A grizzled old towboat mate of twenty-six named Steamboat Bill explained the dangers of working in high water to me in very simple, very direct terms. “Rule number-one is: Don’t fall in! If you fall in, you’re dead. It’s that simple. The current will drag you under and you’ll drown!” He told me this from the deck of a barge moored in South Saint Paul in the spring of 1975, when the Mississippi River was rising fast.
Years later I watched as another young deckhand learned this lesson. It was spring of 1992 when he slipped on an icy deck and went into the swirling frigid water under the Lafayette Street Bridge. Two of us were right behind him, and we dropped to our knees and looked into the dark water but could see nothing. A second later, a gloved hand shot up, and we grabbed him before the current could carry him away. In seconds, we dragged him into the galley and deposited the sputtering kid on the deck next to an electric heater. He sat there blinking a few seconds before he could stutter, “Th-the da-damn cu-cu-current t-t-took my nu-nu-nu-new Sorrels right off my f-f-feet.”
The flood of 1993 was a time of learning for river man and animal alike. In the early morning hours of June 23, the river rose high enough to shut down railroad bridge operations, cover Shepard Road, and swallow up Harriet and Pig’s Eye islands. Then, half the barges fleeted in South Saint Paul broke loose. It took several boats to chase and round them up before they could collide with the other fleets and 494 bridge and cause some real catastrophe.
I later spoke with a deckhand who saw the breakaway. His boat was holding four loads that had hit the far bank when they broke loose. He pointed at a bare tree stump on the bank. It was about eight feet across and looked to have been torn apart. “That big cottonwood tree just exploded when the barges hit it!” he said.
One boat was released from cleanup to return to the wharf barge in Pig’s Eye Lake and retrieve those of us who would work the day shift. Four crews crowded onto the Lois E as she headed back out to the river to finish securing a couple dozen barges. The high water had created some new hazards as the current had increased. There is a shifting sandbar across the river from the old packing houses where the current is dammed, causing a series of rapids or standing waves with crests as high as five feet.
I watched from the port window of Lois E’s pilothouse as the pilot guided the boat through the first of the waves. The square bow dipped down and sank underwater before wallowing free of the river. As the boat pushed toward the next wave, we spotted two adult deer swimming frantically with the current. We watched helplessly as the pair of deer tried vainly to swim through the waves to get to us. They must have been desperate to think our noisy towboat would save them. When they were just a few feet away, they turned together and swam downstream away from the boat. Fatigue must have won out, because they disappeared between the waves and we never saw them again.
We walked the barges, surveying the broken rigging, and someone heard a mewing sound from the island, which had become completely submerged. The current swirled around the trees many feet over what had been solid ground days earlier.
In between the trees, a fawn struggled to stay above water. In response to our coaxing, it swam to the edge of the barge, but then panicked and swam around the upper end and out into the main channel. Worried that it would meet the same fate as its parents, we turned the boat loose, and the pilot guided us down close to the startled fawn. I held one of the deckhands by his belt and lowered him down as he scooped the fawn out of the river.
While the orphaned critter wandered about the galley, we made another round of the fleet and managed to free a family of ducks caught between two of the barges. It took a little effort with a broomstick to nudge them up and out of the space to where their wings could spread enough to get away from us. Sometime during the early afternoon, a U of M agriculture team came to pick up the fawn at our wharf barge in Pig’s Eye Lake.
Later that day, my brother Doyle, who was the mate on another boat, was training in a green deckhand. His boat was faced up on the upstream end of a group of loaded barges. It was time to remove the long, heavy wires that hold the boat to the barges. Doyle was strong and knew the technique and quickly threw one of the wires onto the hook on the bow of the boat.
“Don’t do that by yourself!” he yelled as the new kid set about to lifting the other side wire from the timberhead on the barge. It was a warning that was ignored or came too late. As soon as the wire was in his hands, he leaned back and fell onto his rear as the wire pulled him over the end of the barge and into the wicked current. By the time Doyle got to him, he had lost his grip on the edge of the barge and was about to slip under the fleet to drown for sure. Doyle dove along the deck, somehow managing to hang over the end of the barge and reach down just in time to snag the kid’s wrist before the current could suck him under the barges. He managed to pull the greenie out of the river and dragged him onto the barge. As they both slumped there catching their breath, Doyle said to him, “What did I tell you? Don’t fall in the damn river! If you do, you’re dead.”
Captain Bob Deck grew up on numerous Air Force bases, landing in Saint Paul during high school. He worked on the Mississippi River towboats for 25 years. Now he divides his time between writing about his adventures on the Mississippi River, piloting the Padelford Packet boats, and substitute teaching for Saint Paul Public Schools.