What are These Giant Mississippi River Barges Doing in the Middle of a Farm?

Last night I received a curious email from Dave W. of South Dakota:

Before all else, I eminently took the bait to find out how a large barge about the length of Noah’s Ark would be stranded on a farm in Olive Branch, Illinois.

As the mighty Mississippi River snakes around Dogtooth Bend at the southern tip of Illinois, certain curved segments of the riverbank take the brunt of the river’s erosive power.

This especially occurs in Alexander County, where farmers and other hard working residents experienced major floods 21 times between 1844 and 2016. The Len Small Levee, named after the 26th governor of Illinois, was built in 1927 and expanded in 1969 to span the bend in the river and “deflect high velocity floodwaters” away from agricultural land.

Sherry Pecord, owner of the nearby Horseshoe Bar and Grill in Olive Branch, wasn’t prepared for the flood of 2019.

It was July, the monstrous river flowed back out of the hole in the levee and caused six giant barges to relocate via another raging flood.

One of the barges settled in the field just off Miller City Road in rural Alexander County, near the southern tip of Illinois.

“They just floated right on over and took out a utility pole and an irrigation rig and landed in the field right behind my house,” Pecord said.

Pecord and her husband, Sean, grow corn and soybeans acreage near the bend. They’ve been through floods before, but the couple never dreamed barges would land in their fields causing them to plow around them for years.

“I don’t even see them anymore,” she said. “They’ve just become part of the landscape, and I really don’t pay any attention to them anymore.”

These two barges remain stranded in a southern Illinois farmer’s field nearly two years after they were sucked through a hole in the Len Small Levee during high-water event on the Mississippi River. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)
These two barges remain stranded in a southern Illinois farmer’s field after they were sucked through a hole in the Len Small Levee during a 2019 massive flood on the Mississippi River.

The Pecord’s experiences with the floods began in 2011, when a massive storm of thunderous water caused an initial break in the levee. Although officials repaired it, that break also led to a government buyout offer for the surrounding land. Several neighbors took the buyouts. Sean, a third-generation farmer, elected to stay put in the home he built back in 1985.

On New Year’s Day of 2016, the Mississippi River overwhelmed the Len Small Levee again.

“It went over the top and just broke it down,” Pecord said. “It put a 3/4-mile gap in the levee right in front of our house. Over the years, the river has just been eating that away, and it’s probably a good mile now.”

In the 2019 flood, the water remained high enough that the Pecords boated to and from home for 137 days. The restaurant remained closed for seven weeks during that time because it was inaccessible to customers.

The barges floated in on July 3 that year. The day after the Fourth of July holiday, the barges’ owner, Hines Furlong Line Inc., sent representatives to take a look.

“They were going to try to move them and get them back across the road and out to the river,” Pecord said. “Well, the river dropped about that time, and they couldn’t get them back across. 

“In the next year and a half, they were trying to figure it out,” she continued. “First they were going to come in and put air bags underneath them and walk them across the road and maybe leave them on the other side and wait for the river to come back up. It’s a given the water is going to come back up because we have a mile-long breach in our levee. I don’t know what happened to that thought process, but that never happened.”

“Planting season comes and goes, and they’re sitting in the middle of my father-in-law’s field,” Pecord said. So he began charging the barge company rent for each day the barges were in his field.

Negotiations began, resulting in a settlement of Hines Furlong selling the barges to Mr. Pecord.

Two red bars mark the barges.

Map of Dogtooth Bend and surrounding area. (Kenneth Olsen, Impacts of 2011 Len Small levee breach on private and public Illinois lands. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, July/August 2013)

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From award-winning Texas author Cynthia Leal Massey.

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