Great Jobs: Chapter 8-Breaking Ice on the Mississippi
After Graduating from High School, I continued my ‘Education’ at
Rankin Trade School. Mom’s job at International Shoe Company was not
sufficient to afford a college education for me, even though I had
passed the entry exam at Rolla School of Mines, I had thought of
engineering. Being a mathematician, which subject was instrumental
in getting me graduated, I decided that learning mechanical things
that dealt with ‘problem solving’ was my thing. So, I took a course
in Power Plant Operation and Maintenance. At that time Rankin Trade
School had its own generating plant, with boilers, steam generators
and all. They also had classes in Diesel Engines, so I spent the
next year at that facility and even stayed on for some summer classes
learning about Diesel Engines.
After December 7th I had made all the rounds of the recruiting
offices, but that is another story. No service of any kind wanted a
kid who couldn’t see what he was supposed to shoot at.
As it was, the railroads wouldn’t have me, couldn’t see well
enough, and dad was gone, no connections there anymore. And, mom
hated railroads, seemed to think everybody who worked for them had
vocabularies ‘out of this world’. Gramps had retired as a Pullman car
painter and letterer, and I really didn’t want to work at Pullman, I
wasn’t a good painter anyway.
So I checked back with Rankin to see what they might suggest.
They sent me to Federal Barge Line, where they would have hired
anybody, because it was getting hard to find good, bad, or any help
at all. And believe it or not, they hired me to go to work on the
Patrick J. Hurley as an Engine Wiper, an all around engine room
Janitor/Helper. That Mississippi River boat was an old, old, paddle
wheeler steamboat, with a rebuilt bow, capable of pushing barges.
Well, I stayed on that old paddle wheeler through the end of the
year. We made several trips to Minnesota, pushing empty’s up and
returning with full grain barges, until late in the fall when finally
the upper Mississippi froze over and the Hurley could no longer
navigate in that area. Since the Hurley was an old paddle wheeler
and not too much on horsepower, it was tied up at the foot of
Lesperence Street for the winter.
So now what? I checked with the Union Hall, National Maritime
Union in those days, and they said I could get a job on the Helena, a
fairly new tow boat, and sign on as a Striker, a Striker was a sort
of ‘non officer’ lead man in the engine room. A good upgrade job
with great pay.
“OK, I said, “where do I sign on”?
“Well, Federal Barge will have to bus you up to Beardstown, IL at
the lock and dam there”.
“OK, what else”?
“Well they are using that as the home base, while they keep the
channels open between the Chicago Canal, and the Mississippi River.
Pekin Lake is a big problem right now, with all the ice, and they are
also keeping the Upper Mississippi open as much as they can. They’re
pushing Ship Hulls down from Saint Crois, to New Orleans’ shipyards
where they are finished with the top decks. All part of the war
effort, you know”.
“Keepin’ channels open? So, you mean they are breakin’ up ice
jams? Didn’t know Federal Barge had any ice breakin’ equipment”.
“They don’t, Coast Guard lent it to them and welded it to the bow.
And, by the way, they got a bonus if you stay on all winter, you
will have to agree to that. Last guy walked off, that is why the job
“Well I guess it beats sittin’ on my tail, all winter. Where do I
get the bus ticket”?
“I got it right here and the bus leaves in about 45 minutes, get
on over to the
Greyhound station, now”.
“I got to get some clothes”.
“Forget it; Coast Guard is providing special winter gear”.
“See you next spring, pal” And don’t forget, staying on all
winter will get you about 2 months off time when you get back, beside
all that bonus pay”.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, and when I do get back, have me a trip to New
Well, I did stay on all winter at that job, and we made trips back
and forth between the upper Illinois River and Saint Paul, Minnesota,
breaking up ice jams. A wear out job if ever there was one. Nothing
but engine maintenance and engine handling. Forward Full, Reverse
Half, Forward Full, Reverse Half, six hours on and six hours off.
And ‘band aid’ repairs every time we got back to Beardstown for a day
or so. Only good thing the food was great. Whenever we got back to
Beardstown for fuel and supplies we got the best of everything.
Fresh farm chickens, corn on the cob, lots of fresh veggies,
apples, pears fresh off the trees, and lot’s of pork, pig raisin’
country you know.
It might have been a tiresome job, but I sure did learn a lot.
And mom, those barge line workers have vocabularies that can match
any railroad worker.
And in the spring I got my trip to New Orleans, where I shed that
Be sure to read July's other episode "So Who Needs A 4-F ID?" in this
the next episode in this
series, check the August publication.
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