Rotary Club of Tulsa and Oklahoma’s River Navigation System

By GasserOnline Contributor, John Story III

PORT PARTNERS from left, Jack Story, Bob Portiss and Terry McDonald standing in front of the Charley Border towboat that is now used as an outdoor classroom teaching center.  Rotarians were instrumental in establishing the Port of Catoosa and continue to be involved in the growth and evolution of the waterway. Charley Border was a past-president of the Rotary Club of Tulsa.

PORT PARTNERS from left, Jack Story, Bob Portiss and Terry McDonald standing in front of the Charley Border towboat that is now used as an outdoor classroom teaching center. Rotarians were instrumental in establishing the Port of Catoosa and continue to be involved in the growth and evolution of the waterway. Charley Border was a past-president of the Rotary Club of Tulsa.

Over the years, the Tulsa Port of Catoosa and the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) have had many unique links with Oklahomans from across the state, and the Rotary Club of Tulsa has been well represented in this group of supporters.  At a recent informal meeting between Bob Portiss (Port Director since 1984), Terry McDonald (current club member and President of Tuloma Stevedoring), and Jack Story Jr. (retired club member and long-time river advocate), the conversation covered many years of river history.

“I often tell visitors that the Tulsa Port of Catoosa is Tulsa’s best kept secret.  This is a real asset to be proud of, and I am grateful for what many civic-minded people did to make the Port and navigation system a reality.  High on that list are Rotarians, and notably, are those from the Rotary Club of Tulsa,” said Bob Portiss.  “One of your members was Jacques Cunningham, who was my predecessor as Director here at the Port.”

Jack Story pointed out that Charley Border and Newt Graham were former Rotary Club of Tulsa presidents.  They both were tireless promoters of the navigation system long before it was formally dedicated in 1971 by President Richard Nixon.  Lock & Dam #18 was named after Newt Graham, and the Port’s first towboat was named the Charley Border.  Story said Charley encouraged many young up-and-comers, including himself, to get involved through local chambers of commerce – and to go on the Tulsa Chamber’s fact finding tours to various inland waterway ports.  Story said “We found out what other ports did right, and also what they would have done differently, in order to formulate a successful plan for the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.”

“In the early days, it took a lot of convincing for some people to see how the navigation system could benefit this entire region,” said Story.  “I remember being told by one highly placed business executive that not one bushel of wheat would ever be shipped on the river.  Obviously, he was proven wrong, but that illustrates the skepticism we encountered.”

Fortunately, there was a lot of optimism too. In a recent conversation with Sid Patterson (another past club president) before he died, Sid stated that his family knew that river navigation would bring competition to Oklahoma’s transportation marketplace.  This was because they were used to paying higher prices for steel being shipped from Chicago to Tulsa by rail than what it cost for it to be sent all the way to Houston.  The difference was due to Houston having the competitive option of taking delivery by barges on the waterway system.

Today, the Rotary Club of Tulsa’s primary member link to the river navigation system is Terry McDonald.  His company, Tuloma Stevedoring, Inc. operates the general dry cargo wharf at the Port.  They help move a sizable amount of the tonnage that passes in and out of the port on a 24/7 basis.  Terry’s company operates the 200 ton crane at the port, and their equipment and personnel help load, discharge, and re-handle transit cargo.

Terry’s dad, Terence G. McDonald, became interested in the Tulsa Port of Catoosa as a way to reduce transportation costs for area farmers.  “The success and expansion of the Port was his passion for the last 25 years of his life.  He was a member of Claremore’s Rotary club and served as its President,” Terry said.  Bob Portiss was quick to add that Terence was the successful bidder to operate the Port’s grain elevator in early 1974, and that he correctly projected the potential for shipping Oklahoma and Kansas wheat to the Gulf for export to foreign markets.  “His dream for a business venture lead to the creation of his own grain company – OK Grain – and it was a tremendous success because it concentrated on the betterment of the agricultural community,” said Bob.

Bob Portiss (2009 recipient of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ de Fleury Medal award) had some of the final words, saying “I can think of at least two times that the Rotary Club of Tulsa has come out for a river tour at the Port, and perhaps we can do that again sometime.  In the meantime, I’ll look forward to my next visit to your club so I can give an update about the Port and river system.  Please keep in mind that MKARNS has some real maintenance needs, and our goal of a 12-foot channel has stalled.  These are serious matters to all Oklahomans right now, not somewhere off in the distant future.  Please encourage our local leaders and the state’s U.S. congressional delegates to secure funding for these needed investments.”

The Tulsa Port of Catoosa’s Internet website has a wealth of information.  Visit it at www.tulsaport.com.