Navigating the ‘Big Muddy’

Thanks to a system of locks and dams built more than 80 years ago, the upper Mississippi River has become a vital link in world trade for our region. Join Jon McGinty as he tours some of Illinois’ locks and dams, and introduces some of the people who rely on this waterway for a living.

A tow boat pushes barges down the Mississippi River.

Ever since the first native pushed his dugout canoe into its swift, swirling waters, the Mississippi River has impacted human life along its banks and beyond. Its name originates from an Anishinabe word meaning “big river,” but we often call it the Big Muddy or just Ol’ Man River.

The first Europeans to see it and travel on it came from Spain in 1541. By then, the Sioux had mostly moved west, replaced by the Ojibway, Ho-Chunk, Fox and Sauk in our area. The Spanish were followed by the French, British and eventually the Americans.

By the early 1800s, steamboats traveled up and down the river, bringing goods and people to towns on the water’s edge. The river then was wild and untamed, wandering through many paths and channels. Sometimes the water was too shallow for boats, with shifting sand bars and other obstacles. During frequent floods, the river could be dangerous or impossible to navigate.

In 1829, Congress charged the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) with the task of clearing and maintaining a navigable channel in the Mississippi. As part of this effort, future Confederate general Robert E. Lee was dispatched to survey the river near modern-day Keokuk, Iowa, and above the Quad Cities.

“Lee proposed improvements to deepen the channel in our area,” says Allen Marshall, chief of communications for USACE’s Rock Island District. “Lee’s work eventually led to the construction of the Des Moines Rapids canal in 1866. It included three locks, the first in what became known as the Rock Island District of the Mississippi Valley Division.”

Later authorizations by Congress led to a series of comprehensive projects to accommodate growing commercial traffic on the river, from the original 4 ½-foot-deep channel to a 6-foot-deep channel in 1907, as vessels became larger and had deeper drafts.

“In 1930, they authorized the construction of a 9-foot-deep, 400-foot-wide channel in the hopes of stimulating a faltering commercial river economy,” says Marshall. “This led to the eventual construction of 12 locks and dams in our district, completed in 1940, which are still in use today.”

How It Works

Originally designed to bypass rapids and falls, locks and dams are now used to control water levels so vessels can travel up and down the river. They’re not used to control flooding, which is instead mitigated by levees, floodways, spillways and impounding tributaries.

A dam creates a pool of water behind it that’s deeper than the one below. The lock system is used to lift or lower a vessel as it moves upstream or downstream from one pool to the next, like a stairway or elevator for boats.
A vessel enters the lock chamber at one end, and the gates are closed. The lock operators then either raise or lower the water level in the chamber. There are no pumps involved, just the effect of gravity on the river water – upper valves fill the chamber, lower valves empty it. When the water level reaches the same as the pool to be entered, the gates are opened and the vessel exits the chamber, on its way once again.

Today, the upper Mississippi Valley Division uses a system of 29 locks and dams to maintain navigation pools at a minimum of 9 feet along its waterway, from above Minneapolis to Granite City, Ill., near St. Louis, a combined vertical drop of 420 feet in elevation. Below St. Louis, there are no locks and dams. The additional volume of water from the Illinois and Missouri rivers makes the Mississippi wider, deeper and swifter, so they’re unnecessary.

The Rock Island District of the USACE is responsible for the operation and maintenance of 12 locks and dams on the Mississippi, from No. 11 in Dubuque, Iowa, to No. 22 in Saverton, Mo., near Hannibal, a distance of about 320 miles, as the boat floats. The opening of the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal in 1900 reversed the flow of the Chicago River and connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi by way of the Illinois River. Now called the Illinois Waterway, the Rock Island District operates six of the eight locks and dams on that system as well.

“To maintain proper water levels at the various dams, the USACE uses a network of gauges which register the levels of all major tributaries that enter the Mississippi,” says Jon James, Lockmaster at Lock & Dam No. 13 near Fulton, Ill. “All those numbers are used by our hydrology office in Rock Island to determine how much water should pass through the dam. After computer modeling with levels and precipitation, Water Control will then notify the lock of a gate setting that coincides with their forecast.

“The maximum lift of our lock – the difference between the upper and lower pools – is 11 feet, but the average is between 7 and 8 feet. It takes about 8 to 10 minutes to equalize from one pool to the other, but in high water, filling and emptying times are reduced.”

Transporting Cargo

Most commodities on the upper Mississippi today are transported in barges pushed along by 5,000-10,000 hp diesel-engine tow boats. Yes, in spite of the name, they push the barges. Each barge can hold up to 1,750 tons of cargo, the equivalent of 16 rail cars or 70 large tractor-trailer trucks, making it one of the most economical ways to ship goods up and down the Mississippi Valley.

Barges can carry dry cargo, like agricultural products and supplies, coal, and steel, or liquid cargo like petroleum and chemicals. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, dry cargo makes up about 85 percent of the barge fleet in the U.S.

