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Camera at Lock and Dam No. 19 puts Keokuk on the virtual map

August 18, 2022   Daily Gate City

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Camera at Lock and Dam No. 19 puts Keokuk on the virtual map

Daily Gate City – Keokuk, IA – 8/18/22 – Erika Barrett


The views of the Mississippi River in Keokuk are priceless. For StreamTime Live (STL), they’ve been worth about $39,656. In July 2021, STL partnered with Keokuk Area Convention and Tourism Bureau and installed a high definition, 360-degree pan/tilt/zoom camera on the original traffic bridge. They launched the channel “Mississippi River Lock 19, Keokuk, IA, USA.”


“Our Keokuk location has been the breakout star of our network since it launched on July 27, 2021,” stated Kathy Abbot, STL’s co-owner. “It’s consistently our number one viewed Livestream (and) has exceeded our expectations.”


The channel averages about 30,000 views each day.


Lock and Dam No. 19 and the powerhouse opened in 1913. In 1957, a primary lock replaced the existing one, making it more than three times longer. In 2004, the facility was put on the National Register of Historic Places. The lock is owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The dam and energy center is owned and operated by Ameren Missouri.


The STL Livestream of the lock and dam is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week on YouTube and is just one of the company’s cameras around the country. Virtual Railfan, a railroading Livestream organization close to StreamTime Live, has a similar camera set up in Fort Madison that started streaming in October 2021, sponsored and hosted by Kingsley Inn.


“(Another) secret of Keokuk’s success is (the) live chat that accompanies the stream,” said Abbot. “We have never seen an online community build so quickly and strongly. These people come together daily to enjoy Keokuk and each other, and we know quite a few have made trips or are planning vacations to include Keokuk.”


“Keokuk was smart to sponsor the cam,” said Nicole Wembley, a chatter who grew up in Hamilton until she was 10. “It has brought visitors to town, along with the Fort Madison cam.” Wembley lives near Daytona Beach, Florida, and watches the Livestream on average for one to two hours daily.


Some streamers, like Zero Tolerance, from Lake Saint Louis, Missouri, have seen the lock and dam in person. “I’ve been to the lock several times, most recently three weeks ago. Victory Park is a beautiful place to watch the tows go by,” they said.


To become a chatter, a viewer must first subscribe to the channel. A subscription is free and available to anyone with access to YouTube. STL chooses moderators from consistent chatters and gives them access to the camera controls.


Several chatters are history and engineering devotees, but that is not required to join the STL community. “Most (viewers)…have no previous exposure to river transportation, and it quickly becomes a whole new world opened up to them,” said moderator Judd Spittler. “Regular visitors have said the best thing about the (channel) is how much they have learned about locks, river transportation, life working on the river, etc. The chance to learn keeps most of them coming back.”


Some regulars keep notes related to the towboats that pass through, mentioning notable characteristics with the live chat.


“I appreciate the great camera work, all the various activities, the scenery, sunrises, etc., and the willingness of those here ‘in the know’ to answer questions,” said self-proclaimed “newbie,” Chris.


Viewers and chatters on the channel hail from around the world. “I love watching and learning about the tows and the area,” said Starfishcas, a U.K. chatter. “It’s so pretty at sunrise. I watch (the Livestream) all day and even sometimes fall asleep to the channel.”


Mostly, streamers come from around the United States. A few even grew up in the Tri-State area. “I grew up in Keokuk, across the street from Jefferson Elementary,” said Chris Sturm, who now lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I fondly remember hearing the tows on summer nights.”


Occasionally, chatters will include crews aboard the tows passing through the lock. “They are great at answering questions and giving us a better idea of life on the river,” said Spittler.


Community members have formed friendships, complete with inside jokes. “The tree that blocks the view of the north gate is called ‘What Tree,’ said Bubba Warbucks, a retiree from North Carolina. Four weeks ago, a tow smashed an unfortunate possum in the lock. Its remains still visible to the camera, the chatters posthumously named it Pauline. “She’s our mascot!” one chatter joked.


To increase camaraderie, moderators create daily jigsaw puzzles from images captured by the camera for streamers to solve. Occasionally the moderator will give clues by showing streamers different parts of the lock and dam. Chatters discuss the puzzles in between tows.


Lock and Dam No. 19 has intriguing features that set it apart from other locks along the Mississippi. “The location of the camera in relation to the lock provides viewers with a unique look at shipping on the Mississippi,” said Stone, a moderator from North Carolina.


“Lock 19 has one of the highest amounts of lift among the locks on the Upper Mississippi (lift is the distance the lock must raise or lower the vessels). Lock 19 is also one of the few locks that can accommodate maximum length tows (three barges wide by five barges long) without splitting the tow into two parts to transit the lock. This makes transiting Lock 19 very time efficient for the tow crews.” said Spittler.


For regular STL visitor Warbucks, watching the Livestream is an opportunity to connect with nature. “I watch because I love watching the slow, quiet ballad of these giant tows. The whole locking process is like a dance,” he said. “The Mississippi River is the soul of the continent.” Warbucks spends an average of three to six hours daily on the Livestream.


Last winter, when the shipping lane shut down, STL prepared for viewership to drop and dwindle. “It never did,” said Abbot. “Viewers remained steady throughout the year simply because there’s so much to see in Keokuk beyond the barges and other boat traffic. The swing bridge, the K-Line trains, the bald eagles and other wildlife, activities, and events in the park. There’s always something to see and talk about.”


The most exciting thing the chatters have seen go through the lock? “Last year, (there were) two river cruise ships at one time in the lock heading downbound (aka south),” said Stone. “We had over 2,000 people watching. Also, a work group in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came through with something like four tows and about 38 work barges, mostly very small. It filled the entire lock.”


A small but significant camera has brought global attention to Keokuk, without most of the town unaware of its presence. “About seven years ago, I bought a motorhome,” said Spittler. “In my Google Maps research, I placed a star at Lock 19 in Keokuk. When STL first considered placing a camera in Keokuk two years ago, I remember asking, ‘Oh, is that the one with the power plant?’ I knew it would be a very cool place to have a live cam.”