Mississippi Drifting

Twenty-eight straight days pushing freight up and down the Big Muddy -- and oh-so-slowly

One deckhand jokes that "a felony conviction is a prerequisite to work out here."

Alone and in clusters they work along the Mississippi, which stretches from the headwaters of Lake Itasca, in the vast pine forests of northern Minnesota, to New Orleans: loading and unloading barges, driving and maintaining the towboat, keeping it profitable, keeping it alive. And in clusters they eat and laugh and bicker, just like a family. They make it a home and follow a routine. Then they get off the boat and return to their real families for the next 28 days.

Chief engineer Randy Kent (top); watchman Randy Green.
Jennifer Silverberg
Chief engineer Randy Kent (top); watchman Randy Green.
One of deckhand Russell Sacra's nicknames on 
board is Meathead, but only a fool or a friend would call 
him that.
Jennifer Silverberg
One of deckhand Russell Sacra's nicknames on board is Meathead, but only a fool or a friend would call him that.

With so much river, power and weight at a boat's disposal, pulling into Lock 27 at Granite City -- despite the lock's 1,200-foot length -- is a delicate game of inches. Maneuvering a fifteen-barge load into a lock is a lot like pushing a thoroughbred into a starting gate, or a game of Tetris writ large. The goal is to carefully squeeze one 1,200-foot rectangular protrusion into a 1,200-foot rectangular hole. Then the hole will close, and the cavernous elevator will descend about twenty feet.

This southernmost lock on the Mississippi, like all others, regulates the flow of the river by preventing it from gaining so much momentum that it makes commercial use too dangerous. Locks can best be described as a long set of manmade stairs that descend downstream, and for the barge industry, they are a necessary evil.

Locks can only accommodate so many barges at a time (depending on lock size, from nine to fifteen), which limits the barge industry's delivery capacity to and from northern ports. The industry and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are constantly jockeying for lock-improvement money but often come up dry. Environmentalists argue that these locks damage the river's ecosystem, and favor limiting barge traffic on the Mississippi.

Once the load is lowered in the lock, a steel wall swings open, and the boat drifts slowly out at a leisurely six miles an hour and continues along the Chain of Rocks Canal, just north of downtown, and under the Eads Bridge. It'll take the Parsonage a week to travel from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.

From shore, the Mississippi River and the barges that float past downtown St. Louis seem nothing more than props commissioned by the city's tourism industry. The river disappears a quarter-mile either way behind a solid strip of industrial wasteland. For most, the Mississippi is largely ignored, a mere backdrop for the Arch, synonymous with nothing more than the Casino Queen.

Peering out from the Parsonage, though, St. Louis still looks and feels like the thriving river town it once was, this ant farm-active hub along America's dry-goods superhighway. The proof lies just south of the MacArthur Bridge, where tugboats work the river all the way down to the Jefferson Barracks Bridge. Around the clock, the boats deliver empties, swap for full loads and connect northbound and southbound towboats.

With the Budweiser sign glowing in the distance at Anheuser-Busch's headquarters, the Parsonage cuts its engines and drifts starboard toward a massive collection of barges moored along the banks. For the rest of the night, deckhands will work with tugboats that roam the river near south city, gathering and connecting seven barges to the Parsonage. The little tug that ferries the barges can only deliver a few at a time, and each must be individually secured, which takes about 40 minutes. Multiply that by a dozen exchanges, and before long it is past midnight.

In a generic conference room, Mark Knoy, president of Chesterfield-based MEMCO Barge, sits in front of a large easel and four markers and draws a rudimentary map of the entire inland river system. He enjoys creating diagrams to illustrate his points.

The third-largest barge operator in the country with 800 employees, MEMCO was founded by Noble C. Parsonage in the mid-1970s; in 1988 Parsonage sold the company to Progress Energy, which in turn sold it in 2001 to American Electric Power, a Columbus, Ohio-based multinational energy company, for $270 million.

Knoy has worked his way from deckhand to the president of a company that last year amassed $350 million in revenue. MEMCO owns 35 towboats that run the entire Mississippi Valley River system.

He points to a spot on his map near Kentucky and West Virginia. "This is coal country, and you have a tremendous amount of power plants built in the Ohio River Valley, because 1) utility plants need a lot of water, and 2) they need fuel. This is where Mother Nature put the fuel -- put all the coal."

He points to Pittsburgh, then to Chicago, where steel is made, then to the plains states: "Then we have the grain. Fertilizer goes up [the river], grain goes down." All told, roughly 600 million tons of material are shipped annually through the inland riverway system.

The Christopher M. Parsonage was built in 1998 and named after the son of MEMCO's founder. It measures 180 feet long and 48 feet wide. It's a three-story workboat shaped like an oblong pyramid. The top deck is the wheelhouse, a square room with a 360-degree view of the river. The guest quarters are below it: two separate bedrooms and bathrooms connected by a sitting room that faces the towhead, and below the guest rooms are the crew's quarters. On the main level is the galley, the TV room, two more bedrooms, the engineer's office and the hotter-than-Hell engine room. Below the waterline is a subdeck, where the engines sit.

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