The Other Riverfront

Beyond the toney recreational developments, Knoxville has always been a thriving, working river port - but may not be after 2005

From the loading docks along the wharf where the barges are tied, you can see the head of the famous 650-mile-long Tennessee River, curiously unheralded by any obvious monument or marker. Over to the left is Pickel Island, which looks broader than the river that encircles it. Over there, in the mornings, you can still see deer grazing.

Here on this side are hills of blue-dyed salt, each bigger than a house: Morton road salt up from the Gulf, ready to be loaded into city trucks for the next winter storm. Some are covered with tarp; on others, the weather has formed a thick crust, apparently preventing each whole hill from dissolving in the rain. It's hundreds of tons of road salt, and it all arrived on the river.

Six numbered cylindrical concrete piers line the shore, two of them equipped with sturdy loading docks. Several barges float alongside, some with ports of origin stenciled on the bows: ST. LOUIS, MO; CINCINNATI, OHIO. A 100-ton crane towers overhead.

This is Burkhart Enterprises, only three miles upstream from downtown Knoxville. Occupying the very last right bank of the French Broad, Burkhart's is the final terminal on the Tennessee River, the endpoint of navigation for most commercial traffic in this region, the South's easternmost commercial access to the Mississippi River. It's also the busiest riverfront loading dock of the Port of Knoxville.

What you can see piled here today is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of tons of commerce that's loaded or unloaded at the Port of Knoxville--well over 600,000 tons annually, in recent years.

River freight isn't conspicuous in Knoxville. It comes and goes quietly, often when we're asleep, without stopping traffic. It doesn't bear down on you in your rear-view mirror on I-40. But if it weren't there, we would notice. It's a significant part of our economy.

Even from here, river commerce is astonishingly versatile; via the Mississippi River system, you can reach ports throughout the central part of the nation. Get on a boat in Knoxville, and you can make it all the way to Pittsburgh, or Chicago, or Minneapolis, or New Orleans--or, for that matter, any port in the world--without touching dry land. River commerce is usually much less expensive than other modes of transportation, and can accommodate much larger quantities. And for Knoxville, it's a rare advantage over some other land-locked cities. "Knoxville's sitting in a perfect location," says Tim Jones, manager of Burkhart's. He mentions the convergence of major interstates, the railroads--and the Tennessee River. "A lot of cities don't have river transportation available," he says. "Atlanta's one example."

In 1988, TVA released an analysis of Knoxville's river economy, reporting that each year, the 600,000-plus tons of diverse commodities shipped by river--outbound zinc and animal feed, inbound salt and asphalt, and dozens of other commodities shipped in smaller quantities--was saving Knoxville businesses and consumers some $5 million each year. Due to cutbacks, TVA doesn't do as much of that sort of port analysis as it used to, but considering that tonnage has been fairly constant over the last several years, TVA analysts figure that $5 million savings figure hasn't changed much. Metropolitan Knoxville's river commerce may even be growing. Soon, trade sources say, a scrap-iron company in Alabama will be receiving 300,000 tons of East Tennessee scrap and pig iron via barges from Rockwood.

However, the shadow of a dam on the southern horizon threatens to bring it all to an end. A faulty lock in a dam near Chattanooga may choke off access to and from the Upper Tennessee forever--in only eight years.

Work on the River

Burkhart's, a 30-year-old company that employs 45, is Knoxville's only public barge dock. Burkhart's loads 360,000 tons of river cargo each year, a thousand tons per calendar day. Most of their cargo is fairly mundane: bulk commodities like coal, salt, zinc, and sometimes, like today, steel coils. Jones says they can move anything a truck can move. Recently, Burkhart sent a shipment of expensive machinery, desalinization units manufactured by nearby Aqua Chem, on the first leg of an all-water trip to Aruba. (That's not Aruba, Tennessee.) It's not unusual to ship stuff overseas via the Port of Knoxville, to France, Germany, even Japan. Jones sometimes has to fill out customs papers.

Right now, at the lofty platform at Pier 5, a large truck beeps as it backs rapidly toward the lip of the dock, stopping inches from the edge, then slowly dumps tons of powdered zinc into a waiting barge.

This one's a box barge, the larger of the two basic types here. A box barge will carry 1600 tons; a rake barge, with its sharp bow, somewhat less. Each barge will carry the equivalent of 60 truckloads, or 15 boxcar loads, and a towboat can move several of them at a time.

