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Icy River Keeps Towboat Pilots Waiting

December 21, 1989

ALTON, Ill. (AP) _ The ice block on the Mississippi River has created a traffic jam of 1,000 barges, giving some pilots time to catch up on their reading.

″Right now, it’s ’Southern Outdoors,‴ Roy East said by CB radio Wednesday from his tugboat, tied up with 22 barges on an island in the icy river just north of Alton. ″Mostly it’s just sit up here, and hurry up and wait.″

A 200-mile stretch of the Mississippi, from Alton, just north of St. Louis, down to Cairo in southern Illinois, was closed indefinitely to barge traffic Monday night by the Coast Guard because ice and low water had combined to make navigation unsafe.

The shutdown comes at the slowest time of year for barge traffic on the river, but it still worries shipping officials who fear damage to barges stuck in and around the ice and mounting costs of idled towboats.

Up to 1,000 barges are sidelined in the St. Louis harbor, a 20-mile section of the river, below a huge ice bridge that has formed just north of the city at the confluence of the Missouri River, according to the Coast Guard. Other barges are idled elsewhere on the river.

Tom Garrett, the captain of the towboat Illini, docked at Alton, said he had rarely seen such a build up at the confluence.

″Usually that Missouri River keeps everything pretty clear,″ Garrett said. ″I figure it’s going to last a long time because we’re not going to get any hot water. I’m sure it’s going to be bad conditions until spring.″

Charles Norman, president of the Norman Brothers Inc. barge company, agreed.

″It’s not fun, but it’s kind of amazing to watch nature do its thing,″ he said.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Dean Jones said there was no way to determine when the river could re-open. He said it depended on when temperatures warmed, the ice melted and the water level rose.

On Wednesday, St. Louis’ temperature ranged from 3 to 20 degrees. The Mississippi was 8 to 10 feet below normal.

Jones said the river levels were lower than any time since 1940. The last time the river was closed because of ice was in January 1977, when barge traffic was restricted for about a week, he said.

Lt. Michael Rand of the Coast Guard’s St. Louis Marine Safety Office said a few towboats have been allowed to travel below St. Louis, but no traffic can get through the chunky ice bridge at the Missouri-Mississippi confluence.

Barge operators in the St. Louis harbor have doubled up on their lines and put out shear barges, which are barges placed at an angle to the shore above each fleet to ward off any large, dangerous chunks of ice that may break off the bridge.

The ice bridge extends about two miles on the Mississippi and about 14 miles back on the Missouri River, Rand said. He said it had formed because there was little current from the Missouri to keep it clear, due to record low water levels.

On Wednesday, officials considered breaking up the jam with dynamite. But with sub-zero temperatures expected for the next several days, ice would simply re-form.

″The cold weather’s coming and it will only make more ice, so we don’t know what’s going to happen,″ Rand said.

Back in Alton, Roy East had managed to pilot his Margaret O. from Cairo to Alton before the river was closed. But he said the Ohio River Co. is sidelining his boat because of ice problems farther upstream on the Illinois River.

East, interviewed by CB radio, said he was hauling coal and scrap iron.

″It costs the company a lot of money, I imagine,″ he said. ″You don’t make any when you’re sitting here.″

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