MUSCATINE, Iowa–A lover of the outdoors, the riverfront always had a draw for longtime Muscatine resident Robert Schmaltz. From playing basketball near the Red Brick Building in his younger days, to picnicking and playing board and card games with his kids, to just walking and biking by himself, Schmaltz always found a way to spend time by the mighty Mississippi.
In March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic upended everyday life around the world, Schmaltz continued to spend frequent the riverfront. Though he had always noticed barges traveling past, he never gave them much heed. However, something caught his eye and made him think differently about them. He decided he wanted to document all the traffic he saw using a photo journal.
Schmaltz never considered his photo skills anything out of the ordinary. “I’m a plain old person with a basic digital camera, and I keep my eyes open for interesting scenes,” he said. However, over the course of a year, Schmaltz took 659 photos of push boats moving barge trains up and down the river all season long. He also got images of the US Army Corps of Engineers maintaining channel markers, dredging activity, and of levee repair work in progress, highlighting all the work that goes on along the river each day whether area residents notice it or not.
As businesses in Muscatine and elsewhere temporarily shut their doors or reorganized themselves to allow for remote working or social distancing, Schmaltz felt amazed that shipping on the river did not come to a stop until ice farther up the river signaled the end of the shipping season. “The boats just kept coming,” he observed. “I thought it was impressive that they just kept going up and down the river, even in this horrible time.” In documenting their comings and goings, Schmaltz gained a new appreciation for the important role river shipping continues to play in the economy.
Reflecting back on his year of work, Schmaltz felt that though the project required many hours of work, it proved worth it and an interesting study of this often overlooked part of life in Muscatine. “It was a fun project to do once in a lifetime,” Schmaltz shared.
As the weather warms and shipping traffic resumes on the Mississippi, Schmaltz does not plan to continue documenting the push-boats that come through Muscatine. However, he plans to spend just as much time on the river as he always has. “I make it a point to be outside morning, noon, and night,” he emphasized. Even so, Schmaltz will carry his newfound respect for shipping with him as he continues to enjoy the riverfront and may just see some old friends sailing past as he enjoys Muscatine’s beautiful summer days.