American Admiralty Bureau's Commentator Volume 4
A COMMON HIGHWAY
Comments On Navigability and Public Rights on the Navigable Waters of the United States.
by Capt. Raymond F. Bollinger and Capt.Gerald E. Disler
|COTTON PACKET AT MONTGOMERY ALABAMA IN THE 19th CENTURY
ISBN 1-879778-79-3 Published by American Admiralty Bureau, Distributed by Marine Education Textbooks
Many times in these pages we have urged our readers to read "THE WAY OF THE SHIP" a unique history of the American Merchant Marine. We like this history because of its unique focus on vessels like the one pictured above as well as more traditional coastal craft, and for its focus on such unfamiliar maritime centers as Montgomery, Alabama. Like many other places along the navigable rivers Montgomery, presently the home port of a single passenger excursion boat, was once a dynamic transshipment point for domestic and export water borne commerce. If you scroll back a couple of days you will find a posting titled AN OPEN LETTER TO MONTGOMERY. In that posting we tried to give the people of Montgomery a look into their commercially navigable past and a glimpse into what could be their future. A future that can happen , if and only if, the present commercial navigability of the Alabama River which requires three federally maintained locks and dams can be maintained in the coming rounds of budget cuts.
There are in fact many small cities in the South and Midwest in similar circumstances relative to continued navigability of the rivers they sit on as Montgomery. Unfortunately for many of those cities that have neglected their navigational opportunities , they simply don't have the other assets that a state capitol like Montgomery has to mask the effects of neglect of the economic engine that a navigable waterway can be. Contrary to the wide spread belief among the general public and many city fathers the days of deep inland navigation did not die with the paddle wheel steam boats. In fact the rivers today move more cargo in a single day than all of the steamers of the nineteenth century did over the entire century. Even the paddle wheel steamers are not dead but a number of newly built paddle wheel steam and diesel vessels work the overnight and day excursion passenger trade on American Rivers big and small.
As the costs of fuel go up across all forms of transport , barge transport stands out as the most fuel efficient of all in terms of the cost of moving a ton of cargo a mile. It is a slow but cheap way of moving things. Many bulk commodities such as grain, timber or even heating oil and gasoline in bulk are not very time critical. The cheapest way to move these commodities is by towboat and barge. As fuel cost rise many bulk commodity producers are looking at the rivers and canals again. These commodities never left the main streams of the Ohio and Mississippi. The ports on the secondary streams that connect may be poised for growth if they can hang on to their commercially navigable status in the face of a federal government wanting to reduce costs for maintaining any "unproductive" water way segments.
A potential return of bulk commodities to water transport along the secondary streams is not the only good thing that can happen to a municipality when it maintains and improves its navigability. Even where cities have let their docks go to ruins a navigable waterway can attract manufacturers of out sized items. The inland waterways are the only means available for the transport of out sized items.
Check out the illustration below of a Saturn Rocket booster being loaded into a barge for transport. Surely you've noticed that you've never been stuck behind one of these on the highway or seen one at a rail crossing. They are simply too big the space industry manufacturers of out sized items are spread along the south's inland waterways and linked to the "Space Coast" by tow boat and barge transport. The oil and gas industry, power generation industry and others also produce such out sized items.
|Saturn Rocket Being Loaded on Barge
To lose navigability is to lose economic opportunity even if your town isn't using its navigable potential right now. For most of the towns now in danger of losing navigation access there is a dependency on locks and dams for their river to stay navigable.
Notice that in the picture of the lock and dam above not a single towboat is in sight awaiting passage through the locks. It will be a tough argument in tight budgetary times to convince Congress to continue to fund such locks only to maintain potential navigability. Former ports above locks and dams need to be developing their port potential again just to insure that they remain navigable against the day that more spontaneous opportunity comes knocking in the form of a plant or activity seeking a navigable waterfront location.
Inactivity is not the only threat against public navigation rights and capabilities. Private interests often seek to convert these common highways into private rights of ways. The two authors of THE COMMON HIGHWAY were frequent expert witnesses for the public interest in navigation in litigation seeking to preserve public waterway access rights. Capt. Bollinger who is admitted to practice in a number of maritime regulatory tribunals also taught continuing legal education credit courses on navigation subjects to maritime lawyers in Louisiana and Texas. The late Capt. Disler investigated and testified on navigability issues for the Louisiana Attorney General's office in the 1990s. Both men were navigational forensic examiners of the former American Admiralty Bureau.
THE COMMON HIGHWAY describes the evolution of legal concepts of navigability in the United States , typical threats to public navigation rights, and suggested defenses against such threats. The city council of any town whose navigability is threatened by private action or federal inaction should read this short concise book of only about 40 pages. Fishermen who cherish their right to operate a small boat on rivers and lakes should read this, the loss of sport fishing rights is often the first sign of a move to convert the commons of the navigable waters to a private reserve. To obtain a copy of the book at the lowest possible cost use the print on demand service of the original distributor Marine Education Textbooks: