OT: Towboating on the Mississippi

“Towboating on the Mississippi,” by William J. Petersen, AS Barnes, Cranbury, NJ, 1979. This 294-page coffee table size hard back gives an overview of towboating. Author Petersen is a lifelong riverboat man known as Steamboat Bill. He did his PhD on steamboats (aka packet boats) dating back to 1928. Here he reports 28 trips on towboats on branches of the Mississippi with a history of towboating in the introduction. The book has numerous photos of towboating.

Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi is perhaps the best known description of steamboats on the river. Petersen reports Twain was a pilot on the Mississippi in 1860 and declared that steamboating was virtually dead by 1880. Petersen found tonnage doubled on the “Western Waters” to 20MM tons. Tonnage peaked in 1895 and then declined.

Congress failed to maintain the waterways. Railroads were major competition. Excessive competition and antitrust laws limited rail profits and led to deferred maintenance. In World War I coal shortages caused by rail congestion limited industry production and threatened cold homes in winter. In response, railroads were nationalized in 1918; a water transit system was cobbled together under the Secretary of War. Weekly service on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans began.

Congress passed an act to develop water transportation in 1920. The first was Mississippi-Warrior Service operated by the government as the Inland Waterway Corporation. Inland Waterway Corp created Federal Barge Service for the Upper Mississippi Division in 1927. It served between St. Louis and Minneapolis with the SS Thorpe, a 600 hp towboat. SS Thorpe was a coal fired, stern wheel pusher steamboat (now preserved as a National Historic Landmark at the George M. Verity River Museum in Keokuk, IA). Private towboat companies began service about the same time.

Federal Barge Lines was sold to St. Louis Shipbuilding and Steel in 1953. (Federal Barge Lines records are on file at the Merchantile Library in St. Louis.) Inland mostly built covered hopper barges for fertilizer, cement, grain, salt, sugar, steel, pipes, tin plate, lumber, paper, and fire brick. They also built tank barges for petroleum products, methanol, asphalt, phosphoric acid, soybean oil, molasses, caustic soda and wine. Open top barges carried minerals like coal, but few were built in St. Louis.

After World War II, towboats made the transition from paddlewheel to propeller and from coal fired steam to diesel (typically 5000 hp). A table lists the 6085 miles of the 18 navigable rivers in the Mississippi system. The Missouri River is navigable to Sioux City, IA; the Arkansas River to Verdigris, OK, near Tulsa. A table shows 510MM tons shipped on the system, 37% on the Mississippi, 27% on the Ohio River. In 2019, volume was reported at 500MM tons, 13% soybeans, 12% fuel oil, 9% corn, 6% crude oil. Iron ore and coal/coke less than 1%. Other domestic waterways were Panama Canal, 121MM tons; Intracoastal Canal (Massachusetts to Brownsville, TX along the Atlantic and Gulf) 97; Great Lakes, 91; Houston Ship Channel, 84; St. Lawrence Seaway, 53. The Mississippi River system is by far the largest. A table lists about 60 companies operating 618 towboats, with an average of 2992 hp.

The plan envisioned 9-ft channels but that took years of dredging to achieve. Eventually 26 dams and locks were built between Minneapolis and Alton. They were completed in 1938. Until then barges on the Upper Mississippi were limited to 500 tons and 3 to 6 ft. In 1928, there were only three locks at Keokuk, Moline, and LeClaire. The typical St. Louis to Minneapolis time was 8 days upstream and 6 days down. For later barges typical loading is 2000 to 3000 tons.

While dams were under construction on the upper Mississippi, cuts around bends shortened the trip on the lower Mississippi. Petersen lists 14 cuts between 1929 and 1942. And ten reported prior to 1876.

The Mississippi River Commission has an Experimental Station in Vicksburg, MS. Today it is known as the Waterways Experiment Station operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The center was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1928 after the Mississippi flood of 1927. The Mississippi River Commission headquarters moved from St. Louis to Vicksburg in 1929. Land for the center was purchased in 1930.

Towboat Herbert Hoover was one of the first diesels, 2200 hp, launched in 1931. Engines: 4-cycle, 8 cylinder, 20 in bore, 24 in stroke. Props: 8 ft x 6 ft 5 in. Dimensions 215 x 43.6 x 10.1.

A trip in 1944 on the Missouri River from St. Louis to Kansas City is described. In 1912, Congress authorized a channel 6 ft deep, increased to 9 ft to Sioux City in 1945. The Missouri River has always been difficult. Augusta had been a river town but the Corp of Engineers directed the channel south to reduce erosion leaving Augusta landlocked. Numerous lights mark the route. In 1935, their towboat was the first up the Missouri River since the war. In 1937, Socony had three boats on the St. Louis to Kansas City route. Average time down stream to St. Louis is 34 hrs. Upstream is more difficult.

An appendix lists the tonnage of the various routes to 1976. Mississippi River from Minneapolis to Mouth of Passes is largest at 356MM tons. Second largest is Pittsburgh to Mouth with 148MM tons. A second appendix lists the fleets of the towboat companies.

