On the morning of Tuesday, June 23, an era of U.S. shipping came to a close when the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock in Minneapolis, MN shut its gates for good. The Patrick Gannaway towboat pushed two barges containing 2,400 tons of gravel and limestone into the lock, which lifted the boats five stories with 10 million gallons of Mississippi river water. Soon, the lock that passes through downtown Minneapolis will close its gates, and waterfront condos and shops will take its place.
Mississippi riverboats have long held a special place in the popular American imagination, but after more than 50 years of operation the last barge has passed through this historic lock. When the lock opened in 1963, local city leaders hoped it would make Minneapolis the starting point of Mississippi river trade. Now, it represents the end.
Whereas technological advancements have shut down shipping niches in other parts of the world, the source of the Minneapolis closure was decidedly low-tech — Congress called for a permanent shutdown over the spread of the invasive fish species Asian carp, which have traveled upriver and devastated Great Lakes ecosystems.
While environmentalists, fisherman, and the tourism industry celebrated, not everyone hailed the development. The shipping and construction industry say that it will take 110 semi trucks to move the material shipped on just one river barge. And U.S. roadways and railroad lines are already heavily congested with shipping freight. Researchers with Texas AandM University estimated that such traffic delays cost the U.S. economy $121 billion in 2011, while also wasting about three billion gallons of fuel.
“I think anybody in the transportation business understands that the most efficient way to move material is by barge,” said Randy Gaworksi of Aggregate Industries.
As the era of river barges draws to a close in some parts of the country, new high-tech shipping solutions have emerged. For instance, eCommerce mega-store Amazon has made headlines with plans to lower parcel cost per delivery with an experimental drone service. This month, the company also announced plans for a crowd-sourced mobile app that would pay consumers to deliver parcels, rather than shippers like FedEx or UPS.