Captain Shay Smith of "The Island Queen" prepares for an afternoon trip

By Devin Greaney

University of Memphis 

Senior Project

April, 2007

The Memphis Riverboats sit at the old harbor waiting for passengers. The spot seems to embody the Port of Memphis as tourists take to the water seeing the modern city while capturing the past as it evokes the image of the grand old days of the paddle wheeler. But it keeps the modern safety technology and Coast Guard certified pilots on board.

In 2004 Memphis was, according the US Army Corps of Engineers statistics, the 41st largest Port in the United States. Coincidently Memphis is also the 41st largest metro area. That year 17,520,436 tons went through the riverfront which includes President’s Island, the Wolf River Harbor and West Memphis, plus some other industry at various locations nearby.  To see the beginning of the Port’s influence on Memphis today, a bit of background is needed.  

In 1541, there were not many people who could scare troops of the Spanish empire but one naval force with military precision could hit their troops with a fleet of about 250 quick and small boats on the Rio Espiritu Santo. They nearly defeated the Spaniards. And it happened in the Memphis area.

“These were not just a bunch of guys in canoes throwing sticks and rocks but they were very sophisticated and organized,” says Dr. David Dye of the University of Memphis anthropology department. The Native Americans in and around what is now Memphis lived in and around the Mississippi for many of the reasons people live there today. “People first came here 14 thousand years ago but we know of the first organized fleets of canoes began in what we call the Mississippian period which was from about 1000 ad to when Hernando De Soto arrived in 1541,” he says.   

The canoes made by these early Memphians could hold up to thirty five people and were made from cutting and burning cypress trees. In addition to war canoes, they were used for fishing, food gathering and hunting. The villages and towns had a hierarchical structure. “Important people travel widely negotiating and establishing alliances with neighbors,” Dye says. No one knows when it happened, but these people were the creators of the Port of Memphis and started an industry that still thrives in Memphis.   

Like most cities, Memphis was founded to be close to the water but high up where flooding was not- or generally not- a danger. It has been the focal point for the cities life bringing traditions from the 4th of July fireworks to the landing of the Carnival Memphis barge to hundreds of thousands of sunsets.

The Port has also brought tragedy. Slaves were unloaded by steamship on the cobblestones. The Battle of Memphis took several ships and their crew to the bottom of the river. The steamer “Sultana” caught fire three years later near what is now North Memphis, with more casualties than that of the “Titanic.” A steamer landed at Memphis with a yellow fever victim and the disease decimated the population. Cow Island Bend near the Tennessee/ Mississippi border has seen two tragedies- The “Norman,” that capsized in 1925 killing 23 and the Feb 10, 1944 crash of American Airlines flight 2 that killed all 24 on board- the 4th deadliest plane crash in the US at the time.  

The Port of Memphis was once centered at the cobblestones downtown across from Mud Island, but starting in the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s, the US Army Corps of Engineers turned President’s Island into a peninsula and raised the land above the floodplain. After the creation of the causeway and the slack water harbor known as Lake Mc Kellar, the Port changed more dramatically than any other time in its history.   

But as interesting as that history is, this the remainder of the paper will study where the Port of Memphis is today and what it may be like in the future. 

At the flagpoles at Mud Island is the 736 mile marker, which is measured from the Gulf of Mexico, a testament to the meandering of the river. An elevation at the river of about 190 feet above mean sea level makes about a four inch drop per mile in the river, keeping the water flowing south. Memphis is on the lower Mississippi which means it is south of Cairo, Illinois. Headed north starting at Granite City, Illinois to Minneapolis, Minnesota, the river is crossed by 30 locks to keep the water level high enough for navigation. Another difference between the upper and the lower Mississippi are the ports in the south are open all year while ports are closed in the winter in areas where the ice flows may strand boats all winter.  Dealing with the ports, locks and navigation is a discipline which requires more than on the job training. Memphis is a center for learning the rules of navigation up and down the Mississippi and other waterways.   

In a non-descript office far away from the Mississippi River, Andy Burkman, chief instructor of Davis Marine School, helps students work on their Coast Guard licenses. He has seen changes over his ten plus years in the river industry.

Randy Vanderslick of Springfield, Missouri practices for his steersman exam at Davis Marine.

“The biggest change in the last ten years has been the licensing requirements. Up until 1995 the license to operate was obtained by putting in time on deck and passing an exam,” he says. Today class time is required. He is giving the rules of the river to four employees of different companies working on their steersman license. In 5 to 7 days they will have had the class time to take their test – which requires a score of ninety percent to pass.

Licenses are issued by grade - steersman, pilot and masters- and by endorsement - Western Rivers, Great Lakes, inland waters and the ocean. One person can have any number of licenses and Davidson Marine assists in helping acquire those licenses.

