Lewiston - Idaho's Only Seaportby Robbie Johnson
KTVB, May 13, 2005
LEWISTON -- When you think of the gem state, barges and riverboats aren't the first things that come to mind.
But as reporter Robbie Johnson and photographer Troy Colson found out, it is a way of life in Lewiston, home of the state's only seaport, and the eastern most port of the Pacific. The port of Lewiston is the final stop on the nation's second-largest water transportation highway through the Snake and Columbia rivers. And it's a busy place for large barges.
"We probably get roughly one every other day, about 185 barges in the course of a year," said Arvid Lyons, Lewis-Clark Terminal Inc.
Idaho's only seaport is 465 river miles from the Pacific Ocean and is located at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. Here trucks drop off products, most often grain, which are then loaded into barges which will travel hundreds of miles away.
"Out of this elevator, probably 99 percent go to the Portland-Vancouver area, and they are shipped oversees to the export markets," Lyons said.
The Lewiston barge business steered its way to profit about 30 years ago after a series of eight dams and locks were completed on the Columbia and Snake rivers, calming the raging waters and allowing for travel to the sea.
"Right now we are moving 18.7 million tons of cargo up and down the (Columbia) river every year," said Craig Rockwell, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (bluefish: On average for 1990-2002, two million tons leave Lewiston, Idaho, see snaketon.htm).
However, the modern flow of the water is controversial. Some environmentalists would like to see the dams removed to restore fish habitat, while others believe the port is important for business. The demand to remove sediment from the port is also contentious, as well as costly.
"We have a lot of sediment coming down, mostly the Snake River, but the Clearwater as well, and that needs to be dredged out," Rockwell said.
But removing sediment also allows enough depth for river boats like the Empress of the North to travel from the West Coast all the way to the Lewiston and Clarkston Valley. The paddleboat design is a throwback to the 1860s when steamboats were common in the Lewiston area. "It is a paddlewheeler, but a mix of old and new technology," said Captain Dale Orgain, Empress of the North.
This is a very large boat, which makes it difficult to navigate in these waters. The bottom of the boat goes down between 12 and 13 feet and sometimes there is only five feet of clearance between the bottom of the boat and the floor of the river.
"I always visualize it as if I was standing on the bottom and this 400-foot, 7-million pounds thing, I would have to duck," Orgain said.
Closer to shore the water is even shallower, with only about two feet of comfort room.
"That makes the vessel handle very funny when you get into shallow waters like that," Orgain said.
Special equipment is needed to make it far inland, which in this boat's case is to a port close to Lewiston's sister city - Clarkston, Washington.
Passengers on board this floating palace are treated to luxury and extensive menus, but also appreciate how far inland this ship can take them, which is right along the last part of Lewis and Clark's historic journey to the Pacific Ocean.
"It's a modern miracle to be able to do that. If Lewis and Clark had that they would have been here a lot earlier," said Bill Staiger, passenger.
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