One wonders how towboating has changed since 1979. Do towboats now have cell phones and the internet? Do they still navigate by the lights? What is the impact of GPS? Are they now equipped for autopiloting? An updated volume would be of interest.

Petersen died in 1989. His papers are on file at the University of Dubuque.

Petersen’s book gives us a glimpse of life on the Mississippi River system. He includes interviews with boat personnel. His photos are excellent. His towboat history is a bit sparse but provides enough to allow digging for more. He has photos of locks and dams but little about their history. For those considering a towboating career, he omits details. Captains, pilots and engineers are licensed. Some crews have union representation, usually Seafarers International Union or Teamsters. They have apprentice programs. Photos. Index.


This brings back a lot of memories. As a kid I used to work on Tow Boats during the Summer. I did it for 5 Summers and I’m guessing the time period was 1959 to 1963. We used to make runs from Texas City to Beaumont and then from Texas City to Corpus Christi. Occasionally we would make trips to Brownsville and Rio Hondo. One Summer I worked the Houston Ship Channel making runs from Baytown to the Turning Basin at the end of the Ship Channel. We were typically bunkering ocean going ships. Our longest run that Summer was from Houston the Todd’s Shipyard in Galveston. One Summer we made round trips from Memphis to Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

I was a deckhand and we worked during the day and slept at night all depending on whether we were underway or tying up. Occasionally I would act as a Tankerman and loaded and unloaded barges. Our cargo was always petroleum products. One Summer I was the cook. To this day I’m not much of a cook.

I don’t know about cell phones but I’m sure they do use them. I can recall being asked to hold the wheel for the Front End Man while he went for coffee and back then we definitely navigated by lights, buoys, landmarks, etc.

Lot’s of memories.



Fabulous synopsis. Kudos for that.

As to your question about how towboating has changed, one chapter of John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers deals with that. Also, William Least Heat Moon’s, River Horse probably touches on it a bit as well.


I am sure there are cellphones. GPS? I would be quite surprised if they don’t have it and use it. Heck, I have GPS on my little pontoon boat!

We live on the Tennessee River, and it’s common to see tugs pushing multiple barges up and down the river, which is not wide at some points. For about 5 months a year TVA drops the water level about 5 or 6 feet for water control (to hold winter/spring rains) and the river gets even more narrow at some points. The barges never stop, even occasionally running after dark. I’m sure an experienced captain could do it half blindfolded, but having GPS would certainly be a confidence booster.


Thanks for the suggestions, Arindam.

Petersen’s book is the most recent one in the St. Louis Public Library. Another one is 1948. I’m surprised not to find the history on Wikipedia.

There might be a good river history book out there somewhere, but so far I haven’t found it.

Thanks, ImAGolfer. In college I recall a student saying he had worked the towboats as a summer job. He told of the big ratchet wrenches they use to pull the barges together. Probably a good paying summer job, but also one where you could get hurt.

One of those heads up jobs.

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Thanks, Goofyhoofy. Modern electronics means these days airplanes almost land themselves. You would think towboats have potential to do much of that. At least when cruising down the middle of the river.

Life on board must be different too. Internet offers much more to pass the time.

“Modern electronics means these days airplanes almost land themselves. You would think towboats have potential to do much of that. At least when cruising down the middle of the river.”

McPhee’s book will disabuse you of that idea real quickly. As In Twain’s day, you gotta know the ever changing river and make decisions accordingly.


Why is Samuel Langhorne Clemens known as Mark Twain?

He adopted the pen name in early 1863 when he was a newspaperman in Nevada. It referred to his steamboating days, when the measure of the depth of the water was expressed with a crewman’s cry “mark twain!,” meaning two fathoms, or 12 feet.

The Captain


Our GPS has a split screen, which also shows river depth. (Useful for fishermen looking for particular species. We don’t use it for that, but we do watch for shallows, having been caught once and come close a couple other times.)

Vast swathes of the river are navigable in one season but not in another, and it depends somewhat on the river depth but also the currents, which change seasonally as more (or less) water is released from the Ft Loudon Dam which controls river height - and produces electricity for TVA.


Used copies available.


Yea, that’s basically why I worked on tow boats during the Summer. We had a couple of different devices for pulling our tows together. Some were built onto the deck of the barge and had a large wheel you turned to tighten the tow together. The other type were the portable type.

You are exactly right. You had to be on your toes at all times. Safety awareness helped get you through the Summer. One of the good things about working your way through college on a tow boat is the fact that as long as you were on the boat you weren’t spending money. There were however occasional stops at the local pub especially when you are getting off a trip.

We used to work 14 days on and 7 days off. I recall once my relief didn’t show up and I had to work 35 straight days. Now that wasn’t fun at all. My future bride didn’t appreciate it either.

Oh, yea, one other thing about tow boats. I learned a ton of cuss words some of which come in handy when playing golf.


Don’t forget the tides, twice daily.

The Captain