A life on the river

Dick Lambert, of Burnsville, is retiring in February from his job as director of ports and waterways for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. (Submitted photo)

Former barge worker and shipping executive retiring
as Minnesota’s ports and waterways director

The river will flow and barges will load after Dick Lambert retires as Minnesota’s director of ports and waterways.

But there will be a little less expertise and a lot less history without Lambert, who has Mississippi River water in his bloodline.

The Burnsville resident has more than 50 years of experience in waterways transportation, starting with his work as a deckhand for a family business called Twin City Barge.

He rose to the executive ranks, retired from the barge business and was then recruited to apply for the job as the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s ports and waterways director.

Hired in 1993, Lambert cut back his hours in 2008 in a “post-retirement” position. Now 78, he’s leaving MnDOT for good on Feb. 21.

“He is MnDOT’s expert on waterways issues, both with respect to the river and with respect to the Great Lakes,” said Lambert’s boss, Tim Spencer, MnDOT’s manager of rail planning and program development. “He has a vast storehouse of knowledge. He’s our go-to guy, and he’s going to be difficult to replace.”

The word at MnDOT is that Lambert pretty much knows how much product has been shipped in and out of Minnesota by water before he officially reports it at year’s end, and he can size up a barge and tell you its tonnage, whether it’s carrying corn or taconite.

“The trucking industry and the rail industry are always telling us how many tons they move and the value of the tonnage,” said Lambert, a 50-year Burnsville resident. “The waterways, they’ve got to do that, too.”

The river runs through his family history, back to his grandfather, Col. George Lambert, a St. Paul attorney who represented agricultural interests that were captive to the costs of rail shipping. Lambert was a key player in lobbying Congress for a 1930 waterways act that built all the locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi, creating a 9-foot navigation channel,  Lambert said. Lambert’s Landing, the site of St. Paul’s first steamboat landing, is named in the National Guard colonel’s honor.

“I doubt if I would have ever gotten into the river business had it not been for my grandfather and what he did for the river business on the Upper Mississippi,” Lambert said.

His uncle, Paul Lambert, invested in a St. Paul harbor operation in 1950, launching Twin City Barge with some fellow investors. Paul asked his son, Jack, returning from the Korean War, to manage the business “until you can find a real job,” Lambert said.

“As the story goes, 30-some years later, he had about a $100 million business going under the name of Twin City Barge and Towing,” Lambert said.

Young Dick Lambert, then studying economics at the University of Minnesota, joined the business for six weeks in 1957 as a deckhand. He went back after failing to find a job in his field.

“For the next two years, I decked on the towboats,” he said. “I did a little steering, but only with very strict supervision from the captain.”

Lambert returned to the company in 1960 after a brief detour into the industrial engineering department at the Whirlpool plant in St. Paul. Jack lured him back to work dispatch for the growing company.

“I took a pay cut to go back to work in the barge company, but I really loved it,” Lambert said. “It gets in your blood. I really liked what we were doing on the river, hauling bulk cargos — grain, fertilizer, cement — anything that could be handled in a barge in bulk. That was fascinating. And it was also cheaper for shippers to utilize barges for moving their bulk commodities. Cheaper than rail. The waterways never really competed with trucking. Trucking was more considered a short haul, unless you were hauling fresh vegetables to the coast. That wasn’t something the barge lines could handle.”

Lambert learned to winch together barges, hook them to towboats and drive the boats. He worked his way up to company president. Cousin Jack retired from the business in 1984, and some investment bankers bought it. Lambert worked for the new owners, running the renamed Upper River Services for five more years. Times had turned tough.

“We’d overbuilt the industry,” he said. “We built too many barges. We had a shipyard in St. Paul and built barges and towboats and did all sorts of manufacturing for about 15 years.”

Lambert was lured out of retirement by Bill Newstrand, who was retiring as ports and waterways director and urged Lambert to apply.

“He said we need somebody from the industry in here,” said Lambert, who knew the river but had to start fresh in learning about Great Lakes shipping.

Lambert serves as MnDOT’s technical expert on waterways, representing the department on a number committees, conferring with legislators and consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers on Upper Mississippi commercial navigation. A large part of his work is administering the Port Development Assistance Program, which the Legislature created in 1996 to rehabilitate Minnesota’s ports.

Lambert produces a year-end report on commercial navigation, breaking it into dollars, tonnage and product. Grain — “corn, No. 1, and soybean, No. 2” — is Minnesota’s biggest waterway export, he said, while tons of cement and salt are large-volume imports from the south.

“We’re moving somewhere around $2 billion worth of tonnage on the river right now,” Lambert said. “We might move 10, 11 million tons of product coming and going on the river. … We just thought it was important people know the importance of the river. It’s not the most important thing in the world, but it is important, and it’s part of our transportation system.”