PB Sand and Gravel christens new tugboat

Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel Co. christened a new, state-of-the art, 6,000 horsepower towboat in Little Rock on Saturday, naming it after active Pine Bluff resident and long-time Sand and Gravel employee William K. Atkinson.

The Motor Vessel Bill Atkinson is the second of three towboats built for Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel and purchased last year, with the final one scheduled for a christening ceremony in the spring.

Phyllis Harden of Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel described the towboats to her fellow members of the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Port Authority at its quarterly meeting Wednesday. The ceremony took place on the Arkansas River at Little Rock behind the Peabody Hotel. Harden said more than 250 people attended the event, which included tours of the vessel and a reception at the Peabody.

The three towboats were commissioned by the company to support its quarry and marine construction operations. The powerful, twin-engine vessels are able to tow a maximum of 30 barges and will haul an average of 20 to 25 barges per trip, nearly 50,000 tons or the equivalent of 2,000 tractor-trailers. The towboats are 165 feet long.

The new boats will mostly be used on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel’s quarry near Paducah, Ky.

The MV Don Boling was dedicated last year and the Gerald Majors is scheduled for dedication in 2012.

Atkinson worked for Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel from 1950 to his retirement in 1985, continuing to be a valuable asset to the company until his death in 1992. He served many years as the company’s secretary-treasurer. His wife, Sissie Atkinson, christened the boat Saturday by breaking the champagne bottle on the side rail.

“For the many things Bill Atkinson did for the companies, the McGeorge Family and for me personally, we are proud to be here today with his family members and you to christen this boat in his honor and memory,” Company President Scott McGeorge said at the event.

Harden said the fuel efficiency of the new boats is remarkable, as is the comfort level for the 17-member crew. Springs minimize the vibration so that the crew members experience a smooth ride. They also enjoy satellite television, private rooms, an exercise room and other amenities.

At Wednesday’s Port Authority meeting, the group discussed the success of the Arkansas River Revival Flotilla campaign in October, which traveled down the Arkansas River to bring attention to the river as an economic development asset. One of the flotilla’s key goals was to highlight the need to deepen the river channel from the current 9-10 feet to 12 feet, which would allow for greater river barge traffic and increase the competitiveness of Arkansas River transport.

“[The flotilla] has brought focus to this, the river, but the 12-foot channel is what [was top on the] list,” Harden said. “And when you have the businessmen and the yachtsmen and the people that use the river and they can see how this can contribute to jobs, either keeping them here or bringing them here, and it’s gotten a lot of attention.”

Harden said that Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel would love to use its new boats on the Arkansas River, but unless the 12-foot channel is completed, they will likely do most of their business on the Mississippi River.

Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel will continue to use several 1,800 horsepower vessels on the Arkansas and its 3,000 horsepower vessel on the Mississippi.

“I’d like to see them come back to the Arkansas River. That’s what’s been the sad part about this. They need to be here as well,” Harden said, noting the company’s Arkansas ties and their desire to do even more business here. “We’re not going to give up on the Arkansas River.”

In other business, the Port Authority heard a report that tonnage through the public terminal at the Port of Pine Bluff has already passed what it was in 2010. At 73,889 tons through November, the port is positioned to see an increase in annual tonnage for the first time since 2005.