I stood on the bank of the Ohio River on a cool, damp spring morning that looked like rain but didn’t know if it wanted to deliver. I stood there because of three boats I wanted to photograph — boats that help tell the story of Ohio River navigation over the past couple of decades.
Here, just below the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam — which I prefer to call by its former name, the Gallipolis Locks and Dam — the M/V (motor vessel) Leslie M. Neal of Crounse Corp. made its approach. It’s one of five Crounse boats that were built in the 2009-10 era, when several companies involved in river transportation were investing in new boats.
In the case of Crounse and American Electric Power — which had ordered 10 new boats at a cost of $10 million to $13 million each — it was to move coal and limestone, both of which are used in power plants.
We all know what happened when the boats were delivered and put into service. Coal-fired power plants were retired, and the boats were no longer needed. Where a dozen years ago you couldn’t spend an hour along the river in West Virginia without seeing a boat pushing coal barges, in many places today you can go hours without seeing one.
This morning, the Neal pushed 15 barges loaded with limestone. Crounse still pushes a lot of coal and rock on this part of the Ohio even as other companies have moved into other areas. On its approach to the locks, the Neal passed Amherst Madison’s M/V, the O. Nelson Jones. To river fans, the Jones is a classic design.
The O. Nelson Jones is the flagship of Amherst Madison, which is based in Kanawha County. Amherst’s boats handle most of the coal and other commodities that move on the Kanawha, although Marathon Petroleum regularly sends its boats to a terminal in Charleston and sometimes, last I heard, to one in Hugheston.
Amherst leases its boats to run on the Ohio River to push Ingram’s barges, so we don’t see nearly as many Ingram boats as we used to.
After the Leslie M. Neal left the locks, it was the O. Nelson Jones’ turn. And as that boat entered the locks, the third boat took its place in the queue. That boat was the Tristen, a Gulf Coast tugboat that was working in tandem with the small towboat Brittany Lynn.
Tugboats were a rare sight on the Ohio until last year, when Shell Chemical began building its ethane cracker along the Ohio at Monaca, Pennsylvania. Instead of building the plant from the ground up at Monaca, most of the production equipment was assembled along the Gulf Coast, which is already home to many similar plants, and shipped up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to Monaca.
From then until the end of this year, the tug-and-tow combos are a frequent sight. The tugboat pulls the oversized load while the tow pushes and helps steer.
River traffic has changed in several ways since the coal bust. It’s dropped off at the Robert C. Byrd Locks as less coal has come out of the Kanawha and turned south at Point Pleasant. But it’s picked up at the Racine Locks and Dam, the first above Point Pleasant.
Maybe riverboats are like friends. You see them for a while, then you drift apart as life changes.