WJ Editorial

America’s Ag Coast Didn’t Happen By Accident

An article in this week’s issue highlights how the St. Louis region has become a grain and fertilizer logistics “super-center,” known as “America’s Ag Coast,” boasting an array of assets that make it unrivaled for moving grain from America’s heartland to anywhere in the world.

That did not happen by accident.

St. Louis was founded in the first place because of its position just south of the confluences of the Mississippi River with the Illinois and Missouri rivers. This was a privileged position at a key node of the world’s single greatest natural river transportation network.

But natural advantages alone were not enough. The tremendous benefits of America’s river networks are credited by author Peter Zeihan with making America the superpower it became. However, our leaders recognized from the beginning that those advantages would need to be exploited and leveraged with improvements to the river system—not only locks and dam projects and dredging, but bridges and roads to connect rivers with other transportation modes.

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At some point in the past, America’s rivers, railroads and interstate highway system each independently gave American products a transportation advantage that helped them compete and win in the world markets.

In 1875, James Eads, the builder of St. Louis’ world-renowned Eads Bridge, wrote, “The keynote of our national prosperity is sounded in the simple words, ‘cheap transportation.’ They should be stamped upon the stripes of our national banner and thrown to the breeze from every farm-house, mill, and factory throughout the commonwealth.”

In those days, transportation modes competed fiercely with each other. The post-Civil War rivalry between St. Louis (identified with river and ferry interests) and Chicago (where railroad interests dominated) lasted decades and helped define the U.S. inland transportation story in the last part of the 19th century and well into the 20th.

Today all transportation networks struggle to keep pace with growing global demand. Our global competitors have made their own infrastructure improvements. All transportation modes and all parts of the logistics chain cooperate and depend on each other as never before. Each piece of the logistics puzzle needs every other piece.

The same is true of public and private investments. It was the convergence of public investments in highway networks and bridges, as well as private investments in rail improvements, grain terminals, barge fleets, elevators and processing facilities, that have made St. Louis into the global grain hub it is today.