One barge in the water looks as solid as a concrete-and-steel warehouse, built into the shore. You don't expect to see it move. The dockhands move the barge back and forth as they load it, a different spot with each truckload, to distribute the weight. They say if they try to load too much into the middle, it can collapse in on itself. Right now, the downstream end of the barge is low in the water, but as more tons of the grey zinc sand pours into the back, this whole seemingly immobile building groans and shifts, and the barge levels out.

There are no idle hands at Burkhart's today. As dockhands watch the loading process, a middle-aged man with a drooping black mustache quickly splices a loop into a thick rope. He's Pablo, a Mexican laborer who has worked for Burkhart since '95. He recently worked for four years in an American chicken factory. Smiling as he works, he doesn't speak much English, but indicates this job is a great improvement over chicken packing. "Truck, barge, no problem to work, for me," he says.

Pablo says the pay's much better than his work in Mexico, where he made eight dollars a day. In six years, Pablo has saved enough money to buy big houses back home in Guanajuato for his two sons, a Mexican father's responsibility. He plans to return soon. Two of the other deckhands are Mexican, too, nicknamed Fonzi and Fish by the Anglo workers who have trouble with their real names. Fish wears a long mustache and a large gold earring.

Some things don't change over the years; ropes still need to be spliced. But cargo loading and unloading is mostly mechanized now. A river loading dock sounds like any industrial site: People being paged on the intercom, the almost constant rumble of trucks and bulldozers, the loud beeping when one backs up. The dock crew admit they hardly ever talk to the rivermen who actually tow the barges they load; rarely even come into contact with them. They just know they have to have these barges loaded today, because the towboat R.H. Baker will be here tonight.


Knoxville was a river-port town of sorts from the beginning. Daring riverboat men took small cargoes of whiskey and corn downriver in keelboats as far as New Orleans; there they scrapped their boats, because they couldn't return, except overland. Fatalists were convinced that treacherous Muscle Shoals, in Alabama's southern elbow of the Tennessee, would keep Knoxville and Chattanooga landlocked from large-scale commercial navigation forever.

That one-way traffic ended in 1828, when the bold crew of the steamboat Atlas, from Cincinnati, scraped past Muscle Shoals and made it all the way up the Upper Tennessee River to Knoxville, to collect a reward.

The Atlas put in on March 4, 1828, right here at the mouth of the French Broad, where Burkhart's is today. They had a little ceremony here on the shore to mark the occasion, the official Opening of the Upper Tennessee River--dampened, somewhat, by neighboring planter J.G.M. Ramsey's impertinent declaration that river traffic would never be significant to Knoxville's economy, that we'd do best to keep trading over land with the East.

Today, Burkhart's makes it their business to prove Ramsey wrong, as many others have over the last 170 years. Mussel Shoals was just the first obstacle to challenge the resources of rivermen. Knoxville's rivermen have navigated bigger shoals, including the competition of freight trains in the 1850s and interstate 18-wheelers a century later. Then, in the 1970s, the introduction of pipeline transportation--about the only mode that saves more money than barge traffic--arrived, stealing some petroleum products from the barge lines. Another blow to commercial navigators came when dredgers discovered there were limits to the Knoxville area's supply of riverbottom sand and gravel for export.

But zinc, salt, asphalt, and several other river cargoes have thrived. River commerce has survived because, for several kinds of bulk transportation, it offers those practical advantages concerning bulk and price that trains and trucks can't touch. And that new scrap-metal deal seems to suggest that there are still more possibilities in the future.

Knoxville is, as it always has been, a viable river port. But there's a real possibility that river traffic to Knoxville may end, permanently, in the next decade--all because of serious problems with a dam almost 200 river miles downstream, a dam Knoxvillians rarely hear about.

The Dam

If you were to sail down the Tennessee today, the first dam you'd lock through, of course, would be Fort Loudon, which is about 50 river miles downstream from downtown Knoxville. Then you'd sail another 70 miles or so, through Watts Bar Lake and lock through Watts Bar Dam. Almost 60 river miles after that, you get to Chickamauga Dam. Named for the blood-soaked tributary of the Civil War battle, allegedly Cherokee for "The River of Death," Chickamauga Dam stands above Chattanooga, holding back Chickamauga Lake.

