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Take a photo tour of state’s river system

Climb aboard! Or at least imagine you’re walking the ramp to a touring boat that will take the same path your grain takes when it heads for export overseas. If it’s grown in Indiana and exported, it likely travels down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, either from the Port of Indiana near Jeffersonville or from the port near Mount Vernon.

Key Points

• Some of the best locks on the inland waterway are on the Ohio River.

• From Jeffersonville to New Orleans is a 12-day trip.

• The lock near Louisville, Ky., can lower boats up to 37 feet.

A group of corn growers made two mock trips recently, one leaving from Jeffersonville, the other from Mount Vernon. This story chronicles the trip from Jeffersonville. Both trips were sponsored in part by the Indiana Corn Marketing Council and the Indiana Soybean Alliance.

“We think it’s important for our growers to realize how important barge traffic on the rivers can be,” noted Megan Kuhn, a support person for both groups.

Leave dry land

The touring barge took farmers past the Port of Indiana. If the tow boat had been pushing a real barge unit, it might have loaded at the Consolidated Grain and Barge facility. No barges were loading out. Instead, most were tucked away along the banks, waiting for new corn.

Soon a coal barge came into view. Pat Gossen of American Commercial Lines said coal barges move coal from mining areas upriver to utilities downriver. His company owns 2,200 barges.

The typical barge is 200 feet long and 35 feet wide. A normal barge unit, like the unit of coal headed downriver, consists of five barges head to toe, three barges wide. That’s 15 barges, totaling 1,000 feet long and 105 feet wide.

“It takes about three hours to load a barge and an hour to unload it,” Gossen added. “The good thing about the Ohio is that except for three older locks upriver near Pittsburgh, locks are 1,200 feet. That means a tow can move its 15 barges through at one time. It takes about two hours. If it’s only 600 feet long, then the tow must split the unit in half, move each half through, and then put it back together. It takes much longer.”

Head downriver

A real barge unit leaving the Port of Indiana would encounter six locks before reaching Cairo, Ill., and heading down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. “The pilot can make about 100 miles per day from here to Cairo, then 240 to 250 miles per day down the Mississippi. Often barges are reconfigured into units of 35 to 40 barges on the Mississippi. Boats coming down the Mississippi from the upper Midwest only make 100 miles per day, maybe less,” said Gossen.

That’s because only two of 29 locks on the upper Mississippi are 1,200 feet long, said Mike Steenhoek, director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, a group funded by nine state soybean groups.

If everything goes right, Gossen said, the trip from the Port of Indiana to the Gulf should take about 12 days. Sometimes the lock gates malfunction, causing 24- to 48-hour delays.

Approach the lock

The locks just west of Louisville, Ky., make the once almost non-navigable river quite navigable. They allow boats to bypass the treacherous Falls of the Ohio. As the tour barge neared the lock, it stopped, waiting for a Coast Guard boat to come through. The barge was headed into the older, 1,200-foot lock.

Directly next to it was a new lock. It was a 10-year project, noted Chuck Parrish, who retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Everything operates by gravity and hydraulics, with no electricity involved, he noted. Once the barge was inside the lock, the rear gates closed and the front gates opened. The boat was tied off by a deckhand to special mooring structures.

For those of you who have trouble backing trailers into tight spots, try this one: The pilot has 5 feet — just 2.5 feet on each side — as a margin of error. Each lock is 110 feet wide.

Slowly the boat lowered. Counting blocks on the side, Parrish estimated the touring barge lowered about 28 feet. Maximum drop at this lock is 37 feet.

Once the water level equalized, the gates opened and the barge moved out. It turned and went back into the lock. Water was raised up to the level on the Louisville side. Then the gates opened, and the tow pushed the boat upriver.

Why there were empty grainbarges parked
along the river

Grain barges parked along the side of the Ohio River in mid-August are not a common sight. This year companies were getting them ready to take new grain to the Gulf, said Pat Gossen of American Commercial Lines.

“Gulf elevators are full of low-quality corn,” he noted. “They’re waiting on new grain to blend for export. This may mean there will be lots of barges moving in September and October.”

Time will tell how that may influence grain prices and grain storage in Indiana.

Where’s the biodiesel?

One of the first questions farmers asked was whether the giant tows pushing barges use biodiesel. The answer was a resounding “no.” As it turns out, it’s about economics.

One barge expert assured farmers that if economics change, the barge companies will likely look at biodiesel. Right now, it just doesn’t pencil out.

Wet walls tell tale:
Note walls that were covered with water before lower gates opened. The water level lowered by about 28 feet.

Educational voyage: Farmers became the cargo for this trip. They were seeking information about how important river transportation is to their bottom line.

Ready and waiting: These barges, including grain barges, wait for new-crop grain to move to the Gulf.

Up close and personal:
Here’s what Terry Vising, a Marysville farmer, saw as the touring boat entered the lock.

Grain center:
Consolidated Grain and Barge receives truckloads of grain at Jeffersonville. Much of it is loaded on barges for export overseas.

Modern lock: This lock and dam with two 1,200-foot locks is one of the best in the inland waterway system.

History lives: This rusty railroad bridge is still used, and raises and lowers for barges.

Barge traffic: This barge full of coal is headed downriver from mines near Pittsburgh.

Traffic jam: The touring barge waited half an hour for this U.S. Coast Guard boat to come through the lock.

This article published in the October, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.