Barges on the upper river are usually wired together in combinations up to 15, three rows of five barges each, called a tow. The entire arrangement is about 1,140 feet long by 105 feet wide. Most lock chambers are 600 feet long by 110 feet wide, which makes for a tight fit.

“If they have a full 15-barge tow, we have to break the tow in half,” says Brad Hank, Lockmaster at Lock & Dam No. 14 near Le Claire, Iowa, just north of the Quad Cities. “Each half is called a cut.”

After entering the lock chamber, crew members disconnect all the wire rigging from between the barges, separating the cuts. Then the tow boat backs out of the chamber with six barges still attached, while the other nine are raised or lowered within. If the tow is going downstream, opening the upper valves flushes the disconnected portion out of the chamber. If going upstream, a winch at the upper end of the lock pulls the partial tow (cut) out of the chamber.

After the tow boat and partial tow are raised or lowered in the lock, the raft of barges is wired back together, and the boat and tow are on their way again. The entire procedure takes about 1½ hours to complete.

“During high water, the current in the river is really strong,” says Hank. “It creates an out-draft which pushes a downstream tow away from the lock toward the dam. Then we sometimes get an assist from a helper boat, to help steer the bow of the tow into the lock chamber.”

A tow boat pushes a down-bound tow into the lock chamber at Dubuque, Iowa (No. 11). (Jon McGinty photo)

Tow Boat Captain

Jeremy Runde is a tow boat captain who lives in Dubuque, Iowa, with 20 years of experience on the river.
“A lot of people call us ‘barge captains’,” says Runde, “but that would be like calling a semi-truck driver a trailer driver. Barges don’t have engines, they are just containers. The tow boat pushes the barges.”

Typically, Runde works 28 days on and 28 days off, year-round. His usual route is between St. Paul, Minn., and St. Louis when the upper Mississippi is open (March through December). During winter months, he works on the Illinois or Ohio rivers.

“The trip between St. Paul and St. Louis takes about a week, one way, depending on how many stops you have,” says Runde. “But there’s no beginning or end to it. I rent a car in Dubuque, drive to where the boat is, and relieve the current captain, who then goes home. Once I’m in St. Louis, I drop the southbound tow and pick up a northbound one. Another boat will continue to move it south. We push mostly corn and beans south, salt and fertilizer north.”

Since the Mississippi is wider below St. Louis, tows can be combined to make much larger and wider configurations, sometimes up to 50 barges in one tow. The barges and their contents eventually reach New Orleans, where they connect with all parts of the world.

Runde’s boat crew consists of nine persons: the captain, who manages the whole boat; pilot, who steers the boat when the captain is off shift (every six hours); chief engineer, who maintains and repairs all systems on board; a live-in cook, who makes three meals each day for everyone; a first mate; and four deck hands.

“About every two weeks, we stop for groceries,” he says. “We eat pretty good out there. If we have a bad cook, we just make sure she never comes back to the boat.

“There’s not a lot of turnover on a tow boat. First-timers sometimes only last a month or so, after they realize it’s not for them. The old-timers say ‘once you wear out a pair of boots on the river, you’re on there for life.’”
Modern tow boats are equipped with GPS and automated identification systems (AIS) to locate each other and avoid collisions, making their travel much safer than in previous times. They also have depth finders mounted on the front of tows to warn of shallow water.

“When the water is low, there’s always a chance of hitting a sand bar which could break off a string of barges from the tow,” says Runde. “Then you have to back up or call another boat to help you put the tow back together.

“One of the biggest hazards is pleasure craft and recreational boaters. Our speed varies, depending on whether we’re pushing an empty or full load or going up or down stream, but we average about five to six miles an hour. People think we could stop on a dime, but we can’t. In an emergency, we could take up to ¾ of a mile to stop or avoid a collision.”

Runde says a 28-day schedule means he misses a lot of family time, but most companies are flexible regarding important events, such as graduations and weddings.

“And you do get a lot of good family time when you’re off,” he says. “It’s a fun job, it’s challenging, but when the river is high with a swift current, it can be stressful. There’s always a lot going on in the wheelhouse.”

System Maintenance

Almost 50 million tons of cargo are transported up and down the Mississippi every year. Last year, for example, 17 million tons passed through Lock No. 13 at Fulton alone, carried by 10,000 barges, about average for the past 10 years. They “lock” an average of 2,500 to 3,000 vessels each year, about a third of which are pleasure/recreation craft.

Maintaining all this infrastructure is, of course, the responsibility of the USACE’s military and civilian personnel, whose funding has diminished in recent years.

“These dams and locks [on the upper Mississippi] are now at least 80 years old, but were designed to last only 50,” says Marshall. “Each lock represents a single point of potential failure, and there are no detours on the river if they fail.”

This has forced the Corps to adopt a “fix as fail” strategy, with some exceptions. To prevent unplanned closures, years of preparation to establish alternative shipping methods and procedures are needed to precede major repairs or upgrades, such as occurred this past summer on the Illinois Waterway.

