Harvest Public Media reporter Abbie Fentress Swanson pauses in the wheelhouse of a towboat pushing a load that's almost a quarter mile long down the Mississippi River. (Photo taken by Ed Henleben)
I left my house in Columbia, Mo., at 5:30 a.m. Thursday to make it to the Ingram Barge Co.'s Upper Mississippi River office by 8:30 am. I knew the three-hour drive had been worth it when I pulled up to the barge company’s office because the sturdy grey structure actually sits IN the Mighty Mississippi. I walked across an anchor barge that doubles as a pedestrian bridge to enter the office and passed by the R. Clayton McWhorter, a 45-foot tall, 140-foot long towboat with four decks.
Inside the office, Captain Ed Henleben greeted me. Henleben, who’s been working on the river for 36 years, takes journalists on tours of Ingram’s 5,000 barges, and its 150 boats that push its barges full of commodities up and down the Mississippi, the Illinois and the Ohio rivers. The purpose of my visit was to see how grain is transported from farms in the Midwest to ports at the Gulf of Mexico for a story I’m working on about how the drought has affected U.S. grain exports.
Henleben explained that after farmers sell grain to elevators, the commodities that are going to be exported are loaded onto barges that are pushed by towboats and tugs up and down the 12,000 miles of America’s commercially navigable rivers. Barges carry 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports, according to the National Waterways Foundation. The rest makes it to the Gulf and to the Pacific Northwest by rail and by truck.
After donning bright orange lifejackets, Henleben and I got onto the towboat I had seen idling by the office. The R. Clayton McWhorter's first mate Tyler Banicki and experienced deckhand Billy "Mittins" Vanhorn gave us a tour of the 6,000-horsepower vessel – from the engine room and galley on the first deck, to the crew’s quarters on the second deck, to a gym and guest bunks on the third deck, to the wheelhouse where the towboat's captain, Billy Thetford, steers the vessel from the fourth deck.
Thetford told me that he and his nine-person crew had started this tow in St. Paul, Minn., on Nov. 7 with a group of 12 barges carrying metallic ore, tire chips, soybeans and corn. The barges, which weigh 2,200 tons when they're full, become a unit when the crew lashes them together with thick, strong wires. They're then transported down the river as a rectangular unit. In McGregor, Iowa, the towboat picked up three more barges carrying corn and soybeans before they arrived here and picked up another five empty barges at Ingram's offices near Dupo, Ill. Next, they’ll push this load to Columbus, Ky., where another bigger boat will pick the unit of 20 barges up and push it to the Gulf of Mexico. Then they'll be exported to places around the world.
After we pulled up to the R. Clayton McWhorter’s flotilla, which is four barges wide and five barges long, we headed down to the first deck to see the barges up close. Each one is between 195 and 200 feet long and 35 feet wide. Those full of rubber and metals were open while the hoppers carrying grain have fiberglass tops protecting them from weather. We climbed up on top of a barge containing corn, knocking off ice leftover from the night on our way up, and Banicki opened it up to reveal a bin full of 1,500 tons of yellow corn that's 13 feet high.
"We'd like to load 1,700 tons if we could. We're leaving 200 tons behind [per barge] every time we ship due to the drought," said Henelben, adding that the Mississippi River waters were up to 10 feet lower this year than last year due to the drought.
Next, we checked out one of the empty barges in the tow. It looked like a vast empty swimming pool. Once the barges make it down the river to Louisiana they’ll be loaded with products like fertilizer, cement or coal and will come back up the river to serve the agricultural community or power plants up north.
Over a ham-and-creamed-corn supper in the towboat’s galley, we then talked about how things had changed on the river in the past 40 years. I realized how specialized this work is and how few people get the chance to see how America's commodities make it down the Mississippi on their way to countries all over the world.