This article comes from our electronic archive and has not been reviewed. It may contain glitches.

A series of accidents involving barges on the Mississippi River in recent days has called attention to the commercial traffic on the long waterway that moves commodities vast distances throughout the nation's midsection.

It appears to be only a coincidence that a strike among river pilots began just as the accidents occurred, although an incident in St. Louis that put a riverboat casino near the Arch in peril was piloted by someone filling in -- someone normally in a desk job -- for a striking pilot.

The culprit, according to those knowledgeable about the river and its ways, is high water due to spring runoff. As the river rises, currents become swifter, and even the most seasoned river pilots must make careful adjustments in their operations.

More than that, most such accidents occur during downstream trips. This is when a series of barges, navigated by powerful towboats, is hardest to control. And there are few spots along the many miles of the river that are more difficult that the one near Thebes, Ill., where a railroad bridge over the river has historically caused problems.

As explained by experienced pilots, the river's current just upstream from the bridge tends to push barges to the side instead on straight down the river. Pilots not only have to worry about missing bridge piers with the lead barge, but also the last barge which is affected most by the sideways current.

Anyone who has watched a string of barges going up or down the river with the towboat at the rear marvels at the immensity of the tied-together floating area the size of several football fields. And there is pause to marvel as well at the deftness of the pilots who must understand the river in order to make it safely from one river port to another.

Much has changed since the days of riverboating made famous by Mark Twain. River channels are maintained and well-marked. Towboats use radar, computers and sophisticated communications equipment nowadays. Safety rules are enforced by the Coast Guard.

But the river, particularly when it is flooding, still has the awesome natural force to outwit even the best of pilots and their modern-day gadgets. In many ways, the mighty Mississippi River remains as untamed as ever.