Another requirement also added for pilots and masters was the radar endorsement, which is attached to licenses. Though hardly a new invention, the radar shows the world of technology is part of the pilot house that is always changing. “About 1989 or 1990 we started getting computers in the wheelhouse,” he remembers.

Changing, yes, but not all changes have been shown to be for the better, Burkman adds. Shortly after computers came aboard the thinking was to have Global Positioning System technology locate the position of the vessel, the computer calculate the stage of the river and then create an autopilot system. The thinking was this would save on fuel because the pilot would not use more fuel than necessary. “The first thing they had to do was put a manual override,” he says because the computer was thinking one setting would work, but those in the pilot house could see it was not. Today GPS is used to track the ships, but not as much to autopilot them, Burkman says. That is still the realm of a good pilot. But efficiency is still a goal of the barge lines and businesses that cater to them have to keep efficiency as part of their operations. When the boats are moving is when money is made. Economy Boat Store keeps the boats supplied and moving.   

There is no shutting down this grocery/ gas station/ hardware store/ taxi. Economy Boat Store sits just south of the three bridges waiting for a radio call from a ship headed up or down the Mississippi. The small workhorses of boats at Economy are loaded up with the order and bring the load out to the Mississippi travelers. In addition, the boats also take back crew members as they change out every thirty days. With a major airport, the Port of Memphis is a logical choice for crew transfer.

Jody Davenport, Sara McCaskill and Debra Gross prepare for the next shipment

Pallets of supplies make this facility look like the stockroom of a Wal-Mart as an employee pulls a cart of groceries, preparing for a barge on the river. Orders include rope, hardware and magazines. Today one includes a valentine card a crew member to send to someone back home. Considering tow boat crews often spend thirty days living on the river, shipments do not end at food and hardware. Weather is the company’s biggest challenge says Jody Davenport, general manager for Economy Boat Store. “When the news advises the weather is bad and to stay home, we don’t tell our employees that,” he adds. Another Mother Nature blow was in 2005 when hurricanes disrupted the fuel supplies. 

Fuel, groceries, hardware and supplies are  Davenport says. “Our fuel jobs - we do 6 to 8 a day going out with a boat and a fuel barge- takes three to four hours,” Davenport says.

Fueling has changed over the years and will continue to change, according to Davenport. Economy does what is called midstream refueling that is the boat heads up or downstream without stopping as the fueling takes place so those three to four hours are spent in transit making money rather than pulled over at a dock unproductively wasting time and money. He ads that by June of  2007 low sulfur fuels will be the  rule for commercial vessels on the river, which will make the prices higher.   

Davenport has a unique perspective as a 40-year-veteran of the river industry going from deckhand to truck driver to pilot. He says the biggest change he has seen in the industry has been the emphasis on homeland security since September 11, 2001. Now, like the airlines, a percentage of bags of crewmembers are checked before they are boarded. Licensing requirements have also had an effect. He says it takes about three to five years to go from deckhand to pilothouse. In order to keep those people employed, “Pay is going up tremendously. They probably have been underpaid for years,” he says. 

Jay Morgan leaves Economy Boat Store en route to the "Angie Golding"

It was a grocery order for the “Angie Golding” of the Port of Vicksburg, Mississippi that brought Jay Morgan of Economy out on the water this cold Saturday morning. Boarding the small craft the first thing one notices is how much larger the river looks compared to when you look down on it from the bank. Donning life jackets we head south.

“Angie Golding” is near the mouth of Lake Mc Kellar near Presidents Island. She is headed north towing oil. Morgan pulls alongside as two deckhands meet our boat and tie the two together.

The crew helps unload the supplies from one moving boat to another.

The team effort quickly unloads the supplies onboard. At no time do the boats slow down. They just keep pushing upstream towards Memphis as our smaller one pulls away much faster. It felt smooth docking the two boats but Morgan says, “You couldn’t feel how I was fighting that current.”

Old photos of ships headed down the Mississippi carrying cotton are standard imagery of the South. And yes, cotton is still carried that way but now with container transportation the efficiency is increased, though it may not be as picturesque. AMERICAN HERITAGE magazine in December, 1994 listed Malcolm Mclean, creator of the system, number one in an article titled “Agents of Change: You’ve Probably Never Heard of Them but These Ten People Changed your Life” stating he changed international trade, productivity and even local geography through this system. 

The surprising thing about container transportation on the river is that it is still a fairly new way of getting product up and downstream. It is so logical and efficient one would think it had been going on for a century. At Fullen Dock and Warehouse in Frayser Lanny Chalk, Terminal Manager, shows the ease in which a 70,000 pound container is loaded from a barge onto a truck.

