Market Matters Blog

UMR 2019 Barge Navigation Season Ends; Duluth Grain Shipping End Near

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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Barges waiting in downtown St. Paul in early November were eventually moved south ahead of the winter closure, many of them still empty. (Photo by Mary Kennedy)

The start of the 2019 navigation season in the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) was late and drawn out. The Motor Vessel Aaron F. Barrett, pushing 12 barges heading to St. Paul, Minnesota, finally locked through Lock and Dam 2 near Hastings on April 24. The average date for the first tow to reach St. Paul is around March 18. The historic flooding and ensuing lock closures kept most of the entire UMR closed on and off for months, including the closure of the St. Louis Harbor shutting down barges from moving up or downriver through there on three different occasions in the late spring and early summer.

"Following the Barrett, there would not be another tow to reach St. Paul for more than three weeks due to spring flooding," said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District (USACE, Corps). "The second tow to reach the capital city was the Motor Vessel Thomas E. Erickson on May 20."

When barges were finally able make their way in to the UMR, the late corn and soybean harvest left hundreds of barges parked along the Mississippi River in St. Paul from late summer through November. Many of those empty barges were moved back downriver ahead of the winter closure.

The St. Paul District Corps reported the last tow of the season, Motor Vessel Kelly Rae Erickson, departed St. Paul, Minnesota, Thursday, Nov. 28, "bookmarking" a challenging navigation season.

"There were more than 12,000 commercial vessels and 77 million tons of commodities shipped this season. The shorter navigation season resulted in approximately a 30% drop in tonnage compared to the 2018 navigation season and about 25% drop from the 10-year average," noted the Corps.

"The 2019 navigation season was one of the more challenging seasons we've had in a while," said Jim Rand, St. Paul District locks and dams chief. "We had a really late start due to Mother Nature and fought high water much of the summer. Fortunately, we were able to work with our partners and keep the system open to ensure commodities such as corn and soybeans could reach global markets."


The Corps noted there will be major repairs at three of its locks over the winter "to ensure they continue working as designed." Maintenance is scheduled at Lock and Dam 6, near Trempealeau, Wisconsin; Lock and Dam 8, near Genoa, Wisconsin; and Lock and Dam 9, near Lynxville, Wisconsin, Dec. 10 through March 13, 2020.

"The work includes concrete repairs and repairs to the tow haul rail system, which is used to move barges upstream of the lock chamber when a tow is heading north and there is a need to break the tow into two lockages. A tow with more than six barges must be split up when going through a lock due to size limitations," said the Corps.

All of the construction activities are scheduled to be completed during the winter to avoid impacts to the navigation industry. The completed work will improve safety for Corps lock operators and industry deckhands.

"Having the tow haul rail system working is critical to keeping our lock staff safe and ensuring navigation vessels can efficiently lock through our facilities," said Rand. "With a lot of this infrastructure more than 80 years old, it's critical that we find value-added solutions to maintain the system and ensure navigation continues transporting commodities made in the upper Midwest to global markets."

The construction activities are a part of more than $18 million dollars in scheduled repairs at the St. Paul District locks over the next three years.


On Dec. 4, the St. Lawrence Seaway published SEAWAY NOTICE NO. 17, "Closing of the 2019 Navigation Season," detailing the closing dates for various locks and ports ahead of the winter closure. All vessels must be clear of the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the St. Lawrence Seaway at 1200 hours on Dec. 31, 2019, according to the Seaway notice.

Click here to see the notice:…

As part of a season extension pilot program this navigation season, the Welland Canal will remain open until 1200 hours on Jan. 8, 2020. Then, according to the USACE, the Soo Locks will close Jan. 15, 2020, ending the 2019 Great Lakes shipping season.

At the western tip of Lake Superior and located 2,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the Port of Duluth-Superior is the farthest-inland freshwater seaport in North America and one of the leading bulk cargo ports in all of North America. By far, the largest and busiest on the Great Lakes, the Port of Duluth-Superior handles an average of 35 million short tons of cargo and nearly 900 vessel visits each year, connecting the heartland of the U.S. and Canada to the rest of the world, according to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

The Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, handle a diversified commodities base ranging from coal, iron ore, grain, and limestone to cement, salt, wood pulp, steel coil, wind turbine components, and other heavy lift/dimensional equipment, notes the Port Authority on their website.

Two distinct types of ships visit the Port on a regular basis. "Lakers" are bulk carriers specially built to move through the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway. "Salties" are ocean-going vessels that haul mainly wheat and durum out of the Twin Ports to Europe and North Africa and are the last vessels to arrive in the spring once the winter ice is navigable.

The grain shipping season out of the Port of Duluth-Superior will likely end before Christmas. I asked Jayson Hron, Director of Communications and Marketing, Duluth Seaway Port Authority, when the last grain ship would be leaving Duluth. "It takes approximately five days for a ship to travel from Duluth to Montreal, so it would have to depart Duluth by Dec. 26 at the latest. Typically, the last saltie departs Duluth-Superior earlier than that. Our latest saltie departure on record is Dec. 22. Usually the last saltie departs sometime between Dec. 18-22,"said Hron.

As of Dec. 7, there was ice already forming along the shorelines of Lake Superior and Lakes Michigan, Huron and Ontario, according to NOAA. While ice coverage is less than 1% and won't hamper vessels heading out of Duluth ahead of the winter closure yet, there are ice breakers available to guide vessels through ice if and when it becomes difficult to break through.

Similar to the UMR, the Great Lakes locks will undergo critical maintenance over the winter by USACE, Detroit District, who maintains a navigation system of 95 harbors, including the Great Lakes Connecting Channels that join lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, St. Clair and Erie.

Mary Kennedy can be reached at

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