The Illinois River system quietly and efficiently moves commodities up and downstream.
It's amazing to think how far our modes of transportation have advanced. Just over 100 years ago, our primary means of transportation was a horse—no planes or automobiles. Even the bicycle's primary surge of production wasn't until the late 1800s, but that soon faded when the automobile became mainstream. Now we’re faced with the prospect of vehicles with no steering wheels and unmanned aerial delivery of packages.
Several years ago, the Farm Bureau sponsored a tour of Funks Grove, south of Bloomington. The first settlers in the area were brothers Isaac and Absalom Funk, who arrived in 1824. Just like nearly everyone else settling Illinois at the time, they used the land to make a living, and for them it was cattle. I can distinctively remember being told that to get cattle to market in Chicago, they literally had to "walk" the cattle from Funks Grove to Chicago. That was the means of transporting livestock at that time.
In agriculture, we depend on good transportation to move a continuously growing harvest. The world is shrinking, and our agriculture products are shipped throughout the world.
One mode of transportation in our area has not changed in nearly 100 years. The locks and dams on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers were primarily constructed in the 1930s, and they haven’t changed much—aside from the bare minimum of maintaining the structures to be operable in getting barges from one pool of elevation to another. They've served their purpose and continue to do so today.
In fact, the Illinois River system is the most efficient transportation method for farm commodities like corn and soybeans. There are eight locks on the Illinois River between St. Louis and Chicago, and 29 locks on the Mississippi River between Minneapolis/St. Paul and St. Louis. You can see the Peoria Lock and Dam just south of the Shade-Lohmann Bridge, along Interstate 474. There is one lock downstream of Peoria at LaGrange, while the remaining locks are upstream toward Chicago.
Why is river transportation so important to the farm economy? An estimated 60 percent of U.S. grain exports are shipped down the Mississippi and Illinois rivers on barges. To put the volume and efficiency of the river system into perspective, one barge will hold 70 semi-truckloads of grain, which equates to nearly 60,000 bushels. One barge tow is actually 15 individual barges tied together. If you are watching barge traffic on the Illinois River, you will likely see a large towboat pushing 15 barges, arranged so the barges are three wide and five in length. This entire barge tow will be pushing nearly 900,000 bushels. That is the equivalent of 1,050 semi-trucks.
It is estimated that it takes just one gallon of fuel to move one ton of commodities 600 miles along our nation's navigable rivers. Upstream and downstream movement are both efficient, but downstream is obviously more so, with the natural flow of the water being a primary source of energy. The majority of corn and soybeans move downstream from Peoria to the Gulf of Mexico for the export market. Barges also bring commodities upstream for us: including iron, steel, coal, petroleum, aggregates (gravel and rocks) and fertilizers.
As you dodge the potholes on our roads this spring, think of our river system and how it's quietly and efficiently moving a substantial amount of commodities that are being produced or used by us—right here in the Heart of Illinois. iBi