TVA built it in 1940, but used an unfortunate compound of cement and aggregate that didn't get along, which began a slow chemical reaction--resulting in what's known by the unnerving but literal term concrete growth. Through 57 years of chemical combat, the concrete has developed pockets of air and expanded in size, lessening its density, weakening its structure.

Due to concrete growth, Chickamauga Dam is deteriorating. Cracks have been appearing in its associated structures for years. The dam is solid enough to prevent Chickamauga Lake from drowning Chattanooga in the foreseeable future. However, concrete growth is a more urgent threat to the more delicate functions of the dam, especially locking boats through. Since 1965, TVA engineers have cut out expansion slots to relieve the stress of the swelling concrete--and then watched as the yeasty concrete grew back together. TVA engineers estimate that the lock will be unusable after 2005. "If the lock's not replaced by 2005," says TVA technical specialist Larry Bray, "we'll have to close it."

That's not what TVA wants to do. TVA has considered three different plans to rebuild it in three different sizes. The option TVA and many navigators prefer would expand the lock to nearly twice its current size. But the estimated price tags for replacing the lock range from $135 million to $225 million. None of the improvement plans are fully funded by the newly-thrifty federal government. For the time being, only $6.8 million--about 5% of the very cheapest option--is appropriated. Without funding, the only option is to plug the lock.

Completion time, counting two years of engineering and paperwork, is seven years. To be finished by that 2005 deadline, work will have to begin, with funding in place, in 1998. That's next year.

If the lock is not replaced all river traffic between Knoxville and Chattanooga will cease: no more barges in, no more barges out, and no more river commerce for Knoxville, Tennessee. A total of 318 currently navigable river miles in East Tennessee, including the Clinch and the Little Tennessee, would be off limits to the nation beyond Chickamauga Dam. (If river commerce doesn't impress Knoxvillians, remember that closing Chickamauga Dam would mean that the Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee fleets of the Vol Navy would have to find other ports on fall Saturdays. As if that's not bad enough, TVA officials hint darkly that, through one interpretation of TVA's mission, the closure of Chickamauga could end federal obligations to serve pleasure boats in the locks at Fort Loudon and Watts Bar dams, as well.)

Since almost all of Knoxville's barge cargoes lock through Chickamauga, our commercial river traffic and some of the industry that depends on it will come to an ungracefully sudden end.

Naturally, city government is concerned. "It's an extremely critical issue," says Susan Brown, Knoxville Director of Development Services, who has been studying the issue. "Closing the lock would hurt businesses that are here today, and it could hurt us in the future in recruiting water-dependent industries," she says. "And there's a recreational side I'm not sure the public understands. When people do realize the significance of river navigation in East Tennessee, it may be too late."

Earlier this month, City Council passed a resolution "strongly encouraging" TVA's proposal to build a new lock. Some state legislators are proposing a similar resolution.

"Our preferred alternative is to construct a new lock," says TVA vice president of water management Janet Herrin. "I truly believe that we will. I believe that the people of this valley very much appreciate the benefits that this lock brings--that they'll let their Congressmen know, and that support will come."

For the record, Congressman Jimmy Duncan supports the project wholeheartedly already, and is confident of obtaining the necessary funding, someway, somehow: "I think the funding will be there," he says, "but it's going to take some work to get it."

Others at TVA and the city administration aren't ready to bet on it. Within the thriftiest U.S. Congress in modern history, the members whose districts would be affected by the dam closing number exactly four. And work needs to begin next year.

As weird as it sounds, such a closure wouldn't be unprecedented. A similar problem with a lock a few years ago closed off part of the Kentucky River to navigation. The irony is that a dam which once made the Upper Tennessee easier to navigate may put an end to through-navigation altogether.

"The river was navigable before the dam," says Tim Jones, who ships 100% of Burkhart's river cargo through the Chickamauga lock. "We had river traffic before the dam was ever built. Around here, they loaded marble on steamships. What they're doing, they're closing off a navigable system that was there before dams were."

Burkhart's supplements its river work with a trucking line, but Jones says closing the river to traffic would be catastrophic. "It would drastically affect these 45 or 50 families" who depend on Burkhart jobs. That's not considering the effect on local industries that ship via Burkhart's, like area steel-processing plants and zinc supplier ASARCO in Jefferson City. And that's not even mentioning several other river-barge ports in the metropolitan area, like Staley's busy grain and corn-syrup processing facility near Loudon, and Knoxville's two major asphalt companies.

