River Rats

While it is no Mississippi, Miami's little rio has a thousand of its own tales to tell. Inhabited since 1500 B.C., the Miami River's character seems always to have had a blue-collar tinge. Indians once paddled its length in canoes, traveling from the Everglades to trade at its mouth; as recently as 1972 they wrestled alligators for paying tourists just west of Sewell Park, off 17th Avenue, where an apartment complex now stands.

In the mid-1800s, mills such as the Ferguson's Florida Arrow Root coonti starch plant operated on the banks. At the turn of this century, tourists clambered aboard a paddle-wheel boat to see the river's rapids, long since filled and paved over, now the site of a parking lot west of 27th Avenue. The mere mention of the Miami River can evoke bygone days in the city's history, recalling the pioneering Brickells and Henry Flagler.

More recently, locals have come to think of the five miles of river stretching from the salinity dam near Miami International Airport to the mouth at Biscayne Bay as a virtual cesspool, a place for drug dealers and for cops who kill, dozens of tramp freighters stacked high with bicycles bound for Haiti. It has become a dumping ground for everything from bodies to Budweiser cans, bottles, rubble, seemingly endless piles of junk. And sewage.

City and county planners have drafted gentrified visions of the river's future, foreseeing parks, restaurants, and "riverwalks" along its banks. Condominium complexes and apartment buildings such as the Miami River Yacht Club near the 17th Avenue Bridge and lunch joints such as East Coast Fisheries, Joe's Seafood, and the Bijan's behind the James L. Knight Center are operating along the river. Historic renovations, including the restoration of Henry Flagler's riverside railroad terminal, now the Miami River Inn, have been undertaken, as has new construction, such as Florida Power & Light's ten-story Dade division headquarters just down river from the Flagler edifice.

Changes have also come to the river's shipping and towing industries. According to a 1990 survey by the Miami River Marine Group, a nonprofit corporation made up of various river businesses, the waterway's shipping industry now accounts for more than 8000 jobs, injecting $200 million annually into the local economy. Exports shipped from the river are valued at nearly two billion dollars, destined for Guatemala and Guyana, Trinidad and the Turks and Caicos, ports of call throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Most of the booty - appliances and clothing, frozen hamburgers and orange juice, used mattresses and inner tubes, mops, brooms, and a litany of other household goods - is bound for countries that receive aid under the Caribbean Basin Initiative Program, a congressional plan to assist that region's economic development through duty-free imports.

Much of the Caribbean and Latin American commercial fleet makes use of the nonunion "Port of Miami River," a group of privately owned and operated commercial shipping companies located along the waterway, because costs are lower than in the union-run Port of Miami. On the river, dockworkers are not controlled by union management, locally notorious for jacking up prices, demanding kickbacks, and forcing shippers to direct their business to favored companies in exchange for so-called labor peace. At an average cost of $1500 per tow, the tug trade is thriving on the river.

"We're talking maybe 30, 40 ships we handle on a regular basis and any number of what we call transient ships, ones that just happen to come through," says Capt. Robert Barr, part owner and president of Florida Marine Towing Inc., the larger of the river's two towing firms. "Their schedules vary - once a week, twice a week, once every three weeks - but we're doing a pretty good business with it right now."

If anything, that business is expected to increase in coming years. City and county comprehensive plans call for protection of the river's commercial shipping areas from encroachment by "non water-dependent land uses" and encourage development of the Port of Miami River. The Coast Guard, too, is considering requiring some of the smaller freighters that now come in under their own power to begin using tug tows in order to better regulate river traffic. "Shipping is definitely a growing industry on the river, so you're probably going to see more tugs rather than fewer in the future," says Joyce Meyers, a City of Miami planner now drafting up a master plan for the waterway.

Six, seven, ten times every day, more than 150 times per month, working 48-hour shifts, Florida Marine's black-and-white, tire-lined tugs ply the river between the Port of Miami and the industrial docks just above the 27th Avenue bridge, towing freighters up and down or simply shifting them from place to place in the waterway. Florida Marine's sole competition, the smaller Hempstead Marine's green-and-white tugs, run about 50 tows per month. The firms' itineraries are laid out in advance by shipping agents, who arrange for tows and docks.

"Back in the old days," says Florida Marine's Ratican, "they didn't even have radios on these boats. Those guys would park it out at the port on a Sunday morning and just wait and hope a ship might come along that needed a tow. `There's one. Let's see if he needs a pull.' Even when things got more organized, we might just get a call at home, saying there was a tow coming in and get your ass over here."

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