Rob Erlbacher II, president and owner of Missouri Dry Dock & Repair Inc., one of the most venerated family-owned businesses on the river, has announced he is closing the company and its facility at Cape Girardeau, Mo., at the end of the year. “It’s been a great ride,” the 76-year-old riverman said, citing a number of reasons, “but the time has come to turn the page.”
Erlbacher’s father and uncle started building riverboats in the 1930s and operated as Erlbacher Brothers Barge Line. Following World War II, his uncle got out of the business, but his father kept several boats and barges and changed the company’s name to Missouri Barge Line, Erlbacher said. In the early 1950s, he started Missouri Dry Dock & Repair Company. “He did that because he could not find people to repair his boats the way he wanted them to be repaired,” Erlbacher said. In the early 1960s, he added a second drydock to the business.
Missouri Dry Dock built five towboats for Missouri Barge Line during the 1950s and 1960s, all in active service today. Erlbacher said he grew up around the business, going to the shipyard with his father in the summers when he was out of school. He laughs, saying that older employees once teased him about having to fix equipment he had messed around with before they could use it. “The shipyard was literally a playground for me,” he said.
Erlbacher’s father died suddenly of a heart attack at age 57 in 1968, and Erlbacher took over his father’s business after finishing his college degree. He had wanted to come home from college immediately, but his mother insisted on him continuing with classes, he said.
One of his best decisions was continuing to place veteran employees in charge of day-to-day operations, he said. Woody Rushing managed Missouri Barge Line, and Curtis Moore managed the shipyard, both going on to spend decades with the company before retiring.
In 2008, Erlbacher sold Missouri Barge Line to AEP River Operations, leaving only the repair business. As smaller barge lines were replaced by larger corporations, many of which kept their maintenance and repairs in-house, the business ceased to grow, although longtime customers, for whom he expressed thanks, remained loyal, Erlbacher said. He added that the business’ location in Cape Girardeau also wasn’t as convenient to many of the larger barge corporations, either.
When it came to repairing propellers, no other company could boast of Missouri Dry Dock’s patented Latham Process system. “The propeller repair work was a consistently high percentage of our business. That was a process developed and patented by my father and a few of his colleagues, one of whom was named Latham,” Erlbacher said. The system uses custom-designed machines to measure and calibrate all the surfaces of a propeller, and to apply pressure and/or heat where necessary to restore the proper pitch. “We had six of those machines, which means we could work six propellers at one time,” Erlbacher said.
In 2019, Missouri Dry Dock & Repair sold its remaining floating assets to McNational Inc. of South Point, Ohio, as part of a private deal. Missouri Dry Dock retained its propeller and machine shops, which Rob “Robbie” Erlbacher III oversaw.
The 70-year-old company has been a generous contributor to many river and community causes over the years, including the Capt. Woody Rushing Memorial Golf Tournament held every year in Jackson, Mo.
Missouri Dry Dock’s 22-acre site at Upper Mississippi River Mile 51.4, which includes a relatively new office building overlooking the river, is in the process of being sold. The 1,778 feet of river frontage is under lease to CGB, Erlbacher said.
Caption for photo: Robbie and Rob Erlbacher, with portrait of founder Robert Erlbacher. (WJ file photo by David Murray)