On the Road...Again: New Times on the Mississippi

Tags: Inland Barge

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The U.S. supply chain moves in a blur, constantly shifting directions, absorbing complexity, and alternating speeds to keep pace with demand. But when you zoom in and bring its many transportation and logistics pieces into focus, you discover a colorful composite of unique people, places, and perspectives.

For Inbound Logistics' On the Road series, Senior Writer Joseph O'Reilly has traveled the country to convey the big supply chain picture through snapshots of sites such as New Jersey's Port Elizabeth, a train maintenance yard in New Mexico, and an expedited package hub in Memphis.

In the latest installment, O'Reilly hitches a ride on a Mississippi River towboat, exploring how America's foremost marine interstate is redefining its role and relevance in the global supply chain.

Location: A five-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Granite City, Ill. and St. Louis, Mo.

Population: Greater St. Louis Region, 2.8 million people

Distance from Inbound Logistics HQ: 977 miles

When you get right down to it, the mighty Mississippi is one big gulp of water. The river drains 41 percent of the continental United States and spans more than 2,300 miles from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Louisiana Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. It's the fourth-longest river system in the world.

Geographic superlatives aside, the Mississippi River has also accumulated a wealth of cultural currency, making it one of the most referenced landmarks in the United States. American literature and music have borrowed the most, using the river's folklore to create characters and tell stories that stick in the mind like sticks in the Mississippi mud.

Such attraction is earned. The river's mystique is borne from its importance to U.S. growth and expansion. At one time, the Mississippi was the primary transportation artery into and out of a burgeoning heartland. The pulse of American agriculture, manufacturing, and trade ebbed and flowed with the riverboats that navigated its many turns.

Like its current, the Mississippi's story keeps moving in different directions, adding new chapters along the way. In April 2011, I embarked on a trip down the river with Paul Wellhausen, president of Lewis & Clark Marine, a St. Louis tugboat line.

As river excursions go, ours was short on time and long on comfort. Naturally, the story runs much deeper.

Gateway to a Big Ol' River

Lewis & Clark Marine operates a section of the Mississippi River between miles 162 and 198, below the confluence with the Missouri River. The tugboat line is primarily responsible for switching and fleeting barges in the Greater St. Louis area. Its base of operations in Granite City, Ill., is on the eastern side of the river, situated just north of the Chain of Rocks Locks, also known as Locks #27, the southernmost locks on the river system.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers built Locks #27 – comprised of a 1,200-foot main lock and 600-foot auxiliary – and a canal to the north to circumvent an unnavigable part of the river. When water levels were low, tugboats and barges often had to wait days until the river rose high enough to avoid bedrock exposures. Today, Locks #27 and the Chain of Rocks canal usher commercial traffic around this stretch of river.

Approaching Lewis & Clark's Granite City headquarters by car, you pass through the Tri City Port district, a 77-square-mile former military base repurposed as an inland river port. Sitting at the docks along the canal on a sunny April morning, the tugboats Katherine B. Wayne, Elizabeth Brown, and Velda Taylor look ready to go at a moment's notice.

The Katherine B. Wayne, one of 15 vessels in Lewis & Clark's fleet, is also among its newest. The wheelhouse is the nerve center of the boat. At the heart of the 360-degree-windowed room are the two main engine throttles and the skipper's seat. Dials, dashboards, consoles, and cords positioned above connect CB radios and units displaying engine RPMs, rudder positions, depth, GPS, and radar coordinates among other nautical instruments. Below is a galley and shower, and, down another flight of steep stairs, the engine room.

Out on the steering deck, to the boat's aft, two large exhaust fans help ventilate radiated heat from the engine room. Barge rigging is stowed on the bow side of the Katherine B. Wayne. Lewis & Clark generally runs three-man boat crews, with a captain and two deckhands. The latter are charged with lashing barges together per customer loading and unloading arrangements.

Finding Color in the Mud

On the Mississippi River, colors are diverse, if muted. Mud seemingly polishes vibrancy into a patina of subtler shades. The green, red, and blue barges – some banked, others anchored in midstream – softly contrast with the churning brown waters.

Even at its most benign, the Mississippi River's dangers are largely unseen. The currents below the Missouri confluence make the area an inhospitable destination for pleasure boats and day-trippers. Commercial traffic rules the day. Consequently, there's constant communication among different tugboat captains passing by, as well as between captains and deckhands working the barges.

Downstreaming through Locks #27 toward St. Louis, potential dangers emerge. Navigating around bridge piers, watching out for chevrons – dykes used as self-regulating dredges – and bypassing 10-barge-wide anchor fleets positioned mid-river demands skill. Weather conditions raise their own unique concerns, from dense fog and intermittent ice floes to drift uprooted and swept along by storms and high water.

