“. . . [T]he object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, and such principal streams of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, … may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce …”
— President Thomas Jefferson, instructions to Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark before their 1804-1806 exploration of territory acquired in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase
The Missouri was virtually dead to navigation. President Jefferson would be very disappointed.
For someone who grew up on the Mississippi River, one thing was very noticeable during a June 11-14 bicycle ride along the Missouri River on the Katy Trail: the complete lack of commercial traffic on the Missouri. (See June 17 blog post, “Cruisin’ on the Katy: Part II.)
We didn’t see a single towboat or barge on the 150-mile stretch of river from Boonville, where the Katy Trail joins the Missouri, to St. Charles, the St. Louis suburb just upriver from the Missouri’s confluence with the Mississippi. I saw one outboard-powered johnboat on the river at St. Charles.
The river was running high and fast during our ride. At one point, I stopped to watch the swift current treat a large navigation buoy — anchored on the river bed — like a fishing cork, completely burying the buoy in the water for several seconds at a time.
But high water, caused by snowmelt in the Rockies and heavy rains upriver, has been rare along the Missouri in recent years. A drought that began with the turn of the 21st century lasted well into the century’s first decade, accelerating a steady decline in barge traffic that started around 1977, when barges carried about 3.3 million tons of goods on the Missouri.
“In 2002, the amount hauled dipped below 1 million tons and has failed to reach that level again,” said a Jan. 7 story in The Kansas City Star. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that barges hauled about 300,000 tons in 2007 and 350,000 tons in 2008. That compares to the Chain of Rocks Lock on the Mississippi River near St. Louis, where barges hauled 68 million tons in 2007.”
Other problems for navigation on the 2,540-mile-long Missouri: The river has no lock system like the Mississippi, so it’s narrower and faster than the Mississippi. That makes it difficult to handle the loads that are typical on the Mississippi above St. Louis: 15 barges, three abreast, lashed together. Water levels are unpredictable, dependent, of course, on rains and the Army Corps of Engineers’ release of water from six reservoirs in the Dakotas and Montana. And in the heartland drained by the Missouri, it has become cheaper to haul grain by rail than by barge, partly because of the higher fuel costs of navigating a fast-flowing river.
In the time of Lewis and Clark, said Peter Geery, a St. Charles resident whom I interviewed for a 2002 story about preparations for the bicentennial observance of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Missouri River at St. Charles was about 1 1/2 miles wide and about 17 inches deep. It had a channel from 3 to 5 feet deep, and the current ran at 2 to 4 mph. After years of dam and levee construction by the Corps of Engineers in the 20th century, the Missouri at St. Charles now is less than two-tenths of a mile wide, has a channel 9 to 30 feet deep and a current of 7 to 12 mph, said Geery, who participated in a re-enactment of the Corps of Discovery’s expedition aboard locally built boats.
All of this has made for a busy Mississippi River and a virtually dead Missouri. In 2006, about 60 percent of the nation’s agricultural commodities were exported on the Mississippi.
Grain tows on the upper Mississippi move about 22,500 tons (15 barges each carrying about 1,500 tons). That’s equivalent to about 225 rail cars or 865 tractor-trailer units.
North of St. Louis on the Upper Mississippi River, towboats usually pack 3,000 to 5,000 horsepower. As the river becomes deeper and wider below St. Louis, the boats are larger because they’re allowed to push more barges. Some towboats on the lower Mississippi can produce up to 10,000 horsepower.
As a kid, I used to stand on the limestone bluffs at Alton, Ill., on the Mississippi just upriver from St. Louis and watch the steady flow of barge traffic up and down the river. The Mississippi, for me, was a source of never-ending wonder, and a broad, brown avenue to a much larger world: Memphis, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and places even farther away. I fantasized about working as a towboat deckhand to get to New Orleans and then signing on as a merchant mariner to see the wider world.
A kid on the Missouri River these days would be deprived of such daydreams.