Locks and loaded

Mississippi River could use infrastructure upgrade to remove last vestiges of mule days

The Melvin Price Locks & Dam at Alton is a model modern-day facility on the Mississippi River. (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)

The Melvin Price Locks & Dam at Alton is a model modern-day facility on the Mississippi River. (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)

By Edward McClelland

ROCK ISLAND – Pushing 15 barges through Mississippi River Lock and Dam 15, alongside Arsenal Island, is a cumbersome task. The 600-foot-long lock, which opened in 1934, can only accommodate nine barges at a time — the equivalent of a standard-sized train in that era of less-powerful tow boats. A present-day 15-barge train therefore has to decouple, and “lock through” in two steps, pulled along by an automated wire system known as a “mule,” after the animals that once performed that function. It’s a process that can take over two hours.

Downstream, in East Alton, locking through is a much faster process. That’s because the Melvin Price Locks & Dam, completed in 1994, is 1,200 feet long — long enough for a modern train of barges.

“Most of the time, with a 1,200-foot lock, an entire fleet of barges can go through, instead of breaking up,” said Amanda Kruse of the St. Louis District of the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that maintains and operates the Mississippi River locks. “It usually takes 20 to 30 minutes.”

The 27 locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, which is considered to run from St. Paul to St. Louis, were mostly constructed in the first few decades of the 20th century. The dams were built to ensure a consistent 9-foot depth on the river, deep enough for the draft of a fully laden barge. They had to be accompanied by locks, so the barges could bypass the obstruction. (Below St. Louis, where the Missouri and then the Ohio joins the Mississippi, the river is naturally deep enough for barge traffic.)

A number of the Mississippi locks and dams were built by the Public Works Administration, a New Deal project intended to put unemployed men and women back to work and upgrade the nation’s infrastructure during the Great Depression. At the time, they were a boon to river traffic, which had recently made the transition from steamboats to barges. Barges could carry more cargo, but required deeper water to do so. Even steamboats had become snagged on rapids, sandbars, and rocks, and sometimes had to wait for a heavy rain to free them.

Today, though, the Mississippi’s lock-and-dam system is obsolete, decrepit, and badly in need of an upgrade. Only two of the locks are 1,200 feet long: the Price Lock in East Alton, and Lock 19, in Keokuk, Iowa, which opened in 1954.

“The problem you have with these locks is they were built during the Great Depression, the 1930s,” said Tom Horgan, senior manager of the American Waterways Organization Mid-Continent Office in St. Louis, an agency that advocates for the tugboat and barge industry. “They have an effective life of 50 years. They’re outdated, they’re archaic, they’re falling apart. Even if they were in decent shape, if you have a modern tow, you can’t send it all the way through.”

Take Lock 15, which is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers on historic Arsenal Island. Recently, a 25-foot-long hole opened in a guide wall. Instead of trying to repair the wall, the corps demolished it, to prevent it from crumbling into the lock.

“It’s just an example of the degradation going on,” said Allen Marshall, chief of corporate communications for the corps’s Rock Island District, which operates 11 locks and dams, from Dubuque, Iowa, to New London, Mo. “This concrete is original to 1934.”

As the link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River systems, and the state with the most miles of Mississippi riverbank, Illinois is a “heavy maritime state,” said Horgan. Barges ferry a significant portion of the state’s corn and soybean crop up and down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. During the fall harvest season, 12 to 15 trains pass through Lock 15 every day, which can cause backups on the river. (Of the 23 million tons of cargo that passed through Lock 15 in 2016, 14 million were agricultural projects. Petroleum and chemicals made up most of the rest.) Barge operators like to boast that theirs is the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly form of transportation. A single barge can hold 62,492 bushels of corn — as much as 16 rail cars or 70 semi-trailers.

The Navigation Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which was part of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, recommended doubling the length of five locks — in Quincy, and in Canton, Saverton, Clarksville, and Winfield, Mo., all of which lie directly across the river from Illinois. Congress, however, hasn’t appropriated the necessary $1.85 billion. The Quincy Herald-Whig reported last year that the lock improvements were “on a list of infrastructure priorities reportedly circulated by President Donald Trump's transition team,” but so far the administration has taken no action.

Expanding the locks would not only benefit the barge industry, it would benefit maritime towns that were founded when rivers were America’s fastest form of transportation, but have struggled in the age of railroads and superhighways. Busy agricultural ports, such as Granite City, would become even busier, as barges become a more attractive method of transporting goods.

“You would increase delivery time and efficiencies if you could get through those locks in 30 minutes,” Horgan said. “The queues would be shortened. It would spur a demand for additional traffic. Increased activity means more activity at terminals, more activities in ports. When the goods come off the barge, you’re going to see multi-modalism.”

Denny Jacobs, the former state senator and mayor of East Moline, home of the John Deere Harvester Works, can attest to how federal spending can help a river town. In the 1970s, when East Moline was suffering heavy job losses, the federal government provided the community with a number of economic development grants — including funding for a levee. East Moline had been swamped by a flood in 1965, but thanks to the new levee, was untouched by the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993.

The levee, Jacobs said, “was a construction project where everyone looked at it and said, ‘Things are happening.’”


The East Moline levee “was a construction project where everyone looked at it and said, ‘Things are happening.’”

Former East Moline Mayor Denny Jacobs

There is certainly a demand in the Quad Cities to rebuild outdated New Deal-era transportation infrastructure. Take the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge, which links Moline to Bettendorf, Iowa, and was built with $1.4 million in federal funds.

When it opened in 1935, the two-lane suspension bridge replaced a ferry between the two cities, filling a transportation gap that had required motorists to travel to Rock Island if they wanted to drive across the river.  It was a boon to John Deere, allowing the farm-implement manufacturer to more quickly ship tractors to the farms of the Great Plains. At its dedication ceremony, attended by the governors of both states, Moline Mayor A. Henry Arp declared, “The opening of this magnificent memorial bridge is the biggest event in the history of the communities. It will do more to unify them and will make the six cities like one large community than anything in recent years.”

In the 1950s, the bridge was integrated into the interstate highway system, becoming known locally as the I-74 Bridge. Two lanes were no longer enough, so an identical span was built alongside the original. Together, they look like a pair of miniature Mackinac Bridges.

A public works project does well to last a human lifetime, and the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge is nearing its end. In fact, the pillars for its replacement — a $1 billion six-lane bridge with a pedestrian walk — are already rising in Bettendorf. When the new bridge is completed in 2020, the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge will be demolished.

“It’s truly a recognizable landmark,” said Merredith Peterson, president of the Rock Island County Historical Society, “but it was built when there weren’t as many people, and there weren’t as many cars, and now, when you have two or three cars per household, it’s crazy. I cross the bridge three times a week, and during rush hour I’ve spent 15 or 20 minutes on the cloverleaf trying to get on. There’s no shoulder, so you just keep your fingers crossed that nobody’s going to run out of gas or break down.”

Speeding along barge traffic may seem less urgent than speeding along car traffic, because the delays and tie-ups take place on the river, not the roads, and don’t affect thousands of commuters every day. But to the Army Corps’s Allen Marshall, roads and rivers are equally in need of improvement — and, in fact, complement one another.

“When people think of transportation infrastructure, they think of roads, railways,” he said. “This is equally important. And it’s much more cost effective. It takes trucks off the road.”

Upgrading the locks would require a massive commitment to public infrastructure — the same sort of commitment that produced so much of the lock-and-dam system during the Great Depression. The question is whether the public demand and the political will for that sort of spending exist. Nick Taylor, the New York-based author of “American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA,” isn’t sure politicians would fund a second Works Progress Administration (the federal building program that put millions of Americans to work during the Depression) but he believes it would produce benefits that would endure for generations, just like the original New Deal programs.

“It would take an understanding in both political parties that infrastructure work is not simply spending, but investment,” Taylor said. “Modern infrastructure from roads and bridges to water and sewer systems, to public rail and air travel, to hospitals, the electric grid and broadband access, all these things make it easier to do business and make businesses want to invest here. I don’t think you’d see the federal government writing checks to workers, which is what the WPA did. But the kind of massive infrastructure work that governors, mayors and civil engineers almost unanimously say is needed would flow through private contractors, create competition for workers, and therefore raise wages and increase demand for consumer goods.”

Ted Cox