A tractor trailer backs up to the barge. A crane lifts the container- designed to fit on a barge, railcar or truck- from the ship. In one or two minutes, the container is on the truck, driving away towards the highway. Today Chalk says they are unloading wood products from Brazil

Container transportation is a daily event at Fullen Dock and Warehouse

“Barge containers are very new to the industry,” Chalk says. “For every barge that is sent that took 89 trucks off the road,” according to Chalk.

Being in Memphis is a plus for his industry. “You’ve got five major railroads and Interstates heading north, south east and west,” he says. “I think there are a lot of people in Memphis not aware of the options on the water … The mindset has always been rail or truck so you have to educate people,” he says. “I still see a lot of growth on the water due to transport costs. We are just beginning to grow. Europe has been using this for many years,” Chalk says.

A common theme many of the interviewees mention is the Post 9/11 emphasis on homeland security. The writer of this paper was photographing the Valero Refinery from a public park and a public street with no attempt to conceal himself. Two security representatives in two different vehicles arrived and asked to see identification. Security took down the information and asked the digital images be erased from the camera’s memory.

Several agencies have the responsibility of public safety on the river, be it a natural, man made, intentional or unintentional incident.

In 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency introduced the National Incident Management System which is a way for several different organizations – public and private- to coordinate in the event of large incidents. Had something like the “Sultana” tragedy happened today, the idea is to facilitate all agencies working together. Through the FEMA protocols which are now being cascaded to many agencies, Coast Guard, Police, Fire and towing companies know the chain of command for responding to the accident and to whom to report. Tennessee and Arkansas authorities are able to communicate with each other as well as with federal agencies. The Coast Guard on the water will have the same incident commanders as the Tennessee and Arkansas Highway Patrols shutting down bridges. The hospitals would be working with the same terminology and understanding that the people on the scene would be using for a coordinated effort to deal with the crisis.

That same year, The Code of Federal Regulations Title 33 Part 101 introduced the Maritime Security Levels, or MARSEC that were the equivalent to the Homeland Security Threat Conditions green through red levels. The Commandant of the Coast Guard has the authority to adjust that security level. 

MARSEC Level 1 is standard operating procedure. Reaching the level of MARSAC 3 could entail shutting down river traffic and suspending loading cargo.   

Working the downtown beat, Memphis Police Officer John Leonard would occasionally assist the Harbor Patrol officers. Hew grew up in Memphis and enjoyed the fishing out at Sardis Lake and is a certified diver so when the opening came available, he took it. Today he is the only full time officer on the Harbor Patrol, but more are brought on when boating season begins. “Our primary calls are jumpers on the bridge, stranded boats adrift and dead body calls,” he says. But more than that, he is an early line of defense in homeland security. Three boats make up the harbor patrol. In 2006 a grant from the Department of Homeland Security added the first enclosed boat, a 24 foot SeaArc.

Officers John Leonard and Dana Adams patrol the Mississippi River side of Mud Island on the first day of boating season.

Homeland Security took a tour of the bridges and President’s Island via the police harbor patrol, he remembers. They were checking under the bridges and dangerous spots along the Port of Memphis’ refineries and chemical plants. An attack on the bridge will not only halt auto traffic, but the Coast Guard will also order the river boats to drop anchor as well, shutting down river most commerce on the Mississippi.

Today we sit in the office on Mud Island overlooking the river. It is windy and bellow freezing outside. He estimates the water is about 42 degrees. He does not do routine patrols in those conditions but is ready to go when needed. Leonard was trained by Officer Terry Smith when he took the job four years ago. “I was trained by a Viet Nam vet in the TACT unit who had been down here 13 years. He reminded me the river is a dangerous place. In the dead of winter that river will kill you fast. Like most recreational people you fish when the weather is warm. It did not take to long to get the respect for cold water.”  Leonard remembers of young and healthy deckhand who slipped off a barge one winter into the cold waters at the Port of Memphis. “He was 30 to 40 yards off shore. It almost looked like he did not attempt to swim,” he remembers. Harbor Patrol retrieved his body.  

PREHOSPITAL EMEMRGENCY CARE, a textbook for Emergency Medical Technicians, shows medically what a rescuer and a victim face. The body loses heat 25 to 30 times faster in cold water compared to air at the same temperature, the book says. Death can occur in minutes in water 50 degrees or colder. The victim’s temperature can equal that of the water in as little as ten minutes.  Rescuers must act quickly to remove the patient; however the hypothermic patient is prone cardiac dysrhythmia from exertion and forceful movements which is also deadly.   

