Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Open Letter 3nd posting

Merchant Marine Interest:  Reposted Oct.30, 2018 originally posted in 2013. Can anyone provide an update in the comments section? Are the locks still working. Any developments along these lines to report?

 Photo Courtesy Birmingham Public Library : Steamer at Montgomery


 Dear People of Montgomery:
  Thank you for being a place of shelter for my wife and I when we visited your city in order to avoid riding out Hurricane Isaac in a place below sea level. I thought of Montgomery because its' distance from the Gulf of Mexico's beach line was far enough inland that most tropical storms are seriously diminished in intensity before reaching your fair city. Your town is far from the reach of tidal surge and your elevation is such that drenching tropical rains generally don't cause wide spread flooding. This time, your town was also well east of the predicted points of initial land fall. So, logically Montgomery looked like a good place to weather a storm. 

  I also knew exactly how easy of a drive from New Orleans it was since I frequently paused over night there on frequent drives between New Orleans and Annapolis. But I have to admit that until this recent storm shelter generated trip I had thought of Montgomery as a sort of wide spot in the road on the way to Annapolis. Today I think of it as a destination.

File:Flag of Montgomery, Alabama.svg

 I certainly enjoyed the downtown bus tour out of the old train depot and I wrote about that experience in an earlier blog. I'm a military retiree from a combination of naval services and was able to visit Maxwell Air Force base, enjoyed the Maxwell club and was able to use my commissary and exchange privileges while in your fair city. I can certainly see why more than a few military retirees have chosen to spend their retirement in Montgomery. I can see why automobile manufacturers have chosen to locate there. But now I want to tell you about a heritage that you seem to have neglected a bit and show you how you may be in danger of losing an economic advantage that you once enjoyed and could well enjoy again. Unfortunately if you don't act as a city now, you may lose this latent asset forever.

 Montgomery has many advantages such as being a state capitol, certainly giving the city a stable employment base. The city's favorable business climate has attracted automotive manufacturing, and with more than one college located there, the city rests on a solid economic foundation from which it supports many culturally unique features giving the place an attractive quality of life. But not so long ago the city had another economic engine that has fallen into disuse. Montgomery was once a river port city. Classic steamboats called in numbers and frequently at the city front dock. The Alabama River which runs through the heart of the city connects the city to both a commercially viable cargo generating hinterland up river, and to the sea at Mobile about 100 river miles away. The commerce carried on the Alabama into and out of Montgomery was so important even well into the twentieth century that the U.S Army Corps of Engineers has constructed 3 sets of navigation locks and dams to assure favorable navigation conditions for towboats and barges to Montgomery and beyond. 

 Unfortunately in more recent years most of the cargo in the region suitable for towboat and barge carriage has moved to rail or truck. Rail and truck may be faster but they are not the most economic means of moving non- time sensitive cargoes. Along the Mississippi and Ohio grain moves south by barge more so than any other mode of transport. Heating oil and gasoline from New Orleans and Baton Rouge area refineries move north by tank barge to more than 18 interior states. The towns that serve as the river ports along these routes prosper. They are not in danger of losing their status as a port  by the coming federal budget cuts. What keeps them safe is that for so many especially on the Mississippi below St. Louis there are no expensive locks and dams for the Federal Government to maintain.

  It takes three locks and dams between Montgomery and Mobile to keep the Alabama navigable by modern tow boat and barge. These will be evaluated as potential targets for budget cuts in the near future. With so little commercial vessel traffic at present, their future does not look bright.
Navigability , even when mostly latent is a sad thing for a community to lose. There could be opportunities in the future coming again to Montgomery because of it's status as a potential river port that simply haven't been imagined in recent years. 

File:USACE Claiborne Lock and Dam.jpg

 First, the Alabama river system runs through the best agricultural area in the state. Many agricultural commodities including soybeans are most economically transported by water, not all such commodities are slated for export. But it makes sense that those products of the region slated for export should go to Mobile for transfer to ship.. The cheapest way to get there is by towboat and barge. The rising cost of fuel is driving more and more non-time sensitive cargoes to the river. What is lacking on the upper reaches of the Alabama River is the infrastructure. There are too few docks and river side grain elevators. Its a bit of a chicken and egg issue. You need not only a navigable river but also some infrastructure to generate river cargoes.
The increase in fuel costs will start some Alabama River valley bulk commodity producers to look towards the river but their first glance will not be promising because the of the lack of infrastructure.

 Besides future possibilities for bulk commodity movements Montgomery could miss out on future manufacturing opportunities, especially in the field of out size items. Have you ever noticed that you have never been stuck in traffic behind a Saturn Rocket, or seen one go past you at a rail crossing? This is because the fabrication facilities for such out sized items, and there are many more not connected with the space program, are located on navigable waterways and the items are shipped by deck barge and tow boat. Many such items simply can not fit on a highway or rail line. Auto manufacturers have found Montgomery attractive, manufacturers of out sized industrial items could find the city attractive for all of the same reasons as the car makers if the Alabama River that runs through the city remains navigable. The city is blessed with some undeveloped river front land. In the case of the manufacturers of the out sized items the lack of pre-existing on and off load infrastructure may not be an issue since many such items require special built from scratch facilities. What they have to have is a waterside location, on a reliably navigable waterway.

