Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Another coal cutback

As less coal is burned to produce electricity, fewer people are needed to handle coal, whether on the railroad, on water or on shore. Now AEP is reducing staff at its big rail-to-barge operation at Metropolis, Illinois.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Big Sandy River navigation

Last night was the opening night for most high school football teams here in West Virginia. But I had other places to be. At one point I found myself in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, standing on the remains of Lock and Dam 1.

It was hot and humid down there on the old concrete lock wall. The valley is narrow, the land next to the river is wet, and the lock wall itself is covered in moss or lichen or something green and probably slippery. The river there is deep, and I didn't want to fall in, so I walked carefully.

Others were there. To my left, toward the mouth of the river, a man, a woman and a teenage boy had set up a tent. It looked like they were getting ready for an overnight fishing adventure. Upstream a johnboat moved from the shore out to the river channel and back. It was occupied by two men. One sat and one stood, shirtless.

When I go to those places, I can't help but throw myself back a few decades to imaging what it looked, sounded and smelled like. In this case, Lock and Dam 1 was the lower structure on a system that had three dams controlling the Big Sandy 27 miles upstream to Louisa, KY, and Fort Gay, WV.  The Big Sandy's two forks -- the Levisa and the Tug -- each had a lock and dam to provide slackwater navigation on them.

Lock and Dam 1 was completed in 1905. At low water on the Ohio, it provided a 21-foot lift to keep coal and other commodities moving out of or into the Big Sandy. It had one lock, on the Kentucky side, measuring 55 feet by 160 feet. But as Leland Johnson pointed out in his great book "Men Mountains and Rivers", the Ohio River lock and dam system had not yet been built. Actually, in 1905 the Ohio River system was four years away from approval and funding. So at times of the year when the Ohio ran low, Lock and Dam 1 was more or less a dead end to navigation on the Big Sandy.

Another thing that didn't help was that by the time Lock and Dam 1 was finished, the Norfolk and Western railroad had already finished its main line on the WV side of the Big Sandy, and the Chesapeake and Ohio had finished its main line on the Kentucky side. The railroads were taking business that formerly belonged to the Big Sandy.

The Big Sandy got its name for a reason. Even today the Corps of Engineers has to dredge the river to remove the sand and silt that collects in the navigation channel. Sand and silt were major problems to keeping the Big Sandy open and the locks usable back a hundred years ago.

But the locks did their job.

Lock and Dam 29 on the Ohio River at Ashland, KY, was finished in the 1920s. It kept a navigation pool at 498.5 feet above mean sea level. That improvement reduced Big Sandy Lock and Dam 1's lift to 13.5 feet.

The Greenup Locks and Dam on the Ohio River raised its pool in or about 1961. That meant the removal of four old dams on the Ohio -- 30, 29, 28 and 27 -- and Lock and Dam 1 on the Big Sandy.

Today navigation is limited to the lower eight miles or so where the Corps of Engineers dredges to keep the river open for some coal docks and industrial installations. Back in the early 1980s the Corps studied the idea of restoring navigation all the way up the river and onto the Tug and the Levisa. A few people liked the idea, but most shippers said it would be a waste of resources, and the idea died.

The lock wall is a spot for fishermen of various species. As I was about to leave, a heron landed about 20 or 30 yards away. It was the closest I'd everi been to a heron that was not lost or ill. I tried walking toward it, but it walked away from me, matching my speed. I had no desire to walk a long distance on the wet concrete in those conditions, so I left without getting a sharp, clear picture. The heron won.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A British view of Cairo (Updated)

The Daily Mail of the UK has run a photo spread of Cairo, Illinois, saying the city is reverting back to nature as the town empties of people.

I've been to Cairo twice in my life, in 1986 and 2013. I'm thinking about a gofundme campaign or something so I can rent a small car and go down there for a couple of days. Cairo, Paducah and a few other places. Leave early one morning, spend two or three working days there, come back and fill the blog with my impressions of the Lower Ohio for several days.

One thing I won't do is go down there with the idea of telling the world what dreary or awful places these communities are. My wife is from southern West Virginia, where big-city journalists parachute in, interview few people disappointed with their lot in life and go back to write a story about wretched hillbillies. As my wife says, you don't walk into someone's house and tell them they live in a dump.

These places are people's homes, and they needed to be treated with respect as such. Writing the typical gloom and doom story is easy. It's so easy, it's almost predictable when you see the headline that someone has done it again.

That's the plan. Good idea or bad?

# # #

I should have known better.

I looked at the Daily Mail page about Cairo again and I saw a couple of links at the bottom. I clicked on one and saw the same images. So somebody lifted someone else's work. I don't care who did what.

It was an old thing to begin with.

Sorry about that.

But I'm still going to Cairo again someday. It's high up on my bucket list.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Monday evening scenery

My camera does not do well in low-light situations, but ...

... I was down by the river near my favorite bridge, so I decided to get a shot anyway. This is the result.

Monday morning scenes

For some reason, litter on the Ohio River bank interests me. I don't like seeing it, but seeing what kind is there gives insight into the consumer preferences of people who litter.

I liked this bottle because of the position and its shadow.

At the other end of the spectrum is the M/V Nashville Hunter upbound.

Now to see what the rest of the day will bring.

Friday, August 19, 2016

From the archives: Fishing at the boat ramp

Ten years ago today, August 19, 2006, I snapped this picture at the H.K. Butler boat ramp on the Ohio side a few miles below the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam. Across the river to the south is the community of Glenwood, West Virginia, the first place around here to go under water when the river reaches flood stage.

I don't know who he is or how successful he was that day. It's just a picture taken with an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera. This is the unedited image straight from the camera.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Catching up: A flatboat stops at Huntington

The morning of July 18, I had two family errands to tend to. One was around daybreak, and the other would be a couple of hours later. Naturally, I spent some time around the river between the two. While crossing Huntington’s East End bridge, I saw a small boat coming down the river. Odd, I thought, that a pleasure craft would be out on the river this early on a Monday morning.

I drove ahead on down to Harris Riverfront Park to see if there were some river pictures to get. While there, I came across a man who said he was waiting on a flatboat coming down the river, one containing an author who had written a best-selling book about doing the whole Oregon Trail by covered wagon. I remembered reading something about this fellow as he left or passed Pittsburgh, so naturally I had to hang around. 

And there it came down the river, a motorized flatboat.

In my nearly forty years of writing this and that about the Ohio and its tributaries, I’ve interviewed several people who took boats from Pittsburgh to Cairo and beyond. The trip is harder than it looks, and some people didn’t make it. A couple of years ago, one guy who did used a canoe. A year or two before that, another person swam the length of the river, although I didn’t get to meet her. Back in the 1980s, another man used a homemade raft and got down to the Mississippi, where the big boats scared him out of continuing on to New Orleans.

So I snapped a few pictures as the flatboat passed me, looking for a place to tie up. I had told the man waiting for it about some sediment that had accumulated along the river wall at the park’s upper end. The flatboat went down below that and tied up at the lower end.

More pictures followed. 

The man in white asked me about getting some coffee. I told him he was a few blocks from a Starbucks. No, he said, he wanted something better than that. He griped about modern coffee, about the kind grown in Vietnam and sold in the U.S., about this and that about coffee.

My time had run out, and I had to pick up my granddaughter, as I had papaw duty that day.

That evening, after I dropped by granddaughter off with me daughter following her day at work, I headed back to the river and got a few pictures of an Ingram boat at sunset. The flatboat was still at the park, but things were quiet as compared to the morning. The coffee-loving guy in white was gone. There were five or six people on board that morning, but now I saw only two. I asked one if Rinker Buck were there. A man in a blue shirt said he was Rinker Buck, and he invited me aboard. I told him The Waterways Journal said it might want a photo and an extended caption about this craft heading down the Ohio. I also said I had read the Amazon reviews of his book “TheOregon Trail” and it sounded something like what William Least Heat Moon had done in “Blue Highways”. We agreed that “Blue Highways” was a pretty good book, and we talked briefly about Least Heat Moon’s subsequent works.

Buck opened a chest, got a copy of “The Oregon Trail” and autographed it for me, and we proceeded to talk about information for a cutline to go with my photo, if The Waterways Journal used it.

We sat in the open on a fairly quiet evening at the park. Almost no one was fishing on this hot Monday evening. The skateboarders up the hill weren’t making much noise if they were even there. With my notebook in hand, Buck started talking as I asked questions. He allowed me to pause to get a photo of the M/V Nashville Hunter as it passed us upbound. I figured I would impress him by talking about the history of this relatively new towboat, where it was designed, how it came to be and such. I have no idea if he was impressed, but I had to present my river credentials.