But summer creates challenges, too. People- often motivated by alcohol- will try to swim in the river. He does not know of anyone swimming across the river but he recalls two men in their twenties who stripped down to their boxers and swam from Tom Lee Park to the end of Mud Island and back. They were promptly arrested. “I compare us to the fire department. We are often more rescue than police,” he says. “People think ‘I want a boat. It’s a vehicle. I can handle it.’ It’s and old boat and the first thing they do is take it out on the river,” he says. They forget they are in water that is moving at about six miles per hour. An engine failure on Pickwick Lake is an annoyance. An engine failure around the Port of Memphis could send a boat smashing into a barge. Such was the case with the death of Joseph Gattas of Memphis when his new yacht went under the bow of a barge in May of 2002 killing him. He says he often thinks of that incident whenever a call comes in about a boat adrift. 

As for law enforcement, the side arm on his hip shows he is more than a boat and recovery specialist. Methamphetamine labs are often set up along the river. The Harbor Patrol assisted the Organized Crime Unit in raiding a pontoon boat loaded full of gasoline, generators and the lethal chemicals used for making the drug south of the Allen Steam Plant. 

They bring more officers on duty during boating season, especially during special events. Boating season goes from April 15 to September 15. On this first day of boating season, Officer Dana Adams joined Leonard in patrolling the harbor and learning locations of problem spots. It was Adams first time in the boat but the Coast Guard veteran needed little instruction on how to operate the vessel. The ideal is to have at least two officers on board when patrolling or making a call. In times where a harbor patrol officer is alone and a call comes in, dispatchers will call an officer from the Downtown Precinct to meet the boat at the cobblestones. The patrol officer is not required to board, but only once has one refused. “I’ve heard too many stories about the river. I’m not going,” an officer once told Leonard. He adds “I don’t blame her.”  

The Port of Memphis employees many people – 16, 765 people in Shelby County – according to a study in 2005 by Younger and Associates. But with the ripple effect in the economy, many more people are indirectly affected economically by the port and have jobs that deal indirectly with the shipping industry. 

Tom Charlier does not load barges or pilot boats, but his work can be considered part of the Port. As a reporter for the COMMERCIAL APPEAL since 1986, he has covered many stories dealing with the Memphis waterfront and the people who work there.

Photojournalist Alan Spearman and writer Tom Charlier of THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL work extensively on the Mississippi.

His specialty is environmental issues and throughout his years at the newspaper he has been covering the port along with business writers. Here at the port the two specialties –business and environment- seem to intersect. Take for example the situation with Nonconnah Creek. The urban stream starts around Collierville and parallels Bill Morris Parkway and the south leg of I-240 and then empties into the Port. “It is bringing in silt to the Port due to too much development on the creek like a great big ditch. Memphis is unique because the creek runs into the harbor instead of the main river,” he says. The river does not disperse the silt downstream, but instead fills the slack water port, requiring dredging.  

Perhaps the biggest story he remembers at the Port was Birmingham Steel’s mill opening in November, 1997 and closing January, 2000. “Taxpayers built a separate harbor for it and it lasted just a few years,” he remembers – something Don McCrory, Executive Director of the Port of Memphis denies. Recently Nucor announced it will open at plant site.

As an environmental reporter he has seen the low water in recent years and so has the Tennessee Valley Authority who operates the Alan Fossil Plant at the Port. Over the last 3 to 4 years there have been persistent problems with low water. Not just in the summer, which is most common, but all year, Charlier says. “It doesn’t look real good with the low water problem. The TVA is studying bringing in coal by rail.” Historic data of the low water records at Memphis shows four of the top five low water records have been set this decade. The lowest stage was in July, 1988.

Last December Charlier wrote most of the series of articles on a series “Mystery Mississippi: The River you Don’t Know” It was an ambitious project first thought of by COMMERCIAL APPEAL photographer Alan Spearman last year. “He had been going up and down the Mississippi River on a project. Alan pushed the idea and Chris Peck (the editor) was interested. We had meetings as to decide how to narrow the topic,” Charlier remembers. 

Photographer Spearman was most surprised how many people lived on the river after seeing the houseboats on Lake Mc Kellar near Martin Luther King Park. “The few that do live down there embrace living on the water... The city does not take advantage of promoting living there unlike in Portland, Oregon where people have houses on the river. That would be a nice option,” Spearman says.

“We have a very valuable resource. You could spend years looking at the all the impact the river has on our city,” Spearman says. “It is a real closed culture and I learned how big an impact it has on the larger economy of Memphis,” Spearman says.

And a closed culture seems a fair way to describe this sense of our economy more so than other areas. Most people have driven through the area’s farms, visited or have been a patient at the Medical Center and flown in and out of Memphis International Airport- all important industrial sites to Memphis’ economy. President’s Island is outside of many Memphians experience.  But a trip to the island shows a convenience store, restaurant, post office, health clinic, a Memphis Area Transit Authority bus line to and from downtown and a Memphis fire station. It could almost be a small town.

