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Meet the St. Paul guy who traded dreams of the law for life on the water

August 3, 2023   StarTribune

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Lee Nelson has made a career of connecting the capital city to the world through the Mississippi River. 

By  Star Tribune


AUGUST 3, 2023 — 5:30AM


Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson didn't want this story to be about him.


He wanted it to be about the Mississippi River and the role his company, Upper River Services, plays in helping make the part of the river that runs through St. Paul a vital cog in the nation's commercial transportation network.


The Mississippi is not only the reason St. Paul came to be, but its role in commercial navigation links the region's farmers to markets around the world. Eye On St. Paul recently visited Nelson at his office on the river to learn how he started his career and why he thinks towboats and barges will have a role to play for years to come.


This interview was edited for length.


Q: How long have you been working with the river?

A: I guess technically since I was in college. In 1979.

Q: What drew you to the river?


A: I started working on the Padelford [riverboat] when I was in college. I had always intended on law. Fell in love with the river and all the history about the river. After my undergrad, I took a year off — after undergrad and before law school. My year hasn't ended yet.


Q: Did you work on the river for that year?

A: No. I had a variety of different jobs: substitute teaching, spent the summer working on the Padelford and then did various things throughout the next year.  Got a call the next spring and was asked if I wanted to work, since I had a license, on the excursion boats. I started on the excursion boats, then went to work on the towboats the following spring, thinking I would learn some of the tow boating industry and I would use that in a career in maritime law.


Q: So you were still thinking law school. What was your degree in?

 A: Political science.


Q: What made you decide this is what you wanted to do instead of going to law school?

A: After I spent a few years learning different aspects of this — worked on the boats, got my license to be a pilot and captain — I decided it was time to move on and got a chance to work in the office. I thought it would be good to work in the business side too.

Opportunities presented themselves that I could learn more and more and move up in the industry. And I like what this industry does. It's good for our society. It is the most efficient means of moving bulk commodities — both economically and environmentally. I think that's important today.


Q: Tell me about the industry.

A: Commercial navigation.


Q: And your part is on the Mississippi River?

A: We're tied to all the inland waterways, and we are not only part of an inland waterways system but we're also part of an intermodal system. Rail, road and water. Moving corn to an elevator from a farmer's fields — they don't do it in a pickup. They do it with a semi because you can take more with one vehicle.


Q: Tell me about that chain. So, from the farmer's fields to the elevator by semi?

A: Next, from the elevator by rail. You can stick four of those semis in every railcar. And you pull more railcars with fewer engines and fewer emissions.


Q: And those trains come to the river?

A: What would be 70 of those semis goes into each barge. We're handling at that point 1,500, 1,600 tons in each barge. And then we move several barges with a single boat.


Q: And those barges go where from here?

A: The reason commercial navigation got to the Twin Cities was agriculture. We bring the fertilizer in that goes out into the fields [upriver] and we take the crops that they grow and send them down to the Gulf for export throughout the world. We also bring cement in, that is made in Missouri and Iowa, and is brought in here by barge and used to build our roads and sidewalks and foundations. We bring limestone in from Iowa that is crushed and used as the grit in asphalt shingles.


Q: Will there be a time that the river won't be part of that system?

A: No, because there's not another mode that avoids the friction. To explain that to people, I say what if I had a 14-foot rowboat sitting on the lot out there. And I told somebody to move it 25 feet, how well do you think they'd do?


Q: On the ground? Not very well.

A: They might get it there eventually, but it would be a lot of work. But if I put that boat in water and say move it 100 feet, how well do you think they'd do? We measure movement of freight in ton miles — how many miles can we move one ton on one gallon of fuel. By truck it's something like 154 miles, which is pretty efficient. Rail is like 476. Barges is 672, I believe.


Q: Is St. Paul the farthest north for barge traffic?

A: The St. Paul harbor is. We no longer go to Minneapolis. But we do go out to Savage, up the Minnesota River 15 miles. St. Paul is as far as large tows go. We call a group of barges that are lashed together and are moved by a single boat a tow.


Q: Do locks and dams control the river?

A: We do our best to work with it and understand it. If you think you're going to control it, you're in for a big letdown. Mother Nature's going to do what Mother Nature wants to do.


Q: When is your shipping season?

A: Typically, mid-March to around Thanksgiving.


Q: Have you read "Life on the Mississippi" by Mark Twain?

A: I have not read the whole thing, but I've had some Twain-y times in my life.


Q: What does that mean?

A: I've had some opportunities to travel some places Twain traveled. And I've gotten the opportunity to work on a river. A long, long time ago, I worked on a sternwheeler. It was amazing.