Working on a Towboat

Towboat Jack D. Wofford

Built at Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1966

Gift of Jack D. Wofford

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Mississippi River Towboat Jack D. Wofford

River towboats are small but powerful vessels used to push barges up and down inland waterways. Most towboats push 15 barges at a time, lashed together three wide and five long. Fifteen barges carry as much freight as a three-mile long freight train or a string of tractor-trailers stretching 35 miles.

The Jack D. Wofford was built in 1966 and was still transporting cargo between St. Louis and Minneapolis in 2007. At the boat’s bow are two large steel “knees” that push against and brace the barges. To avoid the Mississippi’s many sandbars, the Wofford has a very shallow hull, rarely reaching depths of more than 9 feet.


One Pilot’s Story

River pilots are as important as ever. Most of the nation’s bulk cargoes, including grain and coal, travel up and down rivers. Modern towboat pilots are trained, tested, and licensed, but experience on the river is still the best teacher.

In the 1970s, Capt. Jack Libbey used this book of navigation charts of the upper Mississippi River. Virtually every page has Libbey’s markings and notations. He meticulously printed the names of major navigation aids on both sides of the river, as well as reminders of how to steer through tricky situations.

Steering with Sticks, 2008

Modern towboats are steered with “joy-sticks,” not a wheel. The backing rudders are controlled by the upper set of sticks, the steering by the lower set.

Pilot Jack Libbey in the pilothouse of the Mississippi River towboat James Faris, in Dubuque, Iowa.

Courtesy of Jack Libbey

SB [Steering bridge] Keep stern on light and head on tank. When pilot house passes black buoy bring jackstaff around to 3rd pier out from channel span. Hold until red buoy below bridge opens up half-way. Keep jackstaff on red buoy and stern 100 yds over from first Miss stacks. Slow ahead until lined up.
—Capt. Jack Libbey, entry in navigation chart on steering under bridges in shallow waters, December 10, 1975

Towboats and Barges

Produced by the History Channel

Working on a Towboat

Produced by the History Channel