But there is little to visit. The old cobblestone wharf is inviting to photographers, but photos of the President’s Island Port are not in most tourists’ albums. It is almost pure industry along Channel and Harbor Drive at its most basic with no interesting architecture or attractions. Most of the Island is forested or farmed and kept green by high waters, but there are no parks or hiking trails and shopping is limited to the aforementioned grocery store.

And even if only a few people visit, it does not mean the rest of Shelby County is not directly affected by our riverfront. “Our biggest commodities into the port are petroleum and coal so anyone who drives a car or turns on a light is affected,” Don McCrory, Executive Director of the Memphis Shelby County Port Commission says.

If the Port of Memphis had to have a name and face, perhaps it is McCrory’s. Since 1984 he has held that position in his office at the entrance of President’s Island. Taking a lunch break at the Port Restaurant, the only restaurant on the Island, he stands out wearing a tie with everyone else in jeans and work clothes. Not surprisingly most seem to know him. “This is a good place to sit and talk to see what is going on and get a sense of what people are talking about and what people are upset about,” he says. 

Don McCrory visits The Port restaurant as Shawna Williams hurries lunch out to customers. Mc Cory has worked in and around President’s Island since 1978 and The Port Restaurant has been serving here since 1955.

He went to work for Pillsbury on Presidents Island in 1978, then to the Port Commission six years later. “We manage the Memphis Harbor project. We manage the industrial port and industrial parks. We develop lots, sell property lease property. We work with environmental development and help companies to get their own areas developed and the proper permits.” McCrory says. “Our job is fun. It is never routine.”

Part of his work is that of a salesman trying to sell Memphis, the harbor and river transportation. “It is the most efficient, economically viable and environmentally suitable form of transportation. Waterways can handle bigger increases in volume than truck or rail traffic.It is cheaper. There is less pilferage. It is much safer than truck transportation. The freight does not go through intersections and through rail crossings,” he says.  The Port is not solely about waterways. Sitting at the entrance at the middle of the day, 24 large trucks passed in a span of five minutes. A rail yard is filled with cars in front of the Cargill plant, but Memphis’ uniqueness is its river mixed with rail and Interstate and its central location. 

It is 1 am on a Saturday, but Cargill keeps running and train cars are ready for loading.

As a sales representative, he often will have prospects coming to him requesting anonymity. “Much is confidential with people looking, which gets dicey at times,” he says. “The media always wants to know who is looking and we can’t give them that information,” he says. Often when a prospect comes to look, the Port Commission does not know which company is being represented. 

Currently he is working on getting federal maintenance to help with a harbor created in the 1990’s. He said the harbor adjacent to the former Birmingham Steel plant just south of Lake Mc Kellar was built without the Federal Government involvement so there is no Federal involvement in maintence. He quickly fires back at what he says is the mistaken notion the facility was built for Birmingham Steel. “It was built for the Port Commission. They (the former Birmingham Steel) occupied only about 1,500 feet of waterfront. It is almost a mile long.”

McCrory says there is another mistaken notion the industry on President’s Island is responsible for polluting the river and Lake Mc Kellar. “Most of the nasty stuff is from Nonconnah Creek and is from the yards and neighborhoods of Memphis. As far as the industry goes, they can’t afford to pollute. They would be shut down,” he says. He says studies show Lake Mc Keller is cleaner now than it was twenty five years ago.

Visitors have come from far away to look at Memphis’ port. “Our most frequent foreign visitors are Chinese. We answer a lot of questions about our container transport,” McCrory says. Though not a river industry, Canadian National Railway opened an intermodal gateway terminal in the Frank Pidgeon Industrial Park, an area of Southwest Memphis managed by the Port Commission. He estimates the President’s island section of the Port is about 90 to 95 percent occupied and those companies who have left did so because the facility was too small. Pidgeon Industrial Park on the mainland offers an alternative.

Commodities best suited for river transportation are products with a low unit value such as agricultural products and gravel he said and those that are not time critical. A tow going to New Orleans will take just over three days to arrive. Heading north is more complicated. From Memphis to Minneapolis/ St. Paul, a tow would be fighting the upstream current, and need to go through 29 locks on the upper Mississippi for a transit time of 12 to 14 days, as opposed to over the road which takes about 13 and a half hours (per Map quest) or a direct flight that takes two hours (per Northwest Airlines website). The load of corn, coal or concrete makes sense to go by barge but computer chips are better of in a truck or airplane.  He thinks that automobiles someday may be transported by river rather than rail or road. “200 cars will equal one barge,” he says. “That is one of those things you never think about but several people have discussed it.”

A simple comparison of cost per mile will not immediately yield the most economical mode of transportation. Take our car scenario. It will need to have some time on a truck going from the factory to the port. Then it will need to be transloaded from the truck to the boat, taken by boat to the destination then transloaded – costing more money- to another truck to go to the dealership. 