File:Saturn rocket component loading on Palaemon.jpg
 Saturn Moon Rocket Booster Being Loaded on a NASA Barge
 This will sound crazy if you don't know the market but Montgomery could be a "cruise ship destination". No, Carnival Lines Fun Ships won't be locking through to you but American Cruise Lines has small passenger ships already visiting similar places. Some of their ships definitely can make it to Montgomery and the river front dock park could probably accommodate these little ships with very little modification. Take a look at the line's web site: http://www.americancruiselines.com/?gclid=CMD3mMbMnLICFWVgTAodQEwADA

Boat - Miami Harbor 2

American Cruise Lines is already operating nearby in Florida. A Montgomery, Mobile, New Orleans itinerary is possible using the Gulf Intracoastal waterway and the Alabama River with no outside ocean passage. These small ships love to be able to advertise smooth water routes. They need some additional itineraries in order to continue to attract repeat patronage. Montgomery with its potential cruise ship landing right down town, and the down town being lively and historic is just the sort of place these small cruise lines thrive on. But if the locks are closed for too little activity any such future business must go elsewhere. Cruise lines are not in business to lobby for locks. Municipalities and states must do that job. Now a mini cruise ship dropping 40 passengers at the city front may not seem to have much more impact on down town than a tour bus load of passengers daily. But cruise ship passengers are different from the tour bus crowd. They arrived with their hotel. They disembark in the morning maybe catch breakfast , take the delightful trolley tour ( by the way Ray, the regular driver is a city asset and ambassador and you probably couldn't have a better one at the city front), then go back to the boat to freshen up and head back out for the Hank Williams museum. Many boat passengers will take lunch down town, and then reemerge to sample the night life. Small cruise boat passengers tend to have about three times the economic impact that tour bus passengers do.

Believe me I have so far only touched  on a few of the potential economic possibilities of Montgomery's  latent navigability. But today latent navigability is endangered navigability. Corps of Engineers budgets are going under the microscope and then the chopping block soon. Lose the locks, you lose your navigability.

When the budget axe falls those locks below Montgomery will be an attractive target. But there are some things the city and its citizens can do to protect Montgomery's navigation potential.

 First, you have a beautiful little river front park with a nice little paddle wheel excursion boat. That boat is a pint sized U.S. Coast Guard inspected "merchant marine vessel", piloted by a USCG licensed "Merchant Marine Officer". Give the little "ship" a Mayoral commission as "Montgomery's flag ship". Feature it more often in advertising the city .Use some city funds to promote the boat in Mobile and Birmingham. Most importantly turn the direction of its excursions around. Most of the published excursions go north. Attention needs to be focused on the south, specifically the locks. The Chamber of Commerce and others should help organize several trips per year to and through the locks. Yes that's "too far for a day boat with no overnight facilities". But other day boats such as the JULIA BELLE SWAIN have done this sort of thing.

 When these other "day boats" make such trips here is how they do it." The boat makes an 8 to 12 hour run then the passengers get off and spend the night at a bed and breakfast. These trips don't sell for $15 a ticket, they are usually a few hundred dollars but the folks who take the well planned over night excursions repeat the trips year after year. Surely Montgomery has  enough well heeled civic boosters to invest in a fun week end on the river. I'll bet dozens of Montgomery natives have paid thousands for other cruises including the lock transit through the Panama canal, "The path between the Seas Tour" as it is often advertised. Why not a weekend voyage to transit Montgomery's own Path between the River and the Sea, one or all of the lower locks. 

 Locks keep statistics. Cargo movements count, commercial vessel movements count, and passengers not only count but enjoy a priority passage. So each visit through a lock by your city's"flag ship" builds the record of the lock as an engine of commerce. The boat may need the installation of a swinging stage on the bow to facilitate passenger egress at relatively unimproved river landings where buses pick up passengers for transport to the prearranged bed and breakfast accommodations or small hotels. If need be the city may want to make the investment in the swinging stage to get the ball rolling. 

 Some locks that started as portals of commerce have survived after commerce faded because of heavy recreational boat usage. Encourage recreational boating on the river near the city and especially recreational boat passage through the locks start a cruising club to encourage through lock trips. Do whatever you have to, to get a marina and yacht club on the river above the dam and below the present river front park.

 Use the wonderful facilities and and personnel of the Alabama State Archives to build a photo exhibit of the waterfront's past history as an "intermodal" port featuring the rail road activity that still parallels the river and once interacted with commercial river transport. Put that exhibit up at the old train depot by the waterfront. In this way for a very modest investment you educate visitor and native alike to the navigational past of the city. Include in the exhibit some of the potential navigational future.
Adopt the attitude that inland navigation economic activity some times fluctuates but if your city had a navigational past, it is entitled to a navigational future, that the city is determined not to give up.

File:Alabama Capitol Building.jpg

Play the national security card. Montgomery is home to two major Air Force Installations with at least one flight line.  The major air bases in the Florida Pan Handle both Air Force and Navy get most of their aviation fuel from Houston refineries by tank barges traveling along the Gulf Intracoastal waterway. Find out if the local Air bases are similarly served. If not find out why not, enlist the help of local commanding officers in lobbying for delivery of aviation fuel by barge.
Thousands of barrels of it are passing west to east just one hundred miles south of town. A right turn at the Alabama river could bring the fuel efficiency and security of water borne transport to Maxwell, if they don't already have it. If they do its a major argument for keeping the locks operating. Such a secure and efficient fuel line could be an argument for the expansion of military air power in the area in the future. 

File:Maxwell Air Force Base.jpg

 Nominate a "Commodore" to be the public face of the navigability preservation effort. Adopt a flag for the "Navigation District" maybe the flag of the city in the upper corner on a aquamarine field emblazoned with the words: 


 Navigation is part of being a cross roads town. It can be part of becoming an even more major distribution center. Montgomery had it, don't lose it! Montgomery's navigability is a sleeping giant of an economic engine. It can awaken in the future only if Montgomery can successfully preserve it. I hate to tell you this but you have at best only until January 2, 2013 to get a head start on the defense of navigability. It will not be long before the next round of federal budget chopping begins. Do not let go of your municipal navigability status lightly, fight for it. All of Montgomery's future is worth fighting for!



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