“There we shut down five locks for almost the entire summer, in order to perform critical maintenance,” says Marshall. “Industry would rather have a lengthy closure they can prepare for, than wait for something to go wrong.”

Lock & Dam No. 13, north of Fulton, Ill., is located in the heart of the Upper Mississippi River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, which stretches from north of Rock Island to Minnesota. Eagle Point Nature Center is located on a high bluff immediately above the lock and dam complex, a frequent spot for observing bald eagles.

A few years ago, Stewards of the Upper Mississippi Refuge partnered with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to install video cameras to observe a nearby rare bald eagle trio nest, but last year’s derecho storm destroyed both the nest and one of the cameras.

“The trio has since rebuilt the nest even closer to the lock road for better viewing, but the close-up camera has yet to be replaced,” says James. “The current nest can still be observed from a distant camera at the website,”

Captain Stier and the TWILIGHT

One of the more interesting vessels to traverse the upper Mississippi is an excursion boat called TWILIGHT, owned and operated by Kevin and Carrie Stier of Scales Mound, Ill. It’s a 149-passenger replica of an 1880s Victorian-style side-wheeler steamboat, but with modern conveniences.

The Stiers provide a nostalgic two-day time-travel trip from Le Claire, Iowa, (north of the Quad Cities) to Dubuque, Iowa, and back, with an overnight stay in a Dubuque hotel. The 83 miles between destinations cover a section of the river that lies mostly within the Upper Mississippi River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

“There’s a 30- to 40-mile stretch where there are no towns, bridges or houses,” says Kevin. “It takes people back to seeing the river the way Mark Twain would have seen it, to a simpler time. There’s also no cellphone coverage in that area, so it makes people stop playing on them, look outside, and enjoy the river.”

The riverboat passes twice through two locks (Nos. 12 and 13) during the trip, so passengers can see “up close and personal” how the navigation system works. During the excursion, Captain Stier narrates stories about the history of the river, how place names originated, and other interesting bits of local folklore.

A few years ago, Stier and company had an interesting encounter with a traveling theater group from New York City. After performing in St. Paul, Minn., the troupe apparently decided to travel downriver to New Orleans, stopping to perform in towns along the way.

To facilitate their journey, this young group of “long-haired hippie types” constructed a collection of rafts from a junkyard, propelled by a VW engine mounted on the rear of their creation. After observing it in transit, the TWILIGHT encountered the theater boat in lock No. 12 near Bellevue, Iowa.

“Because the VW engine is normally air-cooled, there was a guy sitting on a nearby couch, pouring water on it to keep it from overheating,” recalls Stier.

At the time, Stier’s boat was mostly filled with Amish families from Indiana and Ohio, who often book passage on his two-day tours. The Amish men were on deck, observing this makeshift craft and crew, while the women were inside playing cards and visiting.

Suddenly a young female member of the troupe, clad only in a beach towel, climbed to the top of the raft and disrobed, less than 50 feet from the TWILIGHT and its passengers.

“The Amish men went nuts over this naked girl,” says Stier, “but the Amish women caught wind of what was happening. They stormed out, grabbed their men and hauled them inside. Usually I narrate to my passengers what’s going on in the locks, but this time I just didn’t say anything.”

During his 40-plus years on the river, Stier has seen many changes, both good and bad.

“It’s encouraging to see how clean the river has become,” he says. “Whether it’s the towing industry, the passenger vessel industry, or the small pleasure boats, people are more aware of the environment and how important it is to keep our river clean and running,” he says.

Stier has also witnessed a return of some wildlife species, especially bald eagles.

“In the 1970s and ’80s, if you saw one bald eagle a week, it was a lot,” he says. “Now on a good day in the fall, we can see between 60 and 80 in a single day.”

He’s also impressed with the job the USACE does to keep the navigation channel open and the lock and dam system operating.

“It’s amazing, for something built back in the 1930s, to see it’s still working today,” says Stier. “In the past, the Corps had more assets to dredge the sand to keep the channel open, compared to what they have today. Now there are entire stretches where there’s just one-way traffic. Didn’t used to be that way 30 or 40 years ago.”

Tow boat captains today use a two-handed wave as they encounter each other on the river, says Stier. Back in the 1800s, steamboats competed fiercely with one another to carry passengers and cargo from town to town. This competition sometimes became so heated that some captains started shooting at each other, mostly to discourage their opponents, but sometimes to injure or kill them.

“The two-handed wave was a way to say, ‘I don’t have a gun, and I’m not going to shoot you,’” says Stier. “It’s still a traditional gesture.”

Two-day excursions on the TWILIGHT sell for $409 per person, and include six meals on the boat, snacks, entertainment, entrance to the Mississippi River Museum, and overnight accommodations in Dubuque. Their season runs from the end of May to the end of October.

They can be contacted at (800) 331-1467 or at