We would be remiss to not devote an entire blog to discussing the primary human use of the Illinois River: commerce. Us paddlers are not the main characters in this post; it’s the barges we saw, the locks and dams we passed through, and the Army Corps of Engineers that is behind it all. Now, for the story of the Illinois River highway.
Engineering the River Highway
Not surprisingly, commerce currently dominates the river traffic on the Illinois. We saw a decent number of pleasurecraft (aka recreational motorboats), and a small handful of fellow paddlers, but the vast majority of boats on the river were massive, lumbering barges. Made up of a single tugboat pushing a long chain of barges (storage vessels that float), this unit is the standard for river commerce these days. And the river highway has been engineered to make barge travel as easy as possible.
|This barge is moving upstream (right). The white tugboat (left) is pushing the linked barges from behind.|
Before it was made into a “navigable” river, commerce still took place on the Illinois. For a while, the French voyageurs were the main traders on the waterway, and their canoes functioned as the first barges on the river. Despite the chance that disaster could strike at each set of rapids, they dared to use the river in its natural state. Although we too are paddling the river hundreds of years later, it is nowhere near as dangerous or difficult a task. In fact, we’re paddling a totally different river.
|From right to left in the image, barges descend the river like a staircase|
Original artwork by Daniel M. Short
|The dredging boat sucks up sand and water, sends it through a pipe...|
|...that deposits it here, alongside someone's corn field. Mark is wondering who will clean up this mess.|
The Last Lock and Dam
Barges and locks and dams were so much a part of our everyday experience on the river that we barely noticed them by the end. I wouldn’t be writing about them so long after their mystique wore off if not for our visit to the Melvin Price Lock and Dam on our very last day in Illinois. We were already done with paddling – we’d packed up our canoes and sent them back to Minnesota with Natalie the day before – so we transported ourselves by car/legs down to the lock and dam in Alton.
|Melvin Price Lock and Dam - an impressive and formidable structure|
Photo credit to George W. Goeken
|Melvin Price from above: small chamber on left, large chamber on right|
Most people forget about river commerce, but barges are big business. After we toured the Melvin Price Lock and Dam, I picked up a lot of cool facts and statistics at the on-site Great Rivers Museum to reinforce this claim. As mentioned above, the Army Corps has engineered a river that allows a 24/7 shipment of goods upstream and downstream. In general, coal, steel, chemicals, and oil move upriver, while corn and soybeans move downriver. On the Upper Mississippi alone (the river north of St. Louis), barges transport $77 billion of goods each year! And they do so in a much more economical and fuel-efficient way than trucks and even trains. Barges produce nearly a quarter of the emissions that trucks produce with the same amount of cargo. At this time, barges represent 14% of intercity commerce in the U.S., and they make up only 3% of the total cost. Seems like the government should be pouring a lot of resources into expanding river commerce. But putting more barges on the river isn’t the solution; we would need to rebuild dozens of locks to be the size of Melvin Price to see massive improvements in efficiency. Is it worth the multi-multi-billion dollar investment? Maybe. The Army Corps is currently rebuilding the Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River, which could be the next step in a major overhaul of America’s river infrastructure. If it does happen, it will likely take a long, long time.