Melvin Price Lock & Dam

October 8, 2018

We spent a very enjoyable day at the Melvin Price Lock & Dam. We also took an awesome tour conducted by a very high energy volunteer guide.

Visitor Center

The locks and dams along the upper Mississippi River are enormous, at least compared to us puny humans.

Lock and dam

The visitor center itself is worth a look even if you don’t take the tour of the lock. Exhibits cover the formation of the Mississippi River beginning about 570 million years ago. You get a brief peek at how people traveled up and down the river through history. Even river culture – literature, music, and art – is touched on.

Of course most of the exhibits relate to the history of flood control along the river. As a retired enginerd – this word should be added to the dictionary – I spent a lot of time examining the exhibits related to the building and operation of the lock and dam. It took 17 years to “get er’ done” and that doesn’t include the design work which started six years before that.

When we think of a dam something like Hoover Dam usually comes to mind. This isn’t that kind of dam. It’s a low water dam. The idea is to keep the water on the upstream side a specific height above the water level on the downstream side. This dam isn’t used for flood control. A series of locks and dams controls the water level on 662 miles of the river, from Upper St. Anthony Falls, MN (been there) to Granite City, IL. Each pair of adjacent locks and dams is designed to ensure that the river is navigable between them.

Stairway for boats

They had a beautiful aerial view of the lock and dam. Remember “Beauty is in the eye of the enginerd.” The tainter gates shown in the image can be adjusted to control the upstream water level.

Aerial view of lock and dam

Barges travel in groups called tows which are pushed by a towboat. Barges are usually lashed together with steel cables. On the upper Mississippi River, tows usually consist of 15 barges. On the lower Mississippi River up to 45 barges can be tied together. The type of barge used depends on what it’s carrying. Hopper barges carry bulk products like grain, sugar, paper products, coffee, coal, etc. Each hopper barge can hold up to 1,500 tons. Tank barges carry liquids like petroleum, chemicals, orange juice, etc. They can hold up to 2,500 tons. Deck barges carry manufactured goods like construction equipment, vehicles, aircraft, etc. They can carry anywhere from 100 to 10,000 tons.

During our tour, we watched a barge being locked through from beginning to end. This is not something you want to do if you have a short attention span. It took about half an hour to from beginning to end.

Tug lining barge up with lock wall

Barge locked in and ready to be lowered


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