In terms of navigation, green and red buoys mark out the main channel and low-water areas. For Lewis & Clark, the buoys are beacons for another reason. "We make our living outside the buoy, on the bank," says Wellhausen.

The company's business is working shore to shore. Like a shortline to a trunk railroad, Lewis & Clark's primary function is to facilitate first- and last-mile connections, repositioning barges between shippers and mainline tugs that haul freight the length of the river system. Customers are many and varied, but all ship bulk commodities, both liquid and dry.

It's a competitive space. Lewis & Clark operates five terminals on both sides of the river, providing bulk transfer services to facilitate transshipment between barge, truck, and rail. It competes with other smaller operators, as well as vertically integrated companies that own both the means of production and transportation.

America's Marine Interstate

The St. Louis area is a hotbed for commercial traffic. Because Locks #27 are the only ones south of the confluence between the Mississippi and Missouri, they move more cargo than any other navigational structure on the river system.

Every year, the Upper Mississippi ferries more than 125 million tons of commodities with a combined value of $20 billion – and those figures are growing. Coal makes up more than 27 percent of this total, followed by grain (26 percent), and aggregates (17 percent), according to Washington, D.C.-based industry lobby Waterways Council.

Most of the grain shipments, which include corn, soybeans, and wheat, are transported to New Orleans and Baton Rouge for export. Coal shipments, by contrast, are primarily bound for power plants located in states along the river.

Exploring the edges of America's foremost inland waterway, you begin to understand its importance as a means for transporting dry and liquid bulk freight to markets near and far. There's a U.S. Steel facility on the left, where partially unloaded barges tilt as a result of displaced weight. Covered hopper barges filled with cornmeal pass by, bound for Scandinavia. Apex Oil ships liquid asphalt out of a rail-served, riverside facility, moving approximately 20,000 cars annually. Around the bend, a vacant patch of sparse forest is the future site of a new slack-water harbor and dock. Farther along, a barge manufacturing operation's newest creation slides down the muddy bank like a river otter.

Loaded, unloaded, banked, or anchored in the middle of the river, rake-hulled barges (angled), box-hulled barges (vertical), dry hoppers, cement barges, and liquid tankers all offer clues to their contents and how the industry is growing. Hulls are lengthening, with 13- and 14-foot drafts becoming much more common. Barge coaming – the sides that are visible above water – are also increasing in depth, creating more capacity.

St. Louis is widely regarded as the largest inland water port for agricultural products in the world. Lewis & Clark's Tyler Street bulk facility serves BNSF and Union Pacific unit trains, many of which transport grain out of locations such as Montana on the Missouri River or Illinois on the Illinois River. Resurgence in U.S.-grown exports has nurtured that reputation.

"Business on the river is experiencing a renaissance," says Wellhausen. "Exports are phenomenal. Even with recent fires and droughts in Russia, and poor crops in South America, China wants more of everything. And an agriculture boom has helped grow fertilizer imports."

There is also new demand for ethanol, which has become something of a gold rush on the Mississippi River. Combined with the increasing frequency of wind turbine components making their way north from the Louisiana Delta to the windswept Plains, transporting renewable energy resources via the most environmentally friendly and economic mode available is in vogue.

One barge can haul 1,750 tons – equivalent to 70 truck trailers or 16 rail cars, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Beyond economy, inland towing gets 576 ton-miles per gallon, compared to 413 for railroads and 155 for trucks.

If fuel economy and cost efficiency don't turn heads, a tugboat mindset surely will. On the Mississippi River, operating margins are razor-thin and competition is thick, so tugboat lines such as Lewis & Clark are always pushing the throttle to improve service.

"In this business, you are measured by the last barge you hauled, not the previous nine," explains Wellhausen.

It's an attitude and mantra that resonates all along the Mississippi. Towing the line one barge at a time: it's the river way.

When you're bobbing along North America's longest river, situated about in the middle of America, the subtle details that make this marine interstate a vital part of our nation's economy stand out. In the Greater St. Louis area specifically, the buildup of industrial activity on the riverbanks is remarkable. Name a commodity, and a processing or manufacturing facility sits nearby.

This vertical outgrowth is reflected in the clusters of transportation and logistics hotspots that have grown up along the Mississippi River's path: Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. In the United States, barges directly serve 87 percent of all major U.S. cities, accounting for 79 percent of all domestic waterborne freight. Looming capacity shortages and fuel cost concerns are stimulating new interest in inland waterway transport. Dry and liquid bulk have long been staples of tug and barge activity, but opportunities to bring more intermodal container freight to the Mississippi River may not be far off.

With U.S. rail and intermodal traffic growing, it's conceivable that "slower-moving" consumer goods might eventually find their way onto an unhurried barge that is the most economical and environmentally sustainable means of transport around.

If I were a gambling man on a Mississippi River boat, I just might like my odds.