The lock and dam features a standard sized 600 foot long by 110 foot wide lock that raises or lowers boats by 19 feet. Called a Panamax lock, this is the same size lock used on the Panama canal, and it was widely adopted for lock and dam projects of that era. Today, many tows are larger than what a Panamax lock can handle, so tows often have to be broken up and locked in two sections.
The dam structure is about 1300 feet wide. It features a series of Tainter gates that hold the river water back behind the dam. Tainter gates are large sheets of metal that are balanced by a counterweight. They are easy to move and adjust despite their weight and the force of the water. The dam also features a small hydro-electric plant. It was built with 4 generators. One generator failed shortly after the plant went on-line. As a result, today it is operated with only 2 generators active at one time.
There is a lot of tourist activities in the area. The south side of the river features Starved Rock State Park, which is one of the gems of the Illinois State Park system. The park offers views of both the Utica Bridge and the Lock & Dam. Starved Rock is the highlight of the park. Legend has it that a band of natives were being pursued by another group of unfriendly natives. The first group took refuge on the top of the rock. They ended up starving to death rather than giving themselves up.
The north side of the river has the I&M Canal, the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, and the historic downtowns of Utica and Ottawa. The waterway visitor center has a second floor balcony that gives an excellent vantage point to watch navigation traffic locking through the Starved Rock Lock & Dam.