From Chicago to Peoria, navigating the Illinois Waterway


Despite the dismal economy and a few towing stoppages while Chicago flushed a surplus of rainwater into the Illinois Waterway (IWW), Robert Barnes, general manager of Illinois Marine Towing (IMT), remained buoyant.

"We've been doing great through this economy," he said from his office near the IWW in Lemont, about 28 miles southwest of Chicago. "It's a good company and we're still making money because we have our own barges. Our niche is from Peoria to Chicago." Between those cities, IMT has fleets at Channahon, Joliet and Lemont.

IMT was founded in 1987 by Leo Cattoni, who sold the company to Canal Barge in September 2009. IMT remains a wholly owned subsidiary of Canal Barge, running a fleet of nine towboats ranging from 600 to 3,000 hp, and 65 hopper barges for dry cargo and petroleum coke.

The IWW system, descending from Lake Michigan, consists of the North Branch and South Branch of the Chicago River, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the Des Plaines River and the Illinois River, formed where the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers meet at Channahon. Some 273 miles downstream, the Illinois River joins the Mississippi at Grafton, Ill. Another section of the IWW is the Calumet Sag Channel running south of Chicago to Lake Michigan. There are eight locks on the IWW.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was built in 1900 to reverse the flow of the Chicago River to direct the city's sewage away from Lake Michigan. As for navigation, it replaced the old and narrow Illinois and Michigan Canal, built in 1848. While riding in an IMT crew van, we encountered the canal several times between Lemont and Joliet, where I boarded Eileen C, a 2,600-hp, Cummins-powered, 75-foot towboat with a telescoping pilothouse.

Eileen C with a tow of six hopper barges — two strings of three — was waiting to lock below the Brandon Road Lock and Dam at the Brandon Road Bridge on the Des Plaines River. The tow, five loads of cement and one empty, was destined for the IMT fleet at Lemont. Capt. Kevin Roy was in the pilothouse.

When the lock gates opened, Roy maneuvered the 600-foot tow into the 600-foot lock. Combined, the boat and tow are 675 feet long, so the deck hands, Gil Salazar and Brian Armstrong, disconnected the face wires and Roy swung Eileen C alongside the starboard side of the tow in the lock chamber.

"The lock is a knockout single," said Roy. "So we have to turn her loose to get in."

While the water rose in the chamber, Roy was busy with paperwork. "My biggest challenge is dealing with the new Coast Guard regulations," he said. "I've been on the river so long that I can deal with the boat and the tow, but it seems like every time I come back on, after 21 days off, I have to do something different. That's more challenging than dealing with the locks and the river."

While the chamber was filling, Roy was relieved by Capt. Rob Derbas, who usually works the fleet at Lemont, but takes a turn on the river now and again. When the gates opened and the deck hands had faced up to the tow, Derbas proceeded to run the gauntlet of bridge piers in Joliet.

The first bridge is the Interstate 80 highway bridge, followed by the McDonough Street drawbridge, the Rock Island railroad bridge, the Jefferson Street drawbridge, the Cass Street drawbridge, the Jackson Street drawbridge, the Ruby Street drawbridge and the EJ&E railroad bridge. All except the I-80-span are old, low and narrow, and the river at the Cass Street bridge throws a curve into the equation.

While Roy negotiated the bridges, Salazar and Armstrong were out walking the tow, lifting the barge hatches and checking for water in the holds, and cinching up the barge coupling wires. It was heavy work in the summer heat, and wire is not the friendliest of materials on the hands nor the back. IMT uses Kevlar face wires, primarily because they are lighter than cable, lessening the possibility of back injuries.

Heading upstream on the last section of navigable water in the Des Plaines River, Eileen C entered the downstream end of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, just below the Lockport Lock and Dam.

Derbas walked the tow, tight to the left descending bank, and waited for instructions from the lockmaster. There was an upbound single in the chamber and a downbound double in the Lockport pool. A recreational boat was also waiting behind Eileen C. The situation was a perfect example of the double-locking dilemma. Once the tow in the chamber locked through, the lockmaster decided to lock the first section of the double down, then lock the recreational boat up, then lock the second of the double down, before locking Eileen C up.

