Saturday, May 30, 2009


I was in Cape Girardeau this past week holding hearings. One of my Wednesday cases involved a fellow who had worked as a deckhand on the river. Questioning someone about their past work is one of my favorite parts of a hearing. I almost always learn something new and the claimant usually enjoys telling me about work they were good at and generally enjoyed. Having never before lived adjacent to a major waterway I have a lot to learn about work on the river.

Tuesday evening Merry and I walked along the waterfront at Cape. The downtown drops steeply to a riverside rail line backed by a high flood wall. The wall completely blocks the street view of the river. The town has tried to remedy this ugly situation by having the flood wall in downtown covered with interesting murals that depict important events in Cape history. At the foot of certain streets, however, the flood wall is open to the river. These openings can be closed by flood gates. To our surprise the flood gate at the foot of Themis St. was closed. The Broadway gate a block away was open.

People out walking the dog or taking an evening stroll gravitate to the river bank. The river was pretty high on Tuesday leaving only about 15 feet of walkway at Broadway narrowing to none at Themis where it was up to the flood gate. It's hard to imagine the power of the Mississippi. There are no rapids or waves or sound of running water to speak of but the current was silently rushing past carrying large branches and tree trunks. About a half mile downstream we could see the modern Cape bridge spanning about a half mile wide river.

A large barge was very slowly making its way up stream against the current. None of the other strollers seemed to pay it much attention.

The next day I took the deckhand's testimony. I learned there are four basic types of work on towboats: the pilots to navigate, deckhands to wrestle the load, engineers to manage the massive diesel engines, and the cook's staff to feed them all. Towboats push a fleet of barges that are lashed together with heavy one inch steel cables. Crew members work around the clock in six hour shifts, called watches, for thirty days straight, then have thirty days off. Towboats run 365 days a year.

Even though the raft of barges are always pushed by the boat they are still called “tow” boats. According to Wikipedia the term developed on American rivers post Civil War. When steamboat fortunes began to decline steamboats began to "tow" wooden barges alongside to earn additional revenue. Even long after boats began pushing barges the term stuck. In the rest of the world they are called pushboats.

Half of a deckhand's time is taken up doing routine maintenance on the boat: cleaning, scraping, painting and such. The other half of the time a deckhand deals with the load. This means loading the barges, usually with coal, gravel, wheat or other bulky items, lashing the barges together to form the load, and breaking down the load periodically so the whole thing will fit through the giant locks on the upper Mississippi, the Ohio or along the Inland Waterways.

When Merry and I met up in the evening she told me she had visited the waterfront again and noticed a guy standing there with luggage. She talked with him and found out he is a towboat pilot. After a little while a small boat put off from a towboat mid-river and came over to pick him up. As Merry watched them return to the towboat, the little runabout lost power, started drifting and ultimately had to be assisted by the Coast Guard who just happened to be passing by at the time.

Back at the hotel I wandered down to the bar for happy hour. There I met a young guy who works as an engineer on the river. He had driven up to Cape the night before to meet his boat. He told me that every river worker was assigned a “home port.” Getting to work meant reaching your home port at a specified date and time. From there the shipping company is responsible for getting you to your boat whether by van, taxi or even by air. This guy usually works only downstream from Cape, traveling to New Orleans then to Port Arthur, TX to unload and back again. He said he could do two round trips like this in 30 days. When the boat runs low on fuel he calls a tender and is refueled midstream. He said the engines never get cold, except at an occasional dry dock servicing. As with trucking, towboats try to get back loads for the trip up-river, but in these harder economic times they are mostly coming back riding high and empty.

The next day Merry and Joli visited Trail of Tears State Park where she was able to get a vantage point to get some terrific shots of towboats.

The internet has a lot more information on this subject. Of course, the towboat operators have a professional association called American Waterways Operators with a lot of information about jobs on towboats that you can visit at

The waterways themselves are policed by the Coast Guard but under the management of the Army Corps of Engineers. There is a pretty interesting propaganda video about the importance of river transportation made by the Corps that you can watch at

Best of all are the web sites of amateur towboat enthusiasts. I recommend you look at two of the very best: Towboat Joe at and Dick's Towboat Gallery with photos of over 1200 individual towboats at

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