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Explore the Mississippi River

Day 6 — Maneuvering Four Football Fields Upstream

Story Highlights
  • Sixty percent of all grain exported from the United States is shipped via the Mississippi River.
  • A 15-barge tow carrying 22,500 tons of goods is the equivalent of 225 railcars or 870 trucks.
  • There are 29 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River. They help shipping navigate the river's 404-foot elevation change between Upper St. Anthony Falls north of Minneapolis and St. Louis.

By Tom Eisenhart

Watching Captain Larry "Rabbit" Sanders of the Robin B. Ingram barge tow deftly ease a load of 15 barges upstream toward the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, I can't help but wonder if a young Samuel Clemens would find this a moment of exhilaration or sheer terror.

It would probably be the latter. Prior to becoming the celebrated author Mark Twain, Clemens worked as a steamboat pilot. In Twain's book, Life on the Mississippi, he recounts how being a steamboat pilot was the dream of every boy in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Yet when in training, he couldn't remember most of what the more senior pilot would tell him about how to safely navigate the river.

Maneuvering the Robin B. Ingram may have unnerved Twain. Yet it seems to barely faze Rabbit, who carefully monitors the movement of the cement-and-coal-loaded tow from a vantage point 40 feet above the deck.

Little Room for Error

Of course, Rabbit has a significant advantage that Twain didn't: radar and other sophisticated navigation gear to help guide him. Yet there seems to be as much art as there is science in maneuvering the 105-foot-wide vessel into the 110-foot lock. Not only are there only 2.5 feet of clearance on either side, but the 1,100-foot-plus tow has to slip into the locks' 1,200-foot length. "There's not a lot of room to play with," Rabbit muses.

Rabbit gently eases the steering rudders to account for shifts in the river's currents created by the lock's walls. Meanwhile, the pilot house speaker periodically crackles with the sing-song-like call of the mate stationed on the tow's bow. As the mate calls off distances from different points on the lock's walls, Rabbit periodically picks up a microphone and answers with a quiet 'Okay.'

The Robin B. Ingram glides into the lock and comes to a stop as the deckhands tie up to the lock walls. Rabbit and Jan Robinson, his pilot, will repeat this ritual many times on the Upper Mississippi.

The Melvin Price is a fairly easy locking experience; nearly all the locks on the Upper Mississippi are 600 feet long. Those locks require a procedure called 'double locking.' In essence, a section of the tow is put into the lock and then anchored beyond. The rest of the tow then enters the lock. After the locking is completed, the two parts of the vessel are rejoined.

Steady as She Goes

As the upstream doors of the lock slowly open, we are near the end of our short stay with Rabbit and his crew. With refueling and waiting on southbound tows moving through the lock, we traveled about seven miles during the eight hours we were onboard. Patience is obviously a virtue for those who work these tows.

Rabbit, as he's called by his crew, seems like the patient type. Straight out of high school, he joined the navigation industry 40 years ago as a deckhand. He advanced up the ranks and became a captain in 1974. Twenty years ago, he joined Ingram Barge Company and has captained tows on the upper and lower Mississippi as well as the Tennessee, Cumberland and Illinois rivers.

Much has changed since Rabbit first climbed on board a tow. GPS and other advances in navigation technology are welcome aids on a more trafficked river. Companies like Ingram have instituted extensive training programs to sharpen crew members' skills and prepare those who want to advance. And, the industry has worked to become greener. Pointing to deckhands sweeping materials back into the barge holds, Rabbit says "nothing goes overboard."

Yet some things about the industry might be recognizable to Twain were he here today. Crews refer to the propellers that drive the tows as 'wheels,' harkening back to the river's paddle wheel days. And against the back wall of the pilot house, there's still a leather bench where a captain or pilot starting a six-hour shift can sip coffee while getting a report from crew going off shift.

For a young man from a small river town looking to get an economic leg up, Twain surely would have been pleased by the opportunities to advance and earn a solid wage.

As Rabbit says, the navigation industry "is one of the few places where someone with a high school education can earn a very good living."

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