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’Running Skinny’ Leads River Docks to Sennebogen

Mon February 12, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

Pat Shea, a long-time river man, knows his way around the concrete and gravel business.

“We’re moving hundreds of thousands of tons of aggregate a year for several river facilities throughout Chicago along with other river facilities up and down the Illinois River,” Shea said.

With cranes working at River Docks’ various loading facilities up and down the Illinois River, Shea indicated that he was pleased with his latest piece of material handling equipment.

“Our other cranes can only do one to one and a half barges in a day. But, our new Sennebogen machine can normally unload three barges in an eight-hour shift — on some days, four barges. We run pretty skinny here. That’s the kind of performance that saves you.”

Shea spent 30 years as a river pilot and also serviced the heavy machinery that keeps the product flowing through river facilities up and down the Illinois River and throughout Chicago.

River Docks originated as a subsidiary of Mertel Gravel Company, which is a family-owned ready-mix company founded by Joseph A. Mertel in Peru, Ill., more than 75 years ago. The business passed to Joseph Mertel’s sons — Joe, Art and Tony.

River Docks began with a tow boat and a couple of barges. Today, the rest of the family members have expanded the River Docks’ river business considerably, according to Shea.

With the passing of Joe and Art, Tony Mertel kept an eye on things, but the son-in-laws, including Pat Shea, handled day-to-day operation of the business.

The Purchase Process

“It’s a lot of money for us to consider,” Shea admitted. When there is a major equipment decision to be made, it is a family decision. For the port facilities, River Docks purchased traditional cable cranes.

“We bought three hydraulic-type cranes a few years ago with which we weren’t too impressed,” Shea said. “We did a lot of research to buy ’this one.’ This time, everyone was convinced that Sennebogen was the right machine.”

The Sennebogen 870 M is a rubber-tired material handler fitted with a 5-yd. Young clamshell bucket.

“To tell the truth, I was dead set on getting a tracked machine,” Shea said. “But I was surprised to learn from Sennebogen that, with the outriggers down, I could actually get a greater working radius with a wheeled machine.”

Shea explained that it was Phil Linoski of Howell Tractor who sold him on the equipment’s radiuses and capacities.

“We also met Andreas Ernst, the port specialist from the factory,” Shea said.

For Shea, a little extra reach was why he went with a wheeled unit, but he added that mobility was a benefit as well.

“We don’t have to reposition a machine often, and we don’t move anything at all by truck,” Shea said. “It’s all barge out here. But if another machine goes down, we’re able to move the Sennebogen in to help out.”

The Sennebogen is designed for moving buckets of material quickly, according to Shea.

“The cycle times are so much better,” Shea added. “The cable cranes are much slower and operators are hard to find. A new operator on a cable crane usually needs someone experienced in the cab with him for a year before he’s able to work alone. Our operator was fully proficient on it in a month, unloading three barges a day.”

As barge operators, River Docks is aware of fuel prices and the Sennebogen machine aided the facility to “run skinny.” The 870 M moves much more material per hour with less fuel, according to Shea.

With the elevating cab, an operator can maneuver the cab as much as 7 ft. (2.1 m) above the chassis’ upper deck. This gives the operator a vantage point for seeing exactly what, and who, is in the hold of the barge. Like most facilities, River Docks often has a skid steer or small loader down in the barge to clean up and move material to the middle.

“The man in the barge feels a lot more secure doing his job down there, knowing the crane operator can see him,” Shea said.

Meanwhile, River Docks has been putting its new machine to the test in other applications.

“We’ll keep using our Manitowocs for loading steel; that’s a different type of machine and application,” Shea said. “But we also did some salvage work with the Sennebogen and we tested it out for a dredging application. We were able to get about 800 yards out for every two hours of dredging, no problem.”

Based on all the results, River Docks expects to build on its new Sennebogen fleet soon.

For more information, call 877/309-0099 or visit

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