Chris Markham: Mississippi Odyssey, excerpt 3

"You sure cut out a big job for yourself," Lonnie Jacobs said, after he had again spoken to the assistant lockmaster. "My good friend Roger says you seem to be an all-right guy." (For that endorsement, Roger Worth, I thank you.) "So if you think a short ride on the Mike Harris will help you out, then you can go aboard."

I took my equipment to the lock's outer platform, looked upriver and saw the Mike Harris turn toward the west bank.

Pushing two open hopper barges of coal, nearly two thousand tons worth, the Mike Harris slipped the barges easily into the lock basin. The towboat was neat and trim, with her decks and bulwark painted a bright red, her bulks a clean, fresh white. She appeared docile and humble tied behind the two monstrous barges. But when those "warehouses" of coal dunes were aligned properly in the chamber, the small snubnosed boat became a mini-powerhouse. The three silver stacks behind her pilothouse belched gray smoke-clouds as her engines delivered one thousand horsepower against the river's current, holding the giant barges at bay and preventing them from running with the river and slamming into the lock's lower gates.

Thunder rolled out of the lock as the barge's right flanks tapped the chamber's walls, and two deckhands quickly tossed mooring lines to the lockmen. When the barges were securely tied to mooring bits, I climbed aboard the Mike Harris for my lift down the Mississippi, my first on a towboat.

I went to the pilothouse and found Bob Synstad at the controls. He was young, much younger than I had expected, and he was very busy.

"Welcome aboard," he said, raising himself up from the pilot's chair, both hands working the rudder levers, then quickly but confidently adjusting the speed and pull of the engines. "Can't talk to you right now," he apologized while he constantly shifted himself to see out the windows of the pilothouse.

The combined length of the towboat and the two barges surpassed the 400-foot lock chamber, and the Mike Harris had to be broken from its tow and tied alongside the barges, with barely inches to spare from its left flank to the opposite lock wall and for the upper gates to close. Then nearly eleven million gallons of Mississippi began to run through the emptying valve, and the deckhands used all their strength to adjust the length and pull of the heavy lines as we descended nearly fifty feet in less than ten minutes.

The huge lower gates eased open, red lights flashed over to green, lock and towboat horns bawled, and we were on our way downstream, quickly covering the short distance to the Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam. Within half an hour, the Falls of St. Anthony were behind us and we were headed downriver, our barges of coal destined for a "landing fleet" -- anchored barges or groups of pilings -- at Lambert's Landing, in St. Paul.

Copyright 2004 Chris Markham, All rights reserved.

excerpt 4