"That's going to take about four hours, minimum," said Derbas, who then set in motion something of a rescue operation to get me off the tow and back to my car in Lemont so I could meet some pending obligations in Chicago.

Back at the office in Lemont, Barnes illuminated two significant issues facing the inland towing industry today: double locking delays and Asian carp. It takes about an hour to conduct a single locking. Double locking takes between two and three hours to complete."It all depends on how fast they can lower or raise the pool," said Barnes. "And that's just the locking part. That's not waiting to lock. On the Illinois Waterway it's a big issue."

Seven of the eight locks on the IWW are singles with 600-foot chambers. A tow larger than eight barges has to double lock. Double locking a 15-barge tow, the largest tow size allowed on the IWW, consists of breaking it in two, one tow of nine barges, three wide, and another of six barges, three wide. The towboat pushes the first nine into the chamber, backs out and faces up to the second tow of six. When the first lockage is complete, the lock tender uses a winch and haul-out cable to pull the first nine barges out of the chamber. "Sometimes they have an assist boat to pull out the first cut," said Barnes.

Then, when the chamber is filled and level with the river above the dam, the towboat pushes the second tow in and locks down with it, and makes up the tow again when the lockage is complete. The delays cost time and money and raise the cost of exports, primarily agricultural commodities from the basin states. And there is the issue of work-related injuries.

"It does add to them because you're making and breaking more tows," said Barnes. "When you're double locking, you've got to break the first 600-feet loose from the other barges and once you get them all through, you've got to put it all back together again. It takes time, and there's more opportunity to get hurt."

There are recommendations afoot to lengthen some of the locks, where congestion is common, to 1,200 feet, but little, if any, action has been initiated. "I haven't seen anything started," said Barnes.

Although the aging lock system on the IWW is a major problem, causing delays and costing money, arguably a larger issue is swimming upstream, headed for the Great Lakes. Asian carp could shut down commercial transportation into Chicago and Lake Michigan. Asian carp, having escaped the confines of catfish farms in the south during flooding, are migrating up the rivers of the Mississippi Basin. They were introduced into the aquaculture industry to devour algae. Now, free to roam, they are gulping the food base of popular sport fish in the rivers of the basin, starving them out. They are ravenous eaters, prolific breeders, can grow to 60 pounds or more, and have no natural predators other than man. And they can fly. Actually they leap, when startled by the sound of a boat motor, making for exciting photos online, but sometimes causing injuries to boaters, too.

Measures have been taken on the IWW to stop or kill off the carp before they enter Lake Michigan. These measures include an electric fence to keep them downriver from Chicago, using poison that also kills other species and encouraging fishermen to take up the rod and go get them. But they keep coming, and the fishing lobby in the basin states and the Great Lakes is on the attack.

So far, attempts by affected states to sue Illinois in the U.S. Supreme Court and get the state to close the T.J. O'Brien Lock and Dam in the Calumet Sag Channel and the Chicago River Lock at Lake Michigan have failed. But a new push is underway. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting studies and argues that closing the locks may not be effective, anyway. The Chicago business community is concerned about the area's economy.

"The Asian carp issue is still a pretty big issue," said Barnes. Currently, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota are attempting to force the federal government to endorse a complete separation of the IWW and the Great Lakes.

"In other words, close the locks in Chicago," said Barnes. "There's an awful lot of freight that goes through those locks. If they close them, then no barges can go into south Chicago and it would greatly endanger our business."

If the locks in Chicago were closed, Barnes said that all the freight would either be diverted from Chicago or transported by truck and rail. Numerous studies have concluded that there are significant economic and environmental advantages of water transportation over road and rail.

For example, an Inland Rivers Ports and Terminals Association study concluded, "The cargo capacity of a barge is 15 times greater than one rail car and 60 times greater than one semi trailer. To move the same amount of cargo transported by a standard tow (15 barges) would require a freight train two and three-quarter miles long or a line of trucks stretching more than 35 miles."

"It would pretty much cause gridlock if that were to happen," said Barnes.

By Professional Mariner Staff