Raymond D. Lucas Memorial Port one of busiest on Tenn-Tom Waterway

Raymond D. Lucas Memorial Port one of busiest on Tenn-Tom Waterway
Staff Writer

It brings in and ships out millions of dollars a year in products, providing a vital economic link, not just to the state or the Southeast but the world.

Yet, it remains one of Clay County's best kept secrets.

The Raymond D. Lucas Memorial Port, named for the man who co-founded the facility with Jimmy Bryan almost 40 years ago, now is one of the busiest ports on the Tenn-Tom Waterway. But not many people, except maybe its 29 employees and a few others know it.

And Perry Lucas, son of the founder and general manager of Tom Soya Grain, which manages the port, likes it that way.

"We stay busy. We don't keep a low profile on purpose, we just do what we do and try to do it well, that's provide quality service," Perry Lucas says.

"They had a vision and put it together and it's worked quietly ever sine," Lucas said of the dream his father started.

Tom Soya's grain elevators were built in 1982, although the first shipment of grain on what was to become the Tenn-Tom Waterway was two barges of wheat out of Clay County in 1981.

The Waterway officially opened in 1985 and the port was built in 1989.

While the Columbus Port gets much of the attention because it serves Steel Dynamics with scrap metal and ore, except for that steel business, Clay County's port does about as much business serving local markets and industries.

It's biggest exports are locally produced grain, especially soybeans, winter wheat and corn with soybeans being the big one.

And because New Orleans is the big soybean export center, Tom Soya ships from the Golden Triangle by barge south on the Waterway to Mobile and then over to New Orleans.

About half also goes north to Cargill Inc. on the Tennessee River where that company crushes the beans into food grade oil and meal. Some of those same beans come back to the region as food for the region's poultry, hog and catfish farmers.

But while soybeans may be the biggest item heading out, other grains also are on the list. Soft red winter wheat also goes to New Orleans for export to places like China. Locally produced corn goes out via the port's trucking system, to become food for the cattle, chicken, hog and catfish industries.

Interestingly, the port exports benzonite clay mined in Monroe County and imports benzonite clay from Greece. While the products sound the same, their mineral makeups are different.

"We'll have barges pass each other on the Waterway carrying clay in and out," Lucas explained.

The clay comes to and leaves from the Imery's plant in Aberdeen. The foreign clay comes in by ship to the Port of Mobile, is loaded on barges, brought to Clay County and trucked to Aberdeen.

At the same time, clay is mined in Monroe County, loaded on trucks at the Imery's facility and travels in the reverse order.

And it can be a lot. For instance, 7,700 tons of clay will arrive in April.

But clay isn't the only product that comes in.

Liquid nitrogen used to make fertilizer is shipped in to Crop Production Services and then trucked out to the company's sites.

Crushed stone comes in from the Cumberland River in Salem, Ky., for Warren Paving, which trucks it out to customers across the region, including Clay County.

"They do so many things out there that we don't even think about, it's amazing," Clay County Supervisor Luke Lummus said. "And having that gravel there rather than us having to go to Iuka or somewhere to get it saves us a ton of money and time."

Rock salt mined in Louisiana comes through Clay County with most of it going to Eka Nobel Chemicals in Columbus, where it's turned into sodium chlorate. A small amount also goes to the catfish industry to help keep down disease in ponds.

In its early years, the Waterway and the ports that popped up in almost every town along its 234-mile route from far northeastern Mississippi to Demopolis, Ala. and south to Mobile, struggled to find an identity. At times, the Waterway had more ports clamoring for business than it had business. In the 1990s, that began to even out, as more industries slowly were attracted to the Waterway's advantages. Even then, for years, it remained a recreation magnet, drawing local water enthusiasts up and down the route, fishermen from all over the world, and so-called "Loopers," boaters who used the route to get from New England to the Gulf Coast without having to battle the crowded Mississippi River.

Even though the Waterway now accounts for billions of dollars a year in commerce and is linked to hundreds of jobs, from big companies like Steel Dynamics in Lowndes County to five-employee mom and pop operations, it's only been in the last decade that commerce and industry have gotten more attention than recreation.

But Lucas says neither group needs to worry about pushing the other out.

"I don't foresee any problems. We can live together and both be fine," Lucas says of the barges and the boaters.