Many of those barge operators are assisted by Wepfer Marine, weather it is for transportation or for maintenance. John Wepfer, president of the company sums it up. “We are much like a parking lot and we are a valet parking service,” he says.

A towboat heads up or down the river pushing barges. Wepfer Marine takes the barge from the boat and brings it to the dock and or repairs the barge and tries to keep any further problems.

John Wepfer, president of Wepfer Marine, stands in front of a dry docked barge.

The “Lee Leavell” is a 52-foot-long tow boat built in 1981 - a long time on the water considering this boat pushes and pulls vessels much larger and heavier. Captain John Klinke and crew members James Barker and John Ray leave the Wepfer Marine dock well before sunrise. The “Dave Carlton” from Ingram Barge Lines of Nashville has fifteen barges of coal destined for the Allen Fossil Plant to light and electrify the Greater Memphis Area. The “Dave Carlton” brought the barges into Lake Mc Kellar. But the agility of the “Lee Leavell” is needed to finish the job.

Klinke and the crew moor the boats together and then start pushing about three miles per hour, first from the bow of the barge and then on the side to guide them in. As the crew of the “Dave Carlton” delivers the coal, “Lee Leavell” connects empty barges from a previous load for “Dave Carlton’s” trip back.

The Crew of the "Lee Leavell" meets the "Dave Carlton"

“While the barge is in Memphis a lot can go wrong with it and we try to take care of it … they know we are going to take care of the barges and not let them sink,” Wepfer says from his office which is literally on the water. An occasional bump from an arriving boat reminds us where we are.  As the fleet head up and down the Mississippi many have dealt with Wepfer before so he sees no need to focus a lot of attention on marketing.

Working in the industry since 1979, he has seen the greatest changes in his business after the September 11, 2001 attacks. “There has been a lot of bureaucracy since 9 11,” he says  “Homeland security is a big issue with us. We have to make sure our fleets are secure from outside.” Another big change he had seen was in the 1980’s when drug screens became a requirement.

John Klinke pushes the much larger "Dave Carlton."

As for the future he expects more consolidation on the river with bigger companies acquiring smaller ones as a matter of necessity. “What we do was a mom and pop operation but now there is a lot of overhead to require compliance,” he says.

With compliance as part of the port’s past and future, technology has followed and will continue to grow to enable communication in real time from the vessels to agencies and to companies with shipping concerns. Recent developments in the world of high tech and Global Positioning Systems have created a real time navigation and information system that is also user-friendly enough to need little training. 

Jimmy Dehart, president of Dehart Marine has seen many changes on the river in his career, but today as an authorized sales representative of CEACT Information Systems, he also brings the future to the vessels of the Mississippi.

A snapshot of the Port of Memphis thanks to CEACT Information Systems.

CEACT combines a geographic information system (GIS) with a global positioning system (GPS) to create a real time picture of where the tows are at any given moment and for the operator in the wheelhouse, where his boat and obstructions are located. The picture is constantly updated due to the change in the position of the barges and the change in the river stages, an important consideration considering from last October to January the river stage varied 27 feet. Transponders on the boat show the name of the vessel, its direction and speed. 

“Most of the boats have got transponders. You only have to have them bellow mile 200 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana). If you don’t have them there the Coast Guard pulls you over,” says technician Jason Barnes. On the roof of the building, radar antennas rotate and connect to the CEACT giving him a picture of the Mississippi. The GIS can show anywhere in the world, but the position of boats is shown from about a 25 to 30 mile radius. This type of navigation system began about nine or ten years ago with River Pro and Pinpoint, Barnes says.

“This chart system has been around for about 2-3 years,” Barnes says. “It is a better system. The other ones they just put a map book on a copier and xeroxed it. Some of the older ones and even some of the newer ones are not this user friendly,” Dehart adds.  Barnes says. There are many other features as well. The position of the operators’ boat is shown and also shown is the prospective spot of the boat 180 seconds in the future so the pilot can make changes to the course. The computer measures location and speed of two vessels approaching, such as a supply ship and will compute where the two will meet. Traffic going downstream typically travels 10 miles per hour while northbound vessels are traveling about half that speed.

In the future Barnes expects a radar overlay. This current model shows only boats with transponders and items that would be on a map while radar will pick up things like pleasure craft and items in the water. “In the next couple of years you will be able to go to CEACT’s website and see any boat any time,” he adds.

In addition to being company president he is also the main sales representative. “We’re probably looking at $10,000 to 11,000 but that is with many features added. They don’t want everything we’ve got, they want a cheaper version,” he says. The basic model is about $8,000. But any salesman will tell you selling the idea of something new is the biggest challenge of the job. And Dehart says with a lot of captains nearing retirement that is an upstream battle.