Buck said he, too, is a former newspaper journalist, having started at the Berkshire Eagle – “the best country newspaper in America” – in 1973. (I didn’t say it, but for a few years we at the Huntington paper put out some pretty good stuff, too). Since then he has written for several magazines and published five books. He said he and his brother were the first people to do the entire Oregon Trail in a hundred years without the help of support vehicles following along. The electric bicycle on the flatboat’s roof was the only support vehicle he and his crew had, he said.

That trip from Kansas through to Oregon included a stop at a place on the Columbia River where the pioneers would be very near the end of the line. After the long trip, their mules would be near death and their wagons would be beat up. Some settlers took advantage of free passage on the river in exchange for their wagons, which would be rebuilt into boats or salvaged for lumber for use there in Oregon.

These pioneers would have been familiar with the flatboat history on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, so this deal would have been familiar to them, Buck said.

Thus came the idea for Buck’s next book, which will be about his river trip on a flatboat and the flatboat era.

“This era created the modern American economy,” he said.

“I’m going to write a book about the flatboat era. How can you do that until you ride it in a real flatboat?”

As we talked, we were joined by Buck’s sole remaining crewmember, Brady Carr were on board. Buck said he met Carr while at a book signing in Columbia, South Carolina.

“He came and said, ‘Do you need a crew for your next project?’ I jumped across the room and landed in his lap,” Buck said.

Rinker Buck and Brady Carr

Buck’s boat is called the Patience. It’s 14 feet wide and 36 feet long. Its draft is 18 inches. The structure above the water line is poplar. Below the water line, it’s made of oak because oak can take the abuse of river traffic, where you bump into logs and debris, better, Buck said.

The Patience was built by John Cooper of Gallatin, Tennessee. Buck put the Patience in the Monongahela River at Elizabeth, Pennsylvania (hey, that’s where I was last summer for the christening of the M/V Michael T. Somales and the wedding of its namesake, I said). Their stop in Huntington was the ninth day of their trip.

“This boat has performed beautifully,” Buck said.

Carr said, “It’s taken some getting used to. I’ve never piloted something with a flat bottom and a sail. It’s done a great job. It’s a tough-built boat.

“The boat has a perfect name. The river is all about patience.”

Buck said he was interested in the big towboats he had seen. He said he and Carr did their best to stay out of the way of the big boats.

They had stopped at Huntington to change the oil and do other maintenance on the boat. And to ride out a big storm that had been forecast. The storm never came, causing them to think they could have made a few more miles that day.

# # #

As for this entry, I had planned to run it earlier, but I lost my notebook. I looked all over for it until I found it out in the open on an end table in my living room. Go figure.

I’ve been reading “The Oregon Trail.” When I read fiction, I tend to read to quickly and zoom through it. With this book, as with most nonfiction, I tend to read more slowly, in chunks spread over several days. It’s been an interesting read so far. Among other things, I found the section on the history of mule breeding in America pretty interesting.

Learning how people in the pre-industrial age executed such a long trip has been a relief from some other things I’ve been reading, such as how the PJM power auctions work. Although I haven’t finished it, I would recommend it to people interested in learning the history of America as it was experienced by the settlers who traveled west.

As for the Patience, its website is http://www.flatboatpatience.com/. The boat is now on the lower Ohio, and Buck has started a blog about the journey and people he meets.

# # #

The Waterways Journal ran two of my photos of the Patience in its August 8 issue. And the long cutline they wanted? It was long enough that I got a byline for it.

# # #

Have you ever walked away from something and only later regretted not asking a question that would have sounded kind of smart-alecky at the time? In my case, that question was how Buck planned to get home once he got to New Orleans. Would he sell the Patience for its lumber, put the money in his pocket and walk back to New England or wherever on the Natchez Trace? We'll probably have to wait and see.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Life finds a way

A long time ago, when I was a youngster in high school, I considered a career in agronomy. But I chose journalism instead. That former interest came back to me this morning as I looked at some of the young plant life on the Ohio River bank -- and some of the old plant life, too.

The odds are against these young botanical specimens surviving long, but some will, somewhere. As Ian Malcolm said, life finds a way.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Playing catchup (again)

When you Internet is down for a few days and then comes back on four days before the tech guy is supposed to arrive, you get behind. Behind in your work, behind in your playing, behind in your blogging ...

It will take me a few days, but I will do my best to catch up.

To keep you interested, try this article from my wife's favorite working journalist. It's about how coal shipments on the Ohio continued their decline in the first half of this year. A later entry will have a chart and more exposition on what's going on.

Now it's off to try to earn some money. ...