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Towboat on the Ohio

Towboat on the Ohio

James E. Casto
Copyright Date: 1995
Edition: 1
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Towboat on the Ohio
    Book Description:

    To get a personal look at what it is like to work on the Ohio River, newspaperman James E. Casto spent eight days aboard theBlazeras it traveled the Ohio from Huntington, West Virginia, to Pittsburgh, up the Allegheny and the Mongahela, and then back to Huntington. ThePaul G. Blazer, a gleaming white towboat owned and operated by Ashland Oil, pushes a group -- or "tow," as the rivermen call it -- of nine barges on this trip. Along the way, Casto introduces us to Captain Ronnie Davis, pilot Ronnie Burge, engineer Steve Bellomy, the mates, the deckhands, and the cook, as well as the river itself, the life and the beauty that are the Ohio.

    Interwoven with the narrative of the trip upriver and back is the history of commerce on the Ohio -- of how the flatboats and keelboats gave way to the steamboats and how, in turn, the steamboats were replaced by today's powerful, diesel-powered boats such as theBlazer.

    Mark Twain wrote that the Mississippi had a new story to tell every day. The same can be said of the Ohio. As engaging as it is informative,Towboat on the Ohiotells one of the many stories of the busy, hardworking Ohio River.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5069-7
    Subjects: Transportation Studies, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)

    The impact of the Ohio River in the context of the larger American story gained widespread public attention in 1991 as a result of “Always a River: The Ohio River and the American Experience,” a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the humanities councils of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and a mix of private and public organizations. The project continues as a series of ongoing study groups, conferences, and other events.

    The Ohio River Valley Series, conceived and published by the University Press of Kentucky, extends the work of “Always a River”...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    On June 27, 1957, veteran Kentucky lawmaker Thruston Ballard Morton arose in the U.s. Senate and gave a full-dress speech on the growth of the Ohio River Valley, proclaiming it “the Ruhr of America.”

    A Louisville businessman, Morton won election to the House in 1946 and was reelected in 1948 and 1950. In 1952, he decided to go back to private business, but President Dwight Eisenhower intervened, convincing Morton to become an assistant secretary of state. In 1956, he again yielded to Eisenhower and successfully ran for the Senate, where he served until he retired from politics in 1968.


  6. Towboat on the Ohio

    • Chapter 1
      (pp. 6-19)

      Captain Ronnie Davis is not happy. And he’s getting unhappier by the minute. Davis, skipper of thePaul G. Blazer, is a veteran of twenty-six years working on the Ohio River. Seated in the pilothouse of theBlazeron this Saturday morning in a recent July, he is drawing up a chart showing the arrangement for the long tow of barges the towboat will shove upriver on its next trip. It’s a task which summons up all the lessons he has learned in his years on the river. The individual barges are of differing sizes and are bound for various...

    • Chapter 2
      (pp. 20-32)

      George Washington and Collis P. Huntington aren’t names that come immediately to mind when conversation turns to the Ohio River, yet both played important roles in the development of the Ohio as a commercial artery—and, in a quirk of history, their roles were intertwined.

      On October 20, 1770, George Washington left the comforts of Mount Vernon for a trip to Fort Pitt (now the city of Pittsburgh) and then down the Ohio as far as what is now Point Pleasant, West Virginia—an undertaking both difficult and dangerous. The purpose of Washington’s trip was to locate and make preliminary...

    • Chapter 3
      (pp. 33-42)

      Historians agree that it was the Iroquois, the Indian tribe that dominated the Ohio Valley when the first white men came, who named the river. But there the agreement ends. Assertions as to what the name “Ohio” meant range from “beautiful river” to “river of blood.” So the reader is left to believe pretty much whatever he or she wishes.

      Most, if not all, historians credit René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, with being the first white man to see the Ohio. Born in France, La Salle emigrated to Canada in 1666, joining his missionary brother at Montreal. La Salle...

    • Chapter 4
      (pp. 43-55)

      Those hardy souls who were the Ohio River’s earliest travelers were undismayed by the shoals, rapids, snags (fallen trees), and many other obstructions they encountered on the river. With the advent of the steamboat, however, the risks accompanying river navigation become a matter of great concern, and the frequent delays caused by low water threatened to stifle the river’s commercial future. Before the tum of the century, the Ohio was referred to in low-flow periods as being “a mile wide and a foot deep.” People could walk across some spots in it during summer dry spells—and hardly get their...

    • Chapter 5
      (pp. 56-64)

      On November 20, 1886, theHuntington Advertiser Weeklyheadlined the news on its front page that on the previous night the young West Virginia city—founded in 1871, it was only in its second decade—had for the first time been illuminated by electric lights. The newspaper described that dark, wet Friday night when pedestrians who had, until that moment, been picking their way over black and hazardous streets, hailed with joy the sudden brilliant flash “from 15 globes of electric fire.”

      TheAdvertiserwent on to say: “With electric lights and water works assured and the finest opera house...

    • Chapter 6
      (pp. 65-77)

      On Sunday, I’m up early—even before the polite tap on my cabin door. Again I ponder the question of shaving and again I decide I won’t. Hey, I’m on vacation. What’s the point of being on vacation if you can’t kick back and relax a bit? Shaving is too much like going to the office.

      After a quick breakfast, I head for the pilothouse, where Captain Davis has just relieved Ronnie Burge.