Volunteer Asphalt and Southern States Asphalt (Ashland) ship their essential raw product in by the millions of gallons from refineries on the Ohio River, the Mississippi, and the Gulf Coast, entirely by river. Southern States in South Knoxville receives about 25-40 barge shipments a year. "Everything we receive comes by barge," says Larry Gillem, sales representative for Southern States, much of it from their parent company's facilities on the Ohio River. He says a single boat can tow two-and-a-half million gallons of asphalt. A tank truck, by contrast, carries a puny 6,000. As far as asphalt's concerned, one towboat is as good as 412 trucks, or 114 railroad tank cars. If Chickamauga Dam closes, he says, "our transportation cost would be greatly increased. It would very much add to the price of our product."

Those asphalt companies employ specialized tow lines, like Ingram in Nashville, that use heated barges. For most other commodities, there are two basic barge lines serving Knoxville: Serodino, which is based in Haletown, just west of Chattanooga; and Keasler, which is based in Charleston, Tenn., near the Hiwassee River. Others come through on occasion for spot shipments. Occasionally, a huge Mississippi-sized boat and barge will wedge its way into town, but most are towboats, built expressly for this shallow, winding stream called the Upper Tennessee. They're "Tennessee River Towboats," a generic term that applies no matter what river they're on.

You've probably seen the Casey Keasler shoving up and down Knoxville's river. Based in Charleston, Tenn., at the mouth of the Hiwassee, it's here about once a week, conspicuous for the Rebel flag its captain flies on the bow of its foremost barge. And there's Serodino's towboat, the R.H. Baker, which also makes at least one double-trip through Knoxville each week.


It's well after dark at Burkhart's wharf. Herons, scarce during the noisy day's work, fly low over the water toward Pickel Island. Then there's a humming, churning sound downriver, and a searchlight sweeps the shore. It's a huge barge, or, rather, a flotilla of barges, pushed by a towboat with a rotating radar antenna on top of its tower. The barge seems huge, dark, inanimate, but you hear shouts as it approaches, and you see two men standing on the barge itself, tiny in comparison. "Follow in, slow and easy. Six more feet there, big man."

It's after 8 p.m., but on the deck of the Serodino towboat R.H. Baker, there's no talk of finishing up for the day. The crew of the Baker never finishes up for the day. They're at Burkhart's floodlit but empty docks, untying one barge and picking up two more for the trip downstream. The Baker will be sailing all night; with luck, they'll lock through Fort Loudon dam well before dawn. Chattanooga--Haletown, specifically--is the Baker's port of call, the headquarters of Serodino. Most of the Baker's crew spend a third of their lives near there, but only a third: 10 days a month. The other 20, they're on this boat.

The Baker's crew roster would have been familiar to Admiral Farragut. There's the captain, the pilot, the mate, the cook, and a couple of deckhands. One of the hands hops up on the dock for a minute, then he's back on the barge. He's apparently the only crewmember who will touch dry land tonight. Some sail for the full three weeks without ever getting off the boat. Each man in the crew is on board for 20 days. He sleeps, eats, and works on the towboat or on the barges; there are a couple of decks of cards in the galley, but there's not much time to play. They sleep, dormitory style, in tiny apartments, and reportedly eat very, very well. Eating seems to be the main thing they recommend about life on the river. "You do eat good," says the mate, Henry Vickers. "You can look at us and tell."

Everybody in the wheelhouse laughs--but actually, you can't tell. A short guy in a gray stubbly beard and overalls, Vickers is thick but lean and, hopping between barges like a train robber, far more agile than your average grandfather. Originally from Waterloo, Alabama, Vickers has spent his life on the rivers, even the big ones. Years ago, he worked on the Ohio and the Mississippi itself. Now he prefers the Upper Tennessee just to be closer to home. Vickers is a third-generation riverman and talks about his trade as if it were inevitable. His grown sons are rivermen; he says he'd prefer they were not.