And the river does have its own way of doing things, too. Six million gallons per second of Mississippi water flow past Memphis in early spring, according to the Memphis District of the Corps of Engineers – and that is just an average. Looking at satellite photos it does not take a geomorphologist to see how the river has changed its course creating plains, hills, swamps and lakes. The water flow tries to follow the path of least resistance and the Corps attempts to keep that path from endangering lives and property.  The days these would have no impact on people are over so the Corps tries to keep erosion and flooding to a minimum, plus keep the channel deep, wide and clear enough for barges headed up and down the Mississippi. Nine feet deep is the minimum depth for a river vessel but below Baton Rouge the channel is deeper for sea ships.

“We try to meet the environmental need as well as provide protection. We attempt to find the balance between nature and human kind and lessening the impact to both sides,” The Corps of Engineers have been shaping the face of river geography for over a century. The river banks are generally composed of slip off slopes on one side, which tend to flood and cutaway banks that the river is attempting to erode away,” says James Pouge, public affairs specialist for the Memphis District Corps of Engineers

“There are people on either extreme who say ‘bulldoze the levies and let the river ebb and flow and meander’ or others who say ‘endangered species be damned we are at the top of the food chain.’ We are in the middle,” he says.

Dredging usually takes place from the late summer to winter to take advantage of the low water. It is usually done for channel maintenance and not only for large scale improvements such as turning Mud Island and Presidents Island into a peninsula.  Perhaps the most conspicuous Corps project to Memphians started in the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s and resulted in the 20 acre expansion of Tom Lee Park. It started with the Corps of Engineers plan to stabilize the bank along Riverside Drive.

Currently the Memphis district has several projects in this region but none are directly connected directly to the Port of Memphis. The Corps has been working on and with the river since 1879, but with the Mississippi River and Tributaries project, he says, which is a direct result of the 1927 flood, they have had even more responsibilities in channel maintenance and flood control. The Tunica Riverpark Museum gives anecdotal information of wetlands extending 100 miles wide during that infamous flood. After that flood The Mississippi River and Tributaries project looked at the existing levees and federalized the levees bellow Cairo, Illinois he says.

A network of levees is most obvious just south of the Mississippi State line on Highway 61. Heading south along the river, the twenty foot high wall of soil looks about as simple as a structure could be. Dig up soil, make a hill and forget about it as it retains water from the rising river. Well, not exactly.

The levee needs grass growing on it, but not trees. It must be monitored for digging animals burrowing into the ground, undermining its strength. This is an ongoing project and as New Orleans shows, the integrity of a levee must never be taken for granted. Levee boards in the communities along the river also help making sure these structures are secure and the local levee boards make the day to day maintenance and inspection while the Corps helps with larger levee projects. The levees are inspected at least once a year for breaches. 

“Flood control and channel maintenance goes hand in hand,” Pouge says. Revetments are large concrete mats making the cutaway slope less of a path of least resistance. Dikes control the flow of the water keeping the geography of the banks stable but also keeps the river flowing, scouring out the channel so less dredging is required.

Things have changed over the years in these seemingly simple structures. The last ten to fifteen years the relief wells have been able to take pressure off the levees, he says. The wells are designed to allow a small amount of water to enter wells into the ground water. Another structure that has been improved are the dikes that jut out into the channel now have notches in the structures so sand flows through the narrow openings backing up the structure, Pouge says.

Taming a giant river gives the Corps a powerful aura, but Pouge says some images are not correct. “The corps does not just unilaterally say ‘we’re going to do this.’ The constituents go to their congressman and then the congressman asks us to do a study then we see if it’s a viable project,” he says.

As for the times yet to come, who can imagine the future of the Port of Memphis? Virginia Postrel in her libertarian-leaning book THE FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES wrote of three visions of the future. There is the reactionary version: “they seek to reverse change restoring the literal or imagined past and holding it in place,” she says. Technocrats want to move forward but want to be sure someone is there to manage how we reach the future and make sure we reach what she sarcastically calls “The One Best Way.” Finally, there are the dynamists who believe in “a world of constant creation, discovery and competition … Do we crave predictability or relish surprise?” she asks. Dynamists believe in trying new ideas and methods. They acknowledge through changes in how we do things, how we work, shop and play innovation and discovery truly happens. Mistakes will be made and changes both planned and unplanned that make us uncomfortable will be part of that process, but ultimately that is what keeps the future alive.

