September 2017
Homeplace & Community

Port of Decatur

Barges such as this one at Alabama Farmers Cooperative are delivered and unloaded at various companies along the river.

A major transportation hub hides in plain sight.


The tall crane at the Port of Decatur has a 200-ton capacity. Products coming into Decatur include grains, fertilizer, liquids, asphalt and sand.

It’s one of Decatur’s best-kept secrets.

Motorists drive by every day unaware of its significance.

This time of year, music lovers congregate at Rhodes Ferry Park Monday nights and give it little thought.

Tourists stay at the hotel nearby on 6th Avenue and don’t realize it’s in their backyard.

The Port of Decatur handles a significant portion of the over 5 million tons of cargo moving along the river. Marketing Director Rick Terry explained that it’s one of the busiest ports on the Tennessee River.

"I always look at the Port of Decatur as a little Memphis," he said.

The International Port of Memphis is the largest inland port in the United States, according to port officials, and it sits on the Tennessee and Arkansas sides of the Mississippi River. Within its 15-mile span sit 68 facilities on the riverfront, including 37 terminals.

At the Port of Decatur, river, rail and trade all converge to handle cargo. Agricultural products make up about 55 percent of the total with steel at 30 percent, liquids at 10 percent and fertilizer at 5-10 percent.

"Our boat, the Mary Ethel, runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "From 7 to 3 each day, asphalt, sand and grains are pulled off barges and stored or put onto trucks."

Beside the Port of Decatur, a long line of facilities front the river. Terry counts them down – Arctic Mills (formerly ConAgra), Bunge North America, Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Ascend Materials, Gavilon, Indorama (formerly BP Amoco), the Mallard Fox Creek Industrial Park, United Space Alliance (Delta 5 rockets) and Nucor Steel.

Nucor Steel alone handles as much as 1.4 million tons a year.


Behind Mary Ethel is the railroad bridge spanning the river. The Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads serve the Port of Decatur.


The 800-horsepower Mary Ethel pushes as many as 15 barges at one time. One barge can carry 1,500 tons. That amount of cargo would require 60 tractor-trailer trucks and 15 railcars.

The Mary Ethel is named for W.J. Williams’ wife. Together W.J. and his wife spent $180,000 to start developing what is now the Port of Decatur.

In the 1930s during the Great Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority was formed. It provided hydroelectricity, flood control and good conditions for navigation to the impoverished residents of North Alabama.

Tuscaloosa-based Parker Towing bought the port in more recent years for $1.63 million. One of the biggest barge lines in the Southeast, it operates a fleet of towboats, 350 open and covered barges, and 30,000 tank barges.

Terry said Tim Parker Sr. and W.J. Williams are a lot alike. They started out small, took risks and grew to be highly prosperous. Parker began as a deckhand, then bought his own boat. His career accelerated from that point.

W.J. and Ethel would likely be amazed over what their parcels of land have become. The river port has drastically altered the face of transportation, and, secret or not, the lives of those touched by it.


Maureen Drost is a freelance writer who lives in Huntsville and is a retired newspaper journalist.