Remembering their chief engineer of lock addition project

Tony Ellis won’t get to see 16 years of his work completed. He was the lead engineer on the lock addition project on Kentucky Dam. Ellis passed away two weeks ago from natural causes.

The project began in 1998 and after $425 million, we now know it’s 50 percent complete. 

His coworkers agree that he is the foundation of the more than $800 million project. Ellis was the man on the ground relaying government specs of the new lock to the workers in hard hats. 

"We like to build things to completion. We don’t like to leave things partially completed," Ellis said when we interviewed him in 2012.

Jody Robinson is filling in for his former boss until a full-time resident engineer is picked. "Once I graduated, he hired me in. Been there ever since," Robinson said. 

Operations manager, Toni Rushing, says they’re all sad that Ellis won’t get to see his project be completed. She said Ellis knew how important the new lock is for industry and for those out on the water. No matter the obstacle, Rushing says Ellis never lost sight. "We would talk about the current lock, and Tony would talk about the new construction and how it was going to alleviate our problems," Rushing said.

In 16 years, power lines were moved and two bridges were built. Where the lock is being built, there was nothing but grass.

"There’s added pressure, of course, but Tony was a very good supervisor and mentor. I’m well prepared," Robinson said.

The goal is to build a lock that’s 400 feet longer, so cargo can get across in one trip. "No matter how long it takes us, everyone will always remember that Tony was the person that made this happen," Rushing said.

The Army Corps of Engineers still expects the addition to be complete by 2023. The current contract will wrap up in December. In two weeks, they will begin the bidding process for the next phase of the project. I’m told they were ready for this 11 years ago, but that it all comes down to funding.

They’ll keep the existing lock for recreational boats or use it if the new lock is down for maintenance. In fact, the current lock will be down during the first two weeks of October for maintenance. Boaters and barges will have to either go around or wait it out. 

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