If the past is a guide to the future then we may see all three visions will show up in the future of the Port of Memphis. The reactionary version shows up in the way the public views the river. One of Alan Spearman's photos from the COMMERCIAL APPEAL series has a kayaker working his way up river near the Hernando De Soto Bridge at sunset seemingly reliving the days of long ago.  Tourists want to relive the era of the paddle wheels and look to the aforementioned “Memphis Queen” for the experience of the early 20th century.  The “Mississippi Queen” “Delta Queen” “American Queen” operated by Majestic America Line of Seattle use stern wheelers for cruises of up to eight days. Tourists do not want the future. They want to be able to imagine Mark Twain onboard smoking a pipe penning his next American classic. 

Captain Shay Smith in the pilot house of the "Island Queen" combines the old and new.

The technocratic version is best illustrated by the area of government regulation of the river. The river is guided and regulated to keep the river from changing its course and giving too much leeway as well as the government mandates on river traffic, rules of the waterway and the decision to halt traffic.

The dynamist version can be seen in its innovation. Did local decision makers say “Let’s find a facility that will stay open for twenty four hours so more Memphians will be employed?” Perhaps not, but the Cargill plant is constantly running and doing just that. The container transportation- as mundane as it may appear at first glance- also captures that dynamism. The moral of the dynamism story is that innovation comes not from a government mandate but through individuals and companies trying to make a good thing (like our centuries-old river industry) better.   


Ultimately the future of the Port of Memphis will not be strictly reactionary, technocratic nor dynamist but it will be like the Mississippi itself. The river flows some 2,500 miles from Lake Itasca, Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico -north to south- but looking at a map we never see a straight north-south channel. That big river is controlled in some places, meandering in others, beneficial here, problematic there, but around the bend is anyone’s guess. 

At all hours, the Mississippi at Memphis is alive.

Devin Greaney is the writer and photographer.

 Here I get to start the engine of the "Island Queen"




Mistovich, Joseph, Hafenand, Brent and Karen, Keith. PREHOSPITAL EMERGENCY CARE Pp 504-505. This gives information on the dangers rescuers face in cold water emergencies.

Postrell, Virginia. THE FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES. 1998. Postrell outlines the concept of dynamism and compares it to the technocratic and reactionary vision of the future.

Potter, Jerry O. THE SULTANA TRAGEDY, 1992. p x. This is perhaps the most complete work on the largely forgotten “Sultana” fire at Memphis.

Code of Federal Regulations Title 33, subchapters A through K. These regulations deal with water transportation.


Carly, Jack THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL, “Air Crash Probe Opens Here as Wreckage Hunt Continues,” February 13, 1944. This provides the news coverage of the crash of the plane into the Mississippi River at Memphis

US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: THE MEMPHIS DISTRICT. October, 1999. This is an overview of what the Corps does at Memphis. 

Dries, Bill THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL, “Gattas Yacht Sinks in River,” May 5, 2002. Dries reports on the accident that killed Joseph Gattas.

Jones, Yolanda THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL, “Gattas’s Body Found Two Months after Boat Sank,” July 3, 2002. Gattas had been missing and this article confirms his death.

Maki, Amos. COMMERCIAL APPEAL, “Deal Sealed to bring Nucor to Memphis. Steelmaker could began shipping products to customers in early 2008,” October 7, 1996. The article discusses the excitement on the new river firm.  

Mckenzie, Kevin. COMMERCIAL APPEAL, “Steel Mills Firing Up will Ignite New Chapter,” November 13, 1997. This article gives more information on the steel mills.

Patton, Phil. AMERICAN HERITAGE “Agents of Change,” December, 1994. Malcom Mclean is discussed along with other people who have made changes in American Culture but whose names have been forgotten.

Thompson, Richard. THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL, “Birmingham Closing Steel Plant Here; 220 Loose Jobs,” December 29, 1999. This is provides information on the end of the steel plant that was greeted with much optimism two years earlier.


Air This provides comparative information on the 1944 air crash

Federal Emergency Management Agency “FEMA ICS Resource Center” Here is information and courses for emergency responders on the National Incident Command

US Army Corps of Engineers “Selected Tonnage on US Ports” This is a comparison and statistical breakdown of US ports.

National Weather Service “Advanced Hydrographic Data”,1,1,1,1,1 This shows historical data on the river stages.

Younger and Associates “Economic Impacts of the Port of Memphis” An interesting statistical data of the port’s impact on the economy.


Barnes, Jason. February 19, 2007

Burkman, Andrew. January 25, 2007

Chalk, Lanny. February 8, 2007

Charlier, Tom. February 14, 2007

Davenport, Jody. February 7, 2007

Dehart, James. February 19, 2007

Dye, David. February 5, 2007

Leonard, John. February 14, 2007

McCrory, Donald. February 22, 2007

Morgan, Jay. February 10, 2007

Pouge, James. February 26, 2007

Spearman, Alan. February 14, 2007

Wepfer, John. February 5, 2007

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