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Mississippi a busy river for cargo


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A tow with a skein of barges plying the Mississippi River is a familiar site in the Quad-Cities. The beauty of the Missisissippi cannot disguise that is a working river. The Old Miss provides alternative shipping transportation for business and industry.

The Mississippi River is a beautiful backdrop for the Quad-Cities, enticing residents and visitors alike to explore its shoreline and travel its waves.

Its beauty, though, cannot disguise the Mississippi's status as a working river, one of the busiest cargo routes in America.

From the canoes of American Indians to the diesel-powered tows and barges that ply her waters today, the river has been used to transport everything from furs and timber to coal and grain.

In many ways, the Quad-Cities owes the development of its manufacturing base -- and the continued growth of many businesses -- to the river.

``One of the major businesses of Moline Consumers, when it started in 1917, was cutting ice from the river,'' said Oscar Ellis, president of the Moline sand and gravel firm. ``Crews would take big blocks of ice from the river each winter, pack them in sawdust and store them in the warehouses down along the river.

``The ice blocks would be sold in the summer for people to use in their iceboxes,'' Mr. Ellis said.

Rock Island, Moline and Davenport were settled, in part, because of the river and what its topography meant to shipping.

The winding course of the Upper Mississippi was formed by four glaciers covering North America eons ago. The stretch between the rocky bluffs of LeClaire and Muscatine is one of the newest, formed by the last of those glaciers.

When the ice receded, it left the Mississippi flowing over about 14 miles of rocky shoals between LeClaire and Rock Island. Eventually named the Rock Island rapids, the stretch was one of the most treacherous along the river.

A hazard to river travel, the rapids became a boon to Rock Island, Moline and Davenport. The cities provided a natural place for boats to tie off and load and unload cargo and passengers before braving the rapids.

Until the 1850s and 1860s, the river was one of the most economical methods of transportation to the region, and paddlewheelers were a common sight along her shores. With the coming of the railroads, though, the shifting sandbars and sometimes shallow reaches of the upper river lost favor with those moving cargo.

Some efforts were made locally to make the river more usable for shipping, including the construction of a small dam along the Moline waterfront to help Deere & Co. and other manufacturers move equipment and parts in and out of the region.

In the 1930s, the federal government authorized a massive lock and dam project from Minneapolis to the mouth of the Missouri River to ensure the river would have a navigational channel at least 9 feet deep and 400 feet wide.

With the completion of the dams, cargo-laden boats again became a common sight in the Quad-Cities.

Today, millions of tons of corn, petroleum products, gravel and coal pass through the locks surrounding the Quad-Cities each year.

River transportation is still one of the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly methods of moving cargo, Mr. Ellis said. But businesses usually only rely on it ``for the right type of material and the right situation,'' he said.

``It has to be a high-volume commodity, and one that has a relatively low cost per unit and doesn't spoil fast,'' Mr. Ellis said. ``You won't see computers being shipped up and down the Mississippi, but you will see sand and gravel.''

Moline Consumers mostly uses river transportation to move sand and gravel from dredging operations, he said. ``Even now, that material usually goes to and from the river by other means, usually trucks.''

-- By Rebecca Morris (February 9, 1998)

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