Traveling Through Big River Country–really BIG

Normally in my travels, and in keeping with the theme of this blog, I discover many marine subjects of history and art, but, mostly they involve a saltwater port or coastal village.  This week however, my trip took me to a part of the country I don’t often frequent, but that has a very long and deep maritime history and industry.  I call it big river country, but, it is most widely known as the Mississippi drainage basin.  Now, for a kid that grew up on the left coast, I hadn’t seen that many really big rivers in my younger  years. On the west coast perhaps the biggest is the Columbia in the Pacific Northwest. This week I criss-crossed the midwest between Chicago, Louisville and St. Louis. and I just couldn’t help but be stricken by the size of the rivers.  I met the Tennessee, the Ohio, the Missouri, the Illinois and of course the biggest of all-the Mississippi.

Now, I don’t really want to get into a geography lesson, I am more interested in the maritime history.  But, some context is required to understand the massiveness of this section of our country and just how it came to play such an important part in the development of our country and in the economy of the communities lining her banks. The Mississippi River Delta Basin comprises approximately 521,000 acres of land and shallow estuarine water area in the active Mississippi River delta and discharges at the headwater flows from about 41 percent of the contiguous 48 states.


On this trip I flew into Chicago for meetings on Monday and met up with the largest dredge operator in the US.  Here in the PNW we really don’t see that many dredges, but, in areas that regularly silt up, say Miami, harbor dredging is a 24/7/365 operation. On Tuesday, bright and early, I took off from O’Hare and landed in Louisville, KY-the first stop on my trek through this big river country.  My trip took me first south along the Ohio River (which I thought was big) to meet up with a Mr.Bud Johnson, the General Manager of the Corn Island Shipyard. ( yes of course, I went to a shipyard)  Again the operative word here was big. His crew was in the midst of building a very large barge for an Articulated Tug and Barge configuration as well as a very large cutterhead dredge.

image After a two night stay in the river town of Owensboro, I continued on to my next -yes, shipyard- and wound up in the historic town of Paducah, Kentucky.  Founded in 1827 by William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame, Paducah attributes the city’s origins and prosperity to its strategic location at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Until now, it completely escaped me that it was founded by William Clark, whom we know so well in the PNW.  But, this is an historic place, sitting just near the Trail of Tears.  No less important, Paducah is the home of the River Heritage Museum and the Paducah Center for Maritime Education which provides career development opportunities for mariners through cutting-edge training such a pilot house simulators for boat operators

The fact that this network of “liquid highways” is so big is, in my mind, why it has become THE major water conduit of goods and such an economic driver of the midwest.  It has also created a long history of towboat operators, ferry operators and a stout bunch of watermen. In fact, according to the association “The American Waterways Operators,” the inland river system currently employs more than 33,000 workers.  And, by the way, one 15 barge tow(with one tug) equals 216 Rail cars and 1050 semi-tractor-trailers. How about that for efficient cargo transport?

But, it hasn’t always been rosy. Around the 1830’s the steamboat was created and thus began the “golden age of steamboats.”  There were nearly 1,000 steamboats on the river. The trade generated and the resulting economy flourished for nearly 100 years.  However, with the advent of the diesel engine and the diesel powered tugboat the “riverboats” disappeared. By 1850, a system of moving barges and log rafts lashed alongside and ahead of the towboat was developed which allowed great control over the barges.  Barges also developed in size and construction, and soon were built in standard sizes.  This is a story that stretches through the last two centuries, and too long to tell here.  But, today, not only do we see tow boats with 15 or more barges full of cargo, but, we see a new kind of animal, the Articulated Tug and Barge; an interesting configuration that lets one tug adapt to many barges.  Even seagoing barges.

Now I have piloted ships pretty much throughout the Pacific. But, when I had the opportunity to sit in the pilot house and observe the operation of a towboat and the skill required to keep her safe, I gained an appreciation of new kind of shiphandling.  Things happen very quickly on the river. A lot quicker than coming into a pier in an open harbor.  There are things called “flanking” rudders.  Few seagoing sailors ever heard of them. Without them a tug and its tows would likely wind up hard against the outside bank on a bend in the river.  These guys are good!


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