      “Well, what do you say now?” the captain asks me as I enter.

      I check the logbook to see what progress we made overnight and find we’ve...

    • Chapter 7
      (pp. 78-85)

      The first commercially successful oil well in the United States was drilled by Edwin L. Drake at Titusville, Pennsylvania. The year was 1859. Drake drilled down 69.5 feet, using tools made by a local blacksmith, Uncle Billy Smith of Tarentum, who charged $76.50 for the lot. When oil was found, Drake attached a pump and managed to bring up eight to ten barrels a day.

      Four years later, Cleveland businessman John D. Rockefeller went into the oil business as a sideline to his other ventures. The rest, as they say, was history. By the 1880s, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust—using...

    • Chapter 8
      (pp. 86-95)

      Life on the river is very different from life on shore, and, as I was to discover during my brief stay aboard theBlazer, there’s a whole vocabulary to it that’s strange to those of us who live and work on dry land—or “on the bank,” as a riverman would put it.

      What we’d call a “rope” a riverman calls a “line.” What we might call a “cable” is something else in river talk. When a riverman talks about a “cheater bar,” he’s not describing a drinking place where two-timing husbands and wives hide out. And the process of...

    • Photographs
      (pp. None)
    • Chapter 9
      (pp. 96-108)

      It’s Monday, our third day out. Fresh from the shower, I admire my beard in the bathroom mirror. It’s finally beginning to look like more than a case of five o’clock shadow. Shucks, maybe I’ll just keep it at the trip’s end. I’ve never worn a beard before. Not even a mustache, for that matter.

      Wilma’s breakfast is delicious, as usual. How is it that at home I ordinarily have nothing but coffee for breakfast but out here on the river find myself absolutely starved every morning? After all, sitting up there in the pilothouse, watching the world go by,...

    • Chapter 10
      (pp. 109-119)

      Napoleon said, “An army travels on its stomach.”

      So does a towboat.

      Nobody would mistake the food served at a towboat dining table with the kind of fancy fare found on the menu of some five-star restaurant. It’s your basic, down-home country cooking. But it’s tasty. And goodness knows it’s plentiful.

      Here’s a rundown of one day’s meals on thePaul Blazer:

      For breakfast, there’s eggs, cooked any way you want them. Bacon, sausage, and ham. Stewed apples. Biscuits. Sausage gravy. Orange juice and grapefruit juice. And, of course, coffee.

      On the river, lunch is traditionally the big meal of...

    • Chapter 11
      (pp. 120-129)

      It’s Tuesday morning and again it’s decision time. To shave or not to shave? I study my face in the mirror for a minute or so. Shucks, I decide, I’m on vacation. Why should a man who’s on vacation have to worry about shaving? After a quick breakfast, I make my way to the pilothouse, where I greet Ronnie Burge, who’s just finishing his watch. Just then Captain Davis makes his entrance, ready to relieve the pilot.

      “Well, what do you say now, fellows?” he asks.

      I check the log and chartbook to see what kind of progress theBlazer...

    • Chapter 12
      (pp. 130-139)

      Once the small boat that theBlazernearly rammed has been safely towed to shore, it takes thirty minutes or so to hoist our own boat back aboard and secure it. Then we’re on our way again. Ten minutes later, we reach Star Point where we drop off two barges loaded with no-lead gasoline and pick up an empty. That, of course, means remaking the tow again. Sometimes that’s a matter of minutes; at other times it takes hours to accomplish. This is one of those latter times. It’s 1800 when we arrive and 2310 before we depart, northbound with...

    • Chapter 13
      (pp. 140-148)

      I had called it a night and turned in while we were locking through at Emsworth. Arriving in the pilothouse the next morning, I follow what’s become my customary routine, checking the log and the chartbook to see our progress overnight. I find that at 0105 we tied off the tow to pick up three empty barges, two at Coropalis and one at Tiogo Pipeline. At 0400, we had made our tow and so departed southbound with seven barges, five of them empty and two loaded—or, as the shorthand entry in the log reads, “5 emtys and 2lds.” Twenty...

    • Chapter 14
      (pp. 149-154)

      Kathy Gibbs wants to cue the skydivers and get things started, but first somebody’s going to have to radio those two small planes that are buzzing the area and warn them to clear out and make way for the jumpers. A portable radio pressed to her ear, she stands looking skyward. With her radio in one hand, she uses the other to shade her eyes as she unsuccessfully searches the sky for the Huey helicopter that’s carrying the jump team.

      “Come on,” she says, “we have to get started!”

      It’s Saturday, October 10, 1992, and more than 3,000 people have...

    • Chapter 15
      (pp. 155-164)

      The dedication of the new, longer lock at Gallipolis was a day long dreamed of, not just by towboat crews, who saw an end to long delays and lots of backbreaking work, but by barge-line owners and executives forced to cope with the enormous costs resulting from the all-too-frequent holdups there. But the euphoria from the dedication had hardly worn off when President Bill Clinton handed the waterways industry a bombshell—a proposal that the tax on diesel fuel used by the industry’s towboats be increased by $1 a gallon, from 19 cents to $1.19.

      The proposal apparently caught the...

  7. River Talk—A Glossary
    (pp. 165-170)
  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 171-174)
  9. Index
    (pp. 175-189)