Project Sponsors

Federal Project

Illinois Waterway Lock Contact Information

  • T.J. O’Brien: 773-646-2183
  • Lockport: 815-838-0536
  • Brandon Road: 815-744-1714
  • Dresden: 815-942-0840
  • Marseilles: 815-795-2593
  • Starved Rock: 815-667-4114
  • Peoria: 309-699-6111
  • La Grange: 217-225-3317


Current Status

Site investigations are underway by an A-E contractor.  Results of the investigations will inform future activities, including a design charrette and value engineering meeting in Winter 2023 to determine the best course of action for the TJO Lock Rehab.

Scour protection design efforts are underway, with a contract award scheduled for 2QFY24.

Project Description and Background

The T.J. O’Brien Lock and Controlling Works is located at the entrance to Lake Michigan (River Mile 326.0), Calumet River, in Chicago, Illinois. The facility is a unit of the Inland Waterway Navigation System and is one of nine such facilities between Chicago and Versailles, Illinois.

O'Brien Lock is a low lift sector gate lock. It provides a maximum lift of 5.0 feet for traffic passing from Lake Michigan to the Little Calumet River. The lock chamber is 1,000 feet long by 110 feet wide. The adjacent dam is 257 feet in length and comprised of two sections. The fixed section is 204 feet of steel sheet pile cellular construction.

T.J. O'Brien Lock and Controlling Works were placed into operation in 1960. After more than 60 years of service, reliability of operations is a recurring challenge posing significant risks to navigation users of the Illinois Waterway. A Major Rehabilitation Evaluation Report was approved in 2005. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) provided funding for major rehab (FY22 CG) and major maintenance (FY23 O&M) activities.

Project Authorization

Rivers and Harbors Acts of 1927 & 1930

Locking Through

Safety is the prime consideration when locking any type of vessel through a lock. Operators must require all passengers to wear a Coast Guard approved life jacket. As you approach a lock on the Illinois Waterway, you must inform the lock operators of your desire to pass and they, in turn, will indicate to you when it is safe to proceed into the lock. There are several methods of communication with the lock personnel, as follows:

  • Radio:  Is the preferred method of making contact with the lock on the Illinois Waterway. If your vessel is equipped with a two-way radio, please establish contact with the lock on VHF (FM) Channel 14 with the exception of T.J. O’Brien which monitors VHF (FM) 16. The lock will then move you to their working channel if required. Do this well in advance of your arrival at the lock so that the passage of all vessels may be facilitated, and allow the operator time to prepare the lock.
  • Cell Phone: Cell phones may be used to contact the lock when within sight of the lock. Please keep in mind lock operators are very busy and are not always able to answer the phone.
  • Pull Ropes: Pull ropes which sound an alarm letting the lock operator know that you desire lockage, are provided at the upstream and downstream ends of the lock guide wall. Please be advised most locks on the Illinois Water Way no longer have pull ropes, you will have to utilize the radio or call via phone.  
  • Once you have made contact with lock personnel you will be instructed by traffic lights, air horn signals, and/or marine radio.
  • Light Signals: Red and green signal lights are located at both ends of the lock. A red signal indicates that the lock is closed in your direction and you should wait for the lock operator to give you the green light before you proceed into the lock. The green signal means that you have been cleared to enter the lock chamber, unless you have been informed by the lock operator that you are required to yield to a commercial vessel. Proceed only when the signal light is green and enter the lock at a slow NO WAKE speed. The lock personnel will direct you toward one of the lock walls and provide mooring instructions. Furthermore, many Illinois Waterway locks utilize a strobe light at the lock to signal recreation type vessels that the lock is ready for entry. Such lights are used exclusively to signal recreation craft.
  • Air Horn/Whistle Signals: Vessels desiring passage through a lock shall notify the lock operator by one long blast followed by one short blast of a horn, whistle, or megaphone, when within one mile from the lock. When the lock is ready for entrance, the lock operator shall reply with  one long blast of a horn, whistle or calls through a megaphone to enter the landward chamber or two long blasts of a horn, whistle, or calls through a megaphone to enter the riverward chamber in the case of twin locks. When the lock is not ready for entrance, the lock operator shall reply by four or more short distinct blasts of a horn, whistle, or call through a megaphone (danger signal). Permission to leave the lock shall be indicated by the lock operator by one short blast in the case of a single lock or to leave the landward chamber in the case of twin locks. Two short blasts indicates permission to leave the riverward chamber in the case of twin locks.

Obey all the instructions of the lock personnel. Your total time in the lock will be approximately 30 minutes. The pool in the lock chamber will be raised or lowered about 15 feet depending on which lock you are in on the Illinois Waterway. When the pool reaches the proper level, the gates will be opened for your departure. Please wait for the lock operator's signal to release your line and exit the lock at a slow NO WAKE speed.

Lockages for pleasure craft will be conducted upon request, however, any transiting craft take priority. If no other traffic is present at the lock, the pleasure craft may be locked as soon as feasible in the auxiliary lock. If a delay is apparent, the pleasure craft will be informed of the approximate length of the delay. The lock operator will advise the pleasure craft whether conditions permit it to approach the lock and moor alongside walls or whether it is to stay clear of the approach. Pleasure crafts may be locked through with transiting crafts at the lock operator’s discretion.

Locking Times:  The Illinois Waterway operates 365 days a year. Locks are Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Navigating the Channel: Stay between red and green buoys. They mark the river’s navigational channel. The Illinois Waterway is approximately 336 miles long and has 8 locks along the waterway.  

Project Manager

Jeff Zuercher

Project Location

Entrance to Lake Michigan (River Mile 326.0) in Chicago, Illinois

Project Area / Photos

Click map to enlarge.