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In bridge project, towboats key

Vessels help raze Arkansas River span, put new one in place

The $98.4 million project to replace the Broadway Bridge has, at times, looked less like major construction work and more like a naval operation.

That's because boats have played a prominent role in bringing down the old, 93-year-old bridge and floating part of the new bridge into place.

It took two vessels to help bring down the steel arch of the old bridge after explosives failed to dislodge it last month. Three vessels were employed to help the first of the new bridge's two arches into place two weeks ago.

Another, smaller boat is used to shuttle workers and their tools to and from different construction sites on the river and shoreline.

Two of the boats are part of a fleet of 20 operated by the prime contractor for the project, Massman Construction Co. of Kansas City, Mo., which bills itself as “America's bridge builder.”

The company uses its fleet to help build bridges, docks, and locks and dams on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including the Ohio, Missouri and Arkansas rivers. The fleet is made up of pushboats, which are more commonly known as tow­boats. Just don't call them tugboats, cautions the Tug-boat Enthusiast Society and other persnickety observers.

Tugboats are vessels used to assist larger ships in docking and undocking, according to the society.

A tugboat has a deep, rounded hull with propellers deep in the water and a pointed bow. It is designed to operate safely in rough water, the society said on its website.

By contrast, a "towboat" typically refers to a vessel used to handle towing tasks on inland waterways. It features a squared-off bow with “pushing knees,” a hull that is flat bottomed until the stern where it rises to allow room for one or more propellers.

Towboats got their name in the early years of river towing when the boats were used to pull the tows, the society said. But as towboats and their tows increased in size tows began to be pushed which allowed for better control.

“The more modern terminology ‘pushboat’ tends to be used interchangeable with ‘towboat’ and in many ways is a better description of the function of these vessels” according to the society.

Whatever the vessels are called, Massman couldn’t build without them, said Paul Scharmer, the company’s vice president for operations.

“We are a marine contractor,” he said. “We (build) bridges, locks and dams. Typically, the boats are very integral to what we do.”

“They are the vehicles that drive our equipment and material and manpower. On most of our jobs, we have one boat. They are busy all day, about every day.”

But he acknowledged the boats performed “unique things on this job, unique to this job.”

Massman’s two towboats on the Broadway Bridge projects are the M.V. Jess Wooldridge and the M.V. Ray Penscrum. Like the rest of the boats in the fleet, the two vessels are names after pivotal company employees, according to Scharmer.

The Wooldridge is the larger of the two. It is 42 years old, built by Barbour Metal Works of St. Louis. Powered by two diesel engines producing a combined 1,230 horsepower it is 60 feet long and 21 feet wide.

The Penscrum is even older, built in 1970, also by Barbour. It is 46 feet long and 18 feet wide. Its two diesels product 800 horsepower.

Both vessels, using long cables, helped pull down the old Broadway Bridge’s steel arch after explosives filed to dislodge the piece, which was part of an upgrade of the bridge in the 1970s to accommodate the McCllellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.

The towboats were the backup plan all along the Oct. 11 operation in the event the explosives didn’t do the job, according to Scharmer.

They were also part of the Nov. 15 operation to float the arch. After a slow start to that project, it went smoothly.

Those boats and a third towboat enlisted to help move the 1,600-ton arch from its mooring on the north bank of the Arkansas River were part of the “redundancies” in place to execute the maneuver, Scharmer said.

“We had total redundancy in everything we were doing so nothing could go wrong,” he said.

Several cable connected to winches in construction barges place on the upstream side of the new piers were employed to pull the arch while the towboats stationed on the downriver side of the arch were used to help push the arch to avoid straining the winches. Scharmer said the towboats, at times, also held back the arch to keep the cables taut.

The third towboat, the M.V. The Duke, was on loan from Bruce Oakley Inc. Based in North Little Rock, Bruce Oakley bill itself as “a diverse commodity trading, distribution, and transportation company.” It operates a 200-acre port and distribution facility from the north bank of the river.

The Duke is about the size of the Wooldridge. Built in 1979, it is 60 feet long and 24 feet wide. Its two diesel engines produce a combined 1,200 horsepower.

At the Oakley port it is considered a “fleet boat,” spending its days and nights moving around various barges for loading and unloading at the docks, according to its captain for the past seven years, Dan Burch 55. Its cabin can sleep five in case it is called out on an overnight trip.

The boat often is worked around the clock, with another captain splitting the duties into 12-hour shifts. Any downtime is spent performing maintenance. Bruce Oakley has invested about $1 million into overhauling the boat in recent years, according to Burch.

He and boat’s deckhand, 29-year-old Jason McLeod, both were working on The Duke when it was called to help float the arch.

They needed another boat and more horsepower,” Burch said. “It was an easy day. There wasn’t much for us to do.”

James Wingate, the terminal manager for the port, said people on the river are quick to lend on another a hand.

“We are just being neighborly,” he said.

The Duke will be called up on to move the second arch too.

But after the second arch is moved, the Massman towboats will return to their traditional roles, Scharmer said.

“They will go back to moving equipment, bringing materials out to our equipment – the traditional support roles – for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Noel Oman