Across the river from Starved Rock and down the river from Buffalo Rock, is the Starved Rock Lock and Dam. I had been there before – and I had been to other locks before, too. For some reason I enjoy watching boats going through locks. The power necessary to get those gates opened and locked and to raise the water level is amazing. I’ve actually been on a couple boats that have gone through locks – but none as huge as the barges that go through locks such as this one.
This one was built because the water level in the river drops from 140 feet as it flows from Lake Michigan past Starved Rock. Unfortunately, the level goes down another 20 feet before it reaches the Mississippi. That meant that in some places the river was only eighteen inches deep – plus an over abundance of rapids made barge travel impossible.
So a lock and dam was constructed causing there to be a 19 foot difference between the lock side and the dam side. Interestingly, this lock has no pumps, but the water level increases simply because of gravity when the valves are open.
Anyhow, enough of that.
We went to the visiting center and immediately this became the favorite place of the day – mostly because a ship bow is reconstructed inside the building, giving kids opportunity to pull levels, move a light and check out their position on a longitude/latitude grid. How excited can you get? Mostly they were sailing to McDonalds in some unknown place.
Kelli and I sat in the “boat” and then wandered around looking at exhibits.
The visitor’s center stretches along the lock itself with a two-story viewing tower which allows you to be extremely close to the action.
Usually, there is a white board somewhere within the building that lets you know when the next ship is coming, but I saw no sign of a schedule.
I walked out onto the second story deck and saw two men with elaborate photography equpment – all ready to take a picture.
“Do you know when the next boat is coming?” I asked.
“Boats?” they seemed puzzled. “Boats come here?”
“Well, yes …”
They were taking pictures of eagles across the river on Plum Island.
So, I went back inside and tried to find the ranger/worker/army corp guy that I had seen when we first walked in. He was nowhere in sight. I nosed around on the counter, seeing if I could find some kind of schedule. Nothing. Meanwhile the munchkins were still happily playing in their boat.
Finally, the ranger/worker/army corp guy once again appeared.
“Do you know when the next boat/barge is coming?” I asked.
“Nope. They come through all the time, though.”
“But you don’t know the schedule?” (Usually, the people at the lock need to know the schedule to get the gates opened.)
He walked over to the window and looked down the river. “Nothing coming,” he informed me.
“Ah … thanks.”
I gave up. We let the kids play for another 15 minutes and then Kelli told them they had two more minutes and we would go.
So, once more I walked out to the deck and TA DA! A barge was coming!
The five of us went back out and watched as it slowly moved down the river. This was a LONG process. When the barge finally floated into the lock, they had to separate the engine/boat part of it from the barge itself. Otherwise, the whole thing wouldn’t have fit. This was a double, long barge.
Our wandering day did not stop there, we drove back home, stopping at The Red Geranium – a cool store in Sandwich. Our last stop was for supper at Savanna’s. At this point everyone looked just a little bit of day-in-the-fresh-air-tired.