enough commerce, then the government’s going to shut them down.”

Barry Pallay, president of the UMRA, said while the group has taken great strides toward keeping the dams open, there’s more work to be done.

“We will begin an effort this coming year to increase the number of days that we have the locks open at Opekiska and Hildebrand. We’ll continue to maintain seven days a week on the Morgantown pool, and we’ll continue to work together on this. This is a really great example of how working together you can accomplish things that were deemed impossible not too long ago,” he said.

Pallay called it a “stopgap measure” until the Army Corps of Engineers is able to take over with federal funding.

Frank Jernejcic, UMRA vice president and a retired West Virginia Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, took a few moments during the tour to explain the lock and dam structures.

“We’ve got three locks in West Virginia, six locks in Pennsylvania,” he said.

“The pools of the river are named for the lock that impounds the water.”

The Point Marion pool, which is between Point Marion, Pa., and Morgantown, is 11 miles long. The Morgantown pool, between Morgantown and Hildebrand locks and dams, is 6 miles long. The Hildebrand pool is 7 miles long and runs between Hildebrand and Opekiska. And the Opekiska pool, between Opekiska and Fairmont, is 13 miles long.

They’re a huge, largely untapped resource for Mon and Marion counties, Elliott said.

Getting the locks open was important to him for the Bassmaster Classic; the 2015 Old Milwaukee B.A.S.S. Nation Mid-Atlantic Divisional will be held Wednesday-Friday in Fairmont. Events like this, he said, bring people into town that will buy gasoline, eat at local restaurants and stay in the hotels.

“I am an avid fisherman. I really enjoy fishing, and a lot of people do. It means a lot to have a clean river, a river that’s accessible and a river that we can get to through our locks,” he said.

“You can’t put a value on the Mon River. It’s a beautiful river, and if you do nothing but look at it, it’s wonderful.”

Deputy Mayor Marti Shamberger said Morgantown City Council was approached for financial support to open the locks again, and the council voted unanimously to support the effort. She enjoyed the “victory tour” as well on Saturday, along with council member Nancy Ganz; Jay Redmond, who was recently elected to City Council; and Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, among others.

“I just think this is so exciting, and it certainly makes us look at our community different, from the river perspective,” Shamberger said. “It certainly opens my eyes up for more development, more recreation opportunities and just to enjoy the beauty.”

Tom Bartlett, who is mayor of Grafton, active in the Coast Guard Auxiliary and a UMRA board member, owns and pilots the 52-foot Enchantress Coastal Cruiser, which transports the groups along the river during the tour. He said it’s a great opportunity to show those who are “instrumental to government affairs” the Mon and its banks.

“We take the boat out and get these people acquainted with this part of the world from the river’s point of view,” he said, “and it’s different.”