The two deckhands tonight must be about the same age as his sons. In a ponytail and goatee, Steve seems like any bright college kid. He's from Chattanooga and has been on the river about a year-and-a-half. Tonight he chews on a toothpick and doesn't say much. Lamar's a friendly country boy from Jasper. "When I started, they told me there are two kinds of men in this world: men, and rivermen." A former furniture mover, he discovered an opening for a deckhand through an employment agency. He's now proud to count himself among the rivermen, but he says the initiation can take more than a year. "I've seen grown men come out here and cry, want to go home." He doesn't volunteer whether he was one of them.

Captain Don Carson smokes a cigarette in his wheelhouse high above the deck of the Baker and talks about his 30 years on the river. A burly fellow with a white beard, Carson speaks in a gruff accent and seems exactly like the freighter captain you'd picture in a child's adventure book--except that tonight he's wearing a UT Vols cap and listening to John Ward's play-by-play of the Tennessee/Vanderbilt basketball game. A river chart showing parts of Knoxville is spread out in front of the radar monitor, where the dark banks of the French Broad glow more visibly than we can see them out the window.

Carson and Vickers, the two old salts, talk about changes they've seen on the river. The captain communicates with the deckhands by walkie-talkies. Vickers says he can remember when they used a noisy PA system to convey orders. His memories impress the younger hands, but just for a moment, until Captain Carson pulls rank. "When I started, you used hand signals," he says.

This boat, the R.H. Baker, has more river experience than any of its sailors. Built in 1947, it's a half-century-old classic. You don't realize how large a towboat is until you're on board: as many rooms as a three-bedroom house, but compactly built. On the deck level, through the back door of the kitchen/dining room, you walk straight into the engine room, which is surprisingly cavernous, with a catwalk between two huge 500 horsepower engines running constantly, each connected to its own propeller. In all, there are four levels, counting that lower part of the engine room.

Carson says the 20 miles around Knoxville are among the most difficult on the river. By some accounts, what's known to rivermen as Looney's Bend and what's known to socialites as Sequoyah Hills is the single most hazardous spot on the entire Tennessee, the sharp turn and the accumulation of sediment on the bottom combining to make for some difficult maneuvering, especially in the winter, when the water levels are down. In January, a towboat stranded a barge there for several hours one night, just across from the west side of Sequoyah Park. After struggling with it for some time, the towboat crew tied the barge off and sailed upriver for help.

Carson says Looney's Bend is especially tough, but his personal choice is the  area around Suck Creek. "It gets hot in there," he says. "It's all rock, too."

Incidentally, Carson puts his considerable weight on the river side of the controversy of whether to call the body of water in downtown Knoxville the "Tennessee River" or "Fort Loudon Lake." (The News-Sentinel has long favored Fort Loudon Lake in all references to the river in Knoxville.) This riverman says the river definitely behaves like a river throughout Knoxville proper. "But you get on down to the Pellissippi Bridge--from there down you're getting in lake water."

Vickers goes on about the way river life has changed over the years. When he was young, rivermen were known for their drinking and fighting. "Back then, when you got on shore, people tried to see how tough you was," he says. "Now, it's more respectable. We're paid better, too."

Much better, apparently. Capt. Carson recalls when rivermen made $9 a day. Now, a deckhand makes $22,000 a year, to start, and that's with food paid for. The captain may make more than twice that much, as much as many urban professionals.

The biggest change, though, may come in 2005. Captain Carson offers his assessment. "It's a political thing," he growls. "When the railroad gets into trouble, the government will come in and bail them out. But on the river, you get into trouble, they say, 'It's your little red wagon, you just take it home.'" Then, from his lofty perch, Captain Carson radios his crew to get a move on; it's time to go.

It's after 9 p.m. as the crew cinches fresh barges onto the flotilla. A steel hawser slides on a cable, showering bright sparks into the black water. "Have one for me," one of the deckhands calls to shore as he casts off. (The riverman may have an ancient reputation for drinking, but for three weeks, the crew of the latter-day Baker isn't allowed to drink a beer.) With a sturdy hum, the Baker slowly backs around in the mouth of the French Broad and churns downstream. Its running lights disappear around a dark bend at the very top of the legendary Tennessee River.

River traffic will surely be a factor during the Duncan-Clement review of TVA's budget in April. But the next time you see the Casey Keasler or the R.H. Baker, take a good look. Point them out to your kids, so they'll remember the 175 years when real river traffic came all the way to Knoxville.

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.