The Mel Price Lock (named in honor of a longtime Congressman) replaced the ageing Lock #26 formerly located about a mile upstream. The old lock had two chambers one of which was 600 x 110 and the other 360' x 110 and they were proving to be a real bottleneck for Mississippi River transportation. In 1983 the average delay for lockage was 15 hours and this increased to 17 hours by 1989. Plus the old lock was plagued with maintenance problems.
Mel Price's main chamber was completed in 1990 with the auxiliary going into service three years later. The new facility is considered a showcase for the Corps of Engineers lock system. It features a 1200' x 110' main chamber and 600 x 110 auxiliary. Normal drop/lift is about 23' and the lock is equipped with floating bollards or pins. The facility includes a large first class visitor center with an observation area and also scheduled tours of the facility are available.
Today the auxiliary lock was down for maintenance and the lockmaster ran us into the main. I have been in locks this size several times before but sitting there inside this huge tank in an 18' boat always makes me realize how small we are in relation to the huge river tows that work these waters.
The miter gates finally open and we are free to the southbound current. Our next stop will be 18 miles ahead at Chain of Rocks Lock (Lock #27) at mile marker 185 but there are a couple of interesting items before that. As we make our way towards the lock we pass the old Alton Belle Casino now moored to the shore away from the public eye. It is a paddle riverboat style vessel that was replaced by a much larger floating casino. I did not realize it was still in the area but there it sets boarded up and looking neglected.
At mile marker 195 we reach the mouth of the Missouri River and the turbulence is quite strong as the to rivers converge. Just a mile farther places us at the entrance to the Chain of Rocks Canal. The 12 mile canal was cut to bypass an area called the Chain of Rocks Reach. The Reach extends along the northeastern boundary of St. Louis and St. Louis County, and has been a hazard to river traffic since the earliest days of navigation on the Mississippi.
At two locations on this reach, ledges of rock extend from the east bank under the river channel. These ledges act as submerged dams, causing a sharp increase in the slope of the river. This, in turn, increases the velocity of the water and makes this section extremely difficult and dangerous to navigate. Even the most powerful towboats were forced to divide their tows and take smaller groups of barges through the reach. At extreme low water, the navigable depth was reduced to as little as 5.5 feet because of the rocks, preventing full and efficient use of the improved waterway above and below the Chain of Rocks Reach.
In 1953 the Chain of Rocks Canal and lock were placed in service. The dam is actually about six miles upstream from the lock. It is a non-controlled low water dam built from rock fill. All powerboats must use the canal bypass the dam except during times of extreme high water. The Mississippi River chart shows a sailing line across the dam but obviously it needs to be ignored.
The locks at #27 are the same size as Mel Price. As we approach I attempt to call the lockmaster but get no reply. A friendly tow captain suggest I make a frequency change to Channel 12. All the other locks we have encountered on this trip have used 14 as their working channel. I didn't ask but my guess is because of its close proximity to Mel Price and the high volume of traffic they handle a different frequency is used to avoid confusion.
Now that I am on the correct channel the lockmaster comes back and
tells us as soon as he opens the gate we can enter the auxiliary.
We pull in and tie off and I call back on the radio to inquire about one
of their employees. A friend of mine works at the lock and I told
him the next time I came though I would check to see if he was there.
Unfortunately they inform me his shift had ended about a half hour before
and he had left for home. I really wanted to show him I was making
this run in Therapy. He has worked on locks for years and he has
told me a number of times that there was no way I would ever catch him
on the Mississippi in a wooden boat. In his eyes it’s just too dangerous.
He has hinted a couple of times that he thinks I'm nuts.