OT: Towboat River

“Towboat River,” by Edwin and Louis Rosskam, Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, NY, 1948. This 295-page coffee table size hardback describes towboating on the Ohio and Mississippi River systems as it was. The author was a photographer for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.

Few rivermen come from the cities. Most were born near a river. It’s a lonely occupation. Rivermen may have family on shore, but they live on the river. Life is six hour shifts driven by a bell that announces meals. Towboaters are well fed. Many are overweight.

The authors give a history of the rivers. Rivers were essential to commerce in the early days. In 1787, the papers creating the first Congress included an article on water transportation. No preference could be given to the ports of one state over those of another. Vessels from one state to another could not be required to pay duties. Removal of river snags by the government began less than 25 years later. Travel by flat boat and later keel boat on the Ohio River began at an early date. The Louisiana Purchase tied Pennsylvania to the Gulf. Steamboats arrived in 1811. Packet boats were essential to commerce. They brought supplies in and took cotton out. But not in fall or winter when water levels were low.

Levees were built on the lower Mississippi almost as soon as towns were settled. The first levee protecting New Orleans was built in 1727. Below Cairo, the Mississippi is an alluvial river. Nothing contained it; it wandered at will. Gradually levees were built to contain the river. The Mississippi River Commission was created in 1879. Steamboats prospered until the arrival of the railroads. They were faster and could run all year. Steamboats enjoyed a brief boom after the Civil War when volume was greater than railroads could handle, but that soon faded.

Steamboats with square bows to push barges were an early response to railroads. They could push a fleet of barges carrying thousands of tons and brought prices way down. By 1880, coal mined on the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers was carried to sugar mills as far as New Orleans. They could push 40 or 50 wooden barges at a time. On arrival, the barges were dismantled and sold as lumber. The first dams were built on the Monongahela; barges waited for high water to transit the river. If you missed the rise, you could get stuck. Over time the coal trade faded. Industries in the South converted to oil.

The need for river transportation was apparent during World War I when coal shortages were caused by rail congestion. Congress created the Federal Barge Line to revive barge transportation in the 1920s. The Ohio River now has 46 locks, but only five are concrete and steel. The others are folding wicker dams that are erect only in low water season. Now barges run year round with a minimum of 9 ft channel Summer, Spring, and Winter.

Crews live on the towboats. Women work as cooks and maids. Married couples were rare but allowed. The book includes many photos of crews and river people. A few packet boats are still used for excursions and tourists. Most have gone away.

The “Sprague” known as Big Mama is the biggest sternwheeler built. She was built in Dubuque, at Iowa Iron Works in 1901 by Captain Peter Sprague for the Monongahela River Consolidated Coal and Coke Company, 276 ft long by 61 ft wide, 2079 hp. The high-pressure cylinder measured 28 inches in diameter and the low-pressure cylinder 63 inches with a 12-foot stroke. She holds the record for the largest tow, seven acres of coal, in 1907. The boat was decommissioned at Memphis, TN in 1948. She served as a museum in Vicksburg, MS until she burned in 1974. A model of the Sprague is in the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. Diesel boats are now common. Shipyards along the rivers maintain and repair boats.

Shifting sand bars can require soundings for depth. Three blasts on the whistle sends five men onto the barges. Depths from 10.5 ft to 24 ft are indicated by twain measures. The pilot receives them now by phone but in earlier days they were sung through a megaphone. For a while a speaking tube known as the “tattle tail” was used. Radiophones allow contact with offices on shore.

The unions are listed as follows: Masters, Mates and Pilots (AFL) representing deck officers. Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (CIO) engine room personnel. National Maritime Union, deckhands, maids, and cooks. International Longshoreman’s Assoc (AFL), International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union (CIO) for those loading and unloading. The National Maritime Union began in 1937 and signed its first contract in 1938.

Arranging the barges in a tow is an art. The heavy barges are at the back near the towboat and in the center. Many photos of crews tying barges are included. Barges are first connected by ropes (known as lines). A river cowboy can toss a 2" rope where he aims. Knot tying is part of the art. A steam capstan is used to pull the barges together. Chains, wires and ratchets hold the tow together.

On coal fired boats, the coal passer shovels the coal. He also lowers the stacks when the boat passes under a low bridge. Firemen feed the boilers. On a diesel boat, the oiler adjusts an automatic fuel pump. Barges are tied to trees to park them while maneuvering as through a lock.

This is a highly readable, excellent telling of towboating in the post World War II era. Many photos cover every aspect. Many boat people are photographed and tell their stories. One wonders how things have changed over the years. Photos. No index.


This sure looks familiar.


The 1979 volume is the most recent one in the library. The 1948 volume has a bit more history but is 30 years older. I’m able to find some more recent ones on Amazon but they seem to be reprints or maybe new editions of earlier ones.

Have yet to find a recent book that tells the whole story as outlined before.

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