As one who lives in a "river town" (Memphis, Tenn.), I am constantly reminded of a mode of transportation that we usually don't hear much about—the internal waterway system, a 25,000-mile water highway serving vast swaths of the United States. As the battle for transportation funds continues in Washington, I think it is important that this very necessary transportation system not be forgotten.
There was a time when the nation relied on inland waterways as its main conduit for commerce. Water transportation was already highly developed in many parts of the world when the first European settlers arrived in this country, and they quickly adopted the same techniques in their new home. The first recorded shipment down the Mississippi River was a load of 15,000 bear and deer hides in 1705; but it wasn't until 1790 that flatboats and keelboats came into use on a regular basis. These wood-plank boats, which measured up to 80 feet long by 10 feet wide, were rowed or poled downstream to their destination. Upon arrival, the boats were sold for wood—they obviously couldn't be moved back upstream with nothing but oars and poles to power them.
While there were some innovations over the next hundred or so years, it was Robert Fulton's invention of the steamboat in 1807 that made waterway transportation a commercial success. By 1931, there was a diesel-powered prototype of the modern towboat.
Today, there are two basic kinds of equipment used in domestic water commerce—the towboat and the barge. Towboats, which are used primarily in river commerce, have flat bottoms and a series of six rudders that provide the maneuverability needed in relatively shallow water. They derive their name from the load they push, or the "tow." Modern towboats vary in length from 40 to 200 feet and can be anywhere from 20 to 50 feet wide, depending on where they're used. They range from 600 to over 10,000 horsepower and feature the latest in navigation and communications tools.
The barges that contain the cargo are typically about 200 feet long and 35 feet wide, and also have flat bottoms. There are three basic types: the inland liquid cargo tank barge, the open dry cargo barge, and the covered dry cargo barge. There are about 18,000 barges in use in the country today.
While today's equipment may reflect the latest advances in technology, the inland waterways infrastructure is a different matter. The river system, especially the Mississippi, is a constantly changing mosaic with ebbs and flows, high water and low. The banks move, the channels shift, and new islands are formed while others disappear. In the words of Mark Twain, "The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise." As a result, maintenance and reconstruction are never-ending tasks.
The commercially important waterways (about 12,000 miles) are maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This work consists of almost constant dredging, channel maintenance, and lock and dam repair and upkeep. Most of the locks and dams are quite old and require nearly continuous maintenance. For example, above St. Louis, on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers alone, there are 37 locks and dams with an average age of 50 years.
Questions of their age and condition aside, the majority of the locks are inadequate to the needs of most of the tows on the river. The most frequently used 15-barge tow is about 1,200 feet long, and only three of the locks have a 1,200-foot capacity. The remainder are only 600 feet long. A 1,200-foot lock can accommodate 17 barges and one average towboat, while a 600-foot lock can only accommodate eight barges and a towboat.
In total, the waterway system has 191 lock sites and 237 lock chambers. In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement. Let's hope Congress won't forget—or give short shrift to—this important mode as it goes to spread the money around.