Bankhead Lock and Dam getting makeover

Bankhead Lock and Dam getting makeover
Bankhead Lock and Dam is getting $17 million in improvements, including a new turbine, new control room, headgates, stop-logs and wicket gates. (file)

One of the state’s oldest dams now features an unusual site sure to draw spectators and photographers alike: an aboveground generating turbine.

The massive motor at Bankhead Lock and Dam on the Black Warrior River was lifted out in April and is on display on the road leading to the facility. And it’s not going anywhere.

“It was cheaper to put it off to the side and let it sit there than pay someone to haul it off,” said John Kirkland, Alabama Power’s Warrior River Hydro manager. “It’s pretty cool. I’ve seen a lot of people on bikes riding by taking pictures.”

A new turbine manufactured in York, Pennsylvania, is scheduled to arrive in February. But there’s more going on at Bankhead than just a new turbine. An extensive $17 million makeover will include a new control room, headgates, stop-logs, wicket gates (which let water flow into the turbine) and other improvements.

“It’s pretty much going to be a new operating unit,” Kirkland said.

Bankhead Lock and Dam, known by locals as simply “Lock 17,” straddles the Warrior River between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1915, it went into service a year after Alabama Power’s first hydro facility, Lay Dam.

Fast-forward 48 years when Alabama Power installed a one-turbine generating unit at Bankhead in 1963. It was replaced in 1997 by the turbine that was removed recently.

“It started vibrating badly, and we couldn’t figure out what it was,” Kirkland said. The result: The near-two-decades-old turbine hasn’t turned since 2015.

Unlike the one on display, which was assembled in sections, the new turbine, built by American Hydro, will be a one-piece solid unit, which Kirkland predicts will last 40 years.

Other improvements include:

  • Trash racks that keep logs and river refuse from entering the turbine.
  • Cooling water piping that supplies the generator coolers and equipment.
  • Switchgear that is a combination of switches, fuses, circuit breakers and similar items to control and protect electrical equipment.
  • Motor control center for all motors in the plant.

In addition, 55-year-old asbestos-lined electrical cables will be replaced.

John Hollis Bankhead in 1910. The U.S. senator from Jasper was a strong advocate for developing navigable waterways. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikipedia)

“The most difficult task for the project was developing the scope of work of things at Bankhead that needed to be included in the modernization effort,” Kirkland said. “It took a great team effort of multiple groups within Southern Company and Alabama Power working together to develop a crucial scope of work for the project.”

“This is a project we’ve wanted to do for a while,” said Herbie Johnson, Alabama Power’s Hydro general manager. “This will get Bankhead modernized and in place to run another 40 or 50 years.”

Bankhead is the northernmost – the 17th and final – lock and dam built by the Corps on the Warrior and Tombigbee rivers, providing navigation for barges between Birmingport and Mobile. Birmingport, 31 miles north of the dam, is an inland port for the Birmingham area.

Most, if not all, of the first 16 dams built from the late 1800s to 1915 along the Warrior and Tombigbee between Bankhead and Mobile were disassembled. The concrete locks were abandoned since they are on the riverbank and don’t impede navigation.

Lock 17 is unique, according to the Corps, in that the original spillway was incorporated into the current spillway. The original lock was then filled and a concrete dam built across its upstream end.

The facility is named for Jasper’s John Hollis Bankhead (1842-1920), a U.S. representative and senator from Alabama appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to the Inland Waterways Commission. Bankhead was a leading supporter of developing navigable waterways.

Bankhead Tunnel on U.S. Highway 98 under the Mobile River is named for him. His granddaughter, Tallulah Bankhead, was a movie and television star.

This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Shorelines.

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