Ashland Oil Rivermen and Beautiful Trail

How would you like to shove an object the size of three football fields across the United States? Think you could manage it, especially if that mass weighed 22,000 tons?

It is not an impossible task at all. Ashland Oil and Refining Company rivermen do it all the time. Although hundreds of boats which ply the inland waterways of America pause here, only AO&R riverboats call Ashland home.

Few people check statistics or ponder over the slow-moving barges moving past here on the Ohio, but those barges carry a large portion of America’s freight. Steel, petroleum, manufactured products, crops, minerals and building materials are pushed up and down the river and unloaded in cities along its route.

The size of one of these freight movements is shown by comparison with a sea-going liner. An average “tow” of eight filled barges is 1,170 feet long including the towboat. The main deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, at her longest point, is 1,031 feet long. A river tow is 139 feet longer than the longest of ocean liners.

As long as anyone can remember, romanticists have talked about the life on and along a river, and I decided to see for myself what a part of that life was.

Along with my wife Wanda and two other guests, Ted O’Meara and his son Sean, of Cleveland, I boarded Ashland Oil’s Motor Vessel Allied-Ashland for a trip down the Ohio.

It was the beginning of the most pleasant journey any person could make. From the time we awakened for early breakfast at 6 a.m. until we retired at night after a full day of gazing at new sights and scenes, the hours flew by. We were warned by friends that days on the river would be monotonous, but they were wrong.

Although it is a world apart, with occurrences of its own, life is never dull, hours never slow, along the Ohio. Our journey, which began at Kenova and ended at Louisville, was full of surprises all the way.

The river itself takes on a placid beauty as the boat moves westward. Running low with little current because of recent dry weather, the Ohio acts much like a great long lake. The river isn’t muddy, and trees along the banks reflect on its surface to add a green hue to its serenity.

Those trees along the bank grow so close together they form a solid wall of greenery from the waterline to the sky. Rotting driftwood adds a touch of grotesque scenery along the sandy banks.

Along those banks, where the river laps lazily as the heavy barges shove by, are white church spires and silos, glistening in the sunlight; fields of thick corn and tobacco; white farm houses peeking through heavy foliage; picturesque old barns and log cabins.

All these picturesque scenes are viewed every day by the men of the river, and they see them without having to peer through a maze of billboards. Scenery and things to see along the river are the most delightful part of a boat trip. Passing a large city at night is an unexpected thrill. Moving quietly through Cincinnati, we saw the lighted towers of downtown squares. As we approached, the bright lights of that city stood on pillars of their own reflection in the calm river waters.

Smells of freshly-mown hay drift from the banks, and odors of burning wood, meat cooking, and charcoal grills were apparent as we passed picnickers along the way.

Sights which are interesting to strangers on the river, but common to the rivermen, are the boats which pass along the route. Some are ancient sternwheelers, others ultra-modern diesels, but each follows the same river path, and all boats have become neighbors on the Ohio.

Typical of the towboats passed on a trip are the Omar, a big sternwheeler pushing empty coal barges back to Huntington, and the block-shaped sparkling red and white J.P. Chauvin shoving clean grey barges of gasoline from New Orleans to Pittsburgh.

Tommy Stevenson, captain of the Allied, explained that the Chauvin, a squat vessel, had a hydraulic pilot house for ducking low railway bridges on tributaries of the Mississippi.

We also passed hundreds of pleasure boats, fishing, picnicking, cruising, and water skiing on the Ohio. While waiting for lockage at New Richmond, we were visited by a small sailboat. Sailboats, common in the wide-stream area near Louisville, may invade the Ashland pool after completion of the Greenup Lock and Dam, rivermen predict . . .

An old adage about seaman which is certainly not comparable on the river is “Ships that pass in the night,” meaning unseen strangers. Common courtesy along the river includes the flashing of lights as towboats pass. Captains of passing vessels hail each other with double-armed waves as their boats draw abreast.

The gestures are typical of today’s rivermen—a new breed of men embodying the hardiness of Mike Fink and the skills of engineers. Though strong and tough, their manners are faultless.

