While most of us are in a dead sleep, thousands of people are hard at work, quietly moving millions of tons of grain down rivers like the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio to southern ports in New Orleans. From there, gigantic freighters take the grain and keep it moving to distant destinations in foreign lands.
For now, that river system is snarled due to Hurricane Katrina. But soon, barges will be moving as swiftly and efficiently as before the storm.
In the dark of night, Minnesota deck hands Dwayne Thilgen and Mike Shepperson begin by lashing enormous barges together. When carefully coupled and as solid as a brick, these groups of barges, called tows, are attached to larger, more powerful tow boats to begin transporting your corn and soybeans on their long journey down the Mississippi River.
Rain or shine, the river never stops and neither does barge traffic. In Minnesota, for example, barges are constantly being loaded and shipped south from first thaws in April to first freezes around Thanksgiving. River traffic shuts down on the Upper Mississippi during winter.
Life on the river takes brute strength and just plain grit. Thilgen has both. As lead deck hand on the J.L. Fleming, he's been with Upper River Services, a Twin Cities harbor switching company, for four years. Upper River runs 16-18 tow boats, each with a captain and two deck hands.
Thilgen wouldn't trade his open air workplace for a desk job, even though cold weather and hearty winds test him. Neither would Dave Glewwe, the Fleming's captain.
Glewwe has been on the river for 30 years, starting as a cleaning hand. “Even now, after all these years, I learn something new every day,” he says.
Tow boat crews at the St. Paul harbor work 12-hour days — nine days on and three days off. Glewwe has been piloting the Fleming for 15 years straight. And as he puts it, “It's 11 hours and 45 min. of boredom for 15 min. of pure fear and terror.
“Going through bridges and locks are the toughest part, but that's when I get the thrill and rush from the job,” he says.
Generally, a tow consists of 15 barges, three wide and five long. That tow is then manually split in half so it can work its way through each lock in the river system. Each barge is 200 ft. × 35 ft., or about the size of two basketball courts end to end. When loaded, there's a 9 ft. draft; a 1 ft. draft when empty. Draft means how much barge is below water level. Each barge holds about 1,500 tons or the equivalent of 60 semi loads of grain. A 15-barge tow holds 900 semi loads, that's about 787,000 bu., and is ¼ mile long.
Maneuvering this 15-barge monstrosity downriver and through locks is no small task. It takes a seasoned captain and 6,000 hp to do the job. Captains like Danny Brown, who has been piloting large tow boats for 30 years, started riding the river at age five with his dad. Today, he's one of two captains that operate the Bruce R. Birmingham tow boat owned by the Ingram Barge Company. His boat takes the tows assembled by the Fleming and moves them 669 miles from St. Paul down the Mississippi, through 26 locks, to St. Louis.
The Mighty Mississip drops a total of 400 ft. during that distance. From there, since there aren't any more locks, tows of 42 barges are strapped together for the final trip to New Orleans.
Unlike the smaller J.L. Fleming, which puts the tows together, the Birmingham has a crew of nine — two captains, a cook, an engineer and five deck hands. The crew is split in two and each works shifts of six hours on and six hours off for 28 days. After their 28-day stint, they're off to their homes and families for 28 days.
Crews like those on the Fleming and the Birmingham serve as a cost-effective cog in the ag commodity transportation system.