I live in St. Paul, MN, just a few blocks from the Mighty Mississippi. For years, I've wanted to hop on one of the barge tows that I see transporting your grain downriver. Even though I've written about the river transportation snarls before, I hadn't gotten the opportunity to experience that waterway from the deck of a big old barge.
Now I have and what a ride.
After talking with elevator operators and barge crews, I think I have an even better appreciation for how valuable the river corridor is to agriculture and industry. I also found out just how strenuous the work is, especially if you're a deck hand on one of these large vessels. It's a far cry from comfortable cabs and auto-steer abilities many U.S. farmers enjoy.
Part of the daily routine for those burly deck hands is to lug 100-lb. wires, 75-lb. ratchets and 25-lb. straps up and down barges, then couple them together by crisscrossing the wires around cleats the size of railroad ties.
I also have utmost respect for how tow boat captains finesse 200 ft. × 35 ft. barges — about the size of two basketball courts end-to-end — around a narrow river, much like how you'd back a semi into a grain elevator. They make it look effortless.
For example, as we entered Lock & Dam No. 2 at Hasting, MN, I couldn't imagine how the captain would ever straighten this tow (usually 15 barges) out enough to make it into the lock. He did, and as he entered he never once had a single barge even come close to touching the sidewall of the lock — and there's only 2 ft. of space left on each side of the barge to work with.
Once the tow completely entered the lock, the deck hands were busy detaching half of the barges because they won't all fit into the 600 ft. space. Once unhooked, the captain backed out of the lock so the first barges could continue through.
Then, he re-entered, moved the rest of the barges and tow boat through, and reattached to the first set of barges. That whole process takes about 11/2 hours.
It's obvious why extending the locks to 1,200 ft. to avoid this time-consuming hiccup would help make our river system more efficient.
But what really impressed me was how the river traffic never stops. Barge tows run 24 hours a day, moving everything from grain to rocks to chemicals, up and down a river that at times looks like a freeway at rush hour.
To see just how efficient the riverway is, please see the illustration at left to compare how much grain fits into barges and tows vs. trains and semi trucks.
If you ever get the chance to ride on a river barge, don't pass it up. You won't forget it.
In the meantime, you can get a glimpse of what that might be like by checking out the photo story on pages 6-10 called “Hardly A Lazy River.”