For the crew, each day is divided into four six-hour watches and each man stands two watches a day on his job . . . For each day a man works, he is entitled to a day off. Crewmen are given a choice of working two days taking one off, and drawing full pay for a second day off. By allowing days off to accumulate during a cruise, a crew member builds up a long vacation and sizable paycheck upon his return to port. As an example, he might work 40 straight days on the boat, and upon being relieved take a 20-day vacation. His paycheck for the 60-day period would total 80 days’ salary.

Rivermen nowadays differ from their forebears not only in their rates of pay, but in their management of money. Several AO&R boatmen raise crops, taking their vacations at planting and harvest time.

Many of the crewmen will tell you daily that they intend to leave the river “some day,” but they usually stay with the boats. It is no wonder, for these river boats are about the best second home a man could find. Quarters for crew and guests are equipped with modern furnishings and styles. Beds, mattresses, desks, and fixtures are as good as those found in the best hotel.

And the food.

I used to think the U.S. Navy served the best chow in the world, but I have changed my mind. The food served on the Allied-Ashland tops any I have ever tasted. All passengers, and the crew, agreed that Don Combs, of Vanceburg, was one of the finer chefs afloat on any body of water.

The food was excellent both in taste and in method of serving. Meals were served each day at 5:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Two “tables” were set at each meal. One for the oncoming watch, one for crewmen going off watch.

A typical meal consisted of roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, buttered carrots, corn on the cobb, mustard greens, beans, mixed garden salad, corn muffins with butter, apple pie and ice cream, tea, coffee and milk—all placed before us on a table with plenty of second helpings. Combs was assisted in preparation of meals by Jim Willis, cabin boy.

Because the meals were so good and we ate so heartily, we all expected weight gains, and teased slim Sean O’Meara who actually gained five pounds in three days. We wondered why the crewmen who ate just as heartily, weren’t fat, but soon learned why watching them work.

One man, Kelley Walden, a former AO&R mate now working during the summer terms at Eastern State College, told us he had worked himself into shape, dropping from about 220 pounds to 190. He lost about a pound a day while working on the boat.

The work these crewmen do, while not appearing strenuous, is constant. Each deck man—there are three to a watch—is busy tightening and loosening cables, making sure the tow is riding correctly.

At each lock and dam along the river, the tow must be broken up, or taken in two sections through the lock. This is because the 1,170-foot tow-and-boat is twice as long as the 600-foot lock chambers.

Currently there are 12 locks between Ashland and Louisville. These will be replaced in a few years by high-level dams at Greenup, New Richmond, and Markland. These new dams will have 1,200-foot lock chambers capable of handling large river tows in one operation.

But until equipment is installed that will handle tows in one piece, deck hands will have to work long and hard, in all kinds of weather and at all hours, to get the tow through the lock. This kind of hard work would take pounds off almost any person. Locking through these dams is not only a tough job for a deck hand, but for the captain or pilot who is steering the vessel. It is his job to thread a needle by placing a 105-foot-wide tow through a 110-foot wide lock. We found that both Stevenson and (Morton) Judy were capable masters, leaving about two and a half feet leeway on each side of the tow at every lock.

Knowledge of the river, careful guiding hands and wide-awake use of both are the qualities of these boat-handlers. Both these men, and other captains and pilots along the river, demonstrated their knowledge and ability several times during the three-day trip.

Because of dry weather, several places along the Ohio have become shallow. Passing through these, a bystander can see a tow boat steersman literally feeling his way over a sandbar. In one spot, our single full barge became wedged upon a bar, and the experience of all aboard was needed to disengage her.

Another point of experience was made clear late one night when a cable holding the front of the tow neared breaking.

In the pilot house we saw bright blue sparks and heard the twang as a portion of the wire rope parted. The captain told us nothing serious had happened, but immediately had crewmen replace the weakened cable before it completely broke.

This directive by the captain and quick work by the crewmen is typical of the fast cooperative action needed to move millions of gallons of fuel across the nation’s system of inland waterways.

As we reached Lock 41 at Louisville, currently undergoing improvements which will make an improved high level dam, we prepared to disembark and it was much like the typical Hawaii aloha. We hated to leave, but previous plans kept us from finishing the trip to Owensboro with the boat.

Both Wanda and I agreed that we could not have chosen a safer or more comfortable vessel for our first river trip, and we both, as all passengers surely do, told captain Stevenson, “We’ll be back again some day.”

Updated: November 26, 2017 — 11:10 am
By George © 2017 Frontier Theme