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Barging Into the City

Roughly 16 million tons of freight moves through the metropolitan area on barges each year, most of it barely noticed as it glides slowly up and down the rivers and canals.


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At 8:30 AM Captain Lowell "Beetle" Bailey is standing at the controls of the Chicago Peace, watching a tall towboat as it slowly shoves ten barges toward him up the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The Peace rocks slightly in the water, her two 600-horsepower engines thrumming, as the barges, which are lashed together into a "tow" that is two barges wide and five long, drift to a stop in front of her. Bailey pushes the two levers that control the engines. The air lines hiss, the engines surge, and the Peace softly thumps into the side of the tow, straddling two of the barges. Bailey says he always tries to be gentle with the boat if he can, partly out of pilot's pride, partly so he won't wake the three crew members sleeping below.

The barges are rectangular troughs of steel plate, something like giant floating railroad cars. Several days ago, most of them were loaded with coal in Wheelersburg, Ohio, 80 miles due south of Columbus on the Ohio River. They were then pushed down the Ohio, and a few days later they rounded the bend at Cairo and headed up the Mississippi. At Saint Louis the J.N. Phillips began powering the tow; just past Grafton she swung into the Illinois River, and she has taken four days to run the 299 miles from there to where Bailey is waiting in the Sanitary Canal, just west of Lemont, 26 miles southwest of the Loop.

Here the coal barges are only 29 miles from their destination, LTV Steel on the south side. But the Phillips can't take them there. Like many of the boats that shove tows up to Lemont, the Phillips is about 30 feet out of the water at the top of her pilothouse; pilots need that height to see over the tows of 8 to 15 barges that are standard on the Illinois. Boats that run the lower Mississippi, which often power tows of 40 to 60 barges, may be as high as 54 feet. But several of the bridges across the rivers and canals around Chicago have a clearance of only 23 feet, and one has only 17. When the tall towboats reach Lemont, their barges must be ferried to the city by boats like the Peace, whose retractable pilothouse drops hydraulically so that she is only 16 feet out of the water. After clearing a bridge, the pilothouse can be raised back up to 28 feet, high enough to see over the six-barge tows that are customary on the narrow, winding waterways of metropolitan Chicago.

Many of the major barge lines that move freight through Chicago have their own towboats that can run under the bridges. Others contract that job out to one of several small local companies, including Ham Tug, which operates the Peace. Some of the barges that Ham Tug handles are dropped off on the north side around Goose Island, but most by far go to the south side, to the industrial docks along Lake Calumet and the Calumet River or to one of the companies that ferry barges across the lake. Ham Tug also moves barges around the city for local businesses; picks up loaded and empty barges and takes them down to Lemont to be shoved downriver by a tall towboat; and stores companies' extra barges in its Lemont slips. Ham Tug runs three other boats and pays 30 employees, who keep the boats running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year--when business is good.

Lowell Bailey and the Peace will take only five of the Phillips's coal barges upriver this trip, and they must be broken out of the string of ten. Two deckhands jump from the Peace onto the tow and untie the ropes and uncouple the chains and cables--"river jewelry," they used to call it--that hold the six forward barges to the rear four. Two of the barges in the rear section and three in the forward will go upriver. When there's nothing but inertia keeping the two sections together, the Phillips backs up, pulling the four barges with it. The Peace glides into the open space and eases up to the remaining six barges. The deckhands lift two heavy cables from the sides of the Peace, and Bailey moves the levers that slacken them. The winches clank, the cables sag, and the deckhands loop them over the pointed kevels on the corners of the two rear barges. Bailey cranks the cables back in till they are rigid and the flat front of the towboat is tight against the barges. Then he pulls the engine controls full astern.

The engines thunder and the broad propellers churn the water hard behind the boat, but it is several seconds before the barges even begin to move backward down the canal. Each of the barges is 35 feet wide and nearly 200 feet long, which makes these six barges the length of two football fields. Each barge is 12 feet deep and weighs somewhere between 1,400 and 1,600 tons full; the coal from just one would fill 15 jumbo-hopper railroad cars or 58 large semitrailers. It is hard to start that much weight moving; it is even harder to stop it.

Because the water does so much of the work of carrying them, barges are generally the cheapest, most fuel-efficient way to move bulk goods. Enormous quantities of cargo are carried in them every year. According to Business Week, 15 percent of all the freight shipped in the U.S. moves up or down the Mississippi. According to the American Waterways Operators, 40 percent of all petroleum and petroleum products are shipped by barge, 20 percent of all coal, and 57 percent of all grain that's headed for export. The freight that is barged through Chicago is only a fraction of that, and the tonnage that now moves along local waterways is only a little more than half what it was in the peak year of 1974, but business has slowly been picking up since the market fell apart in the early 80s. According to the best estimate available, roughly 16 million tons of freight moves through the metropolitan area on barges each year, most of it barely noticed as it glides up and down the rivers and canals.

Two of Ham Tug's other boats are helping Bailey assemble his tow. The Lorna Hackworth is maneuvering barges into one of the company's slips on the north side of the canal when a small speedboat that's headed downriver pulls up alongside the Peace. There is no way for it to move through the mass of barges and towboats that fills the narrow channel, so it sits bobbing in its own wake, occasionally drifting in one direction or another to look for an opening. Bailey gives a little snort. "They're one of the biggest headaches on the river," he says in his vaguely southern accent. "They're just like a chicken on the side of the road. You can't trust them to stay on the one side--they'll wait and then cross right in front of you."

By 10 AM Bailey, the other pilots, and their deckhands have almost finished stringing together, two abreast, the five barges that the Peace will take to the south side. The value of the coal, the boat, and the barges makes the entire tow worth millions. The door to the pilothouse suddenly opens and the noise of the engines blasts through. Mark Krug, the other pilot on the Peace, has come to relieve Bailey. Like the rest of the crew, the two men are scheduled to work six hours on and six off, though having been together on the same boat for ten years, they have shifted the standard watch hours to suit themselves. Neither of them sleeps more than a few hours when he's off watch, and they both say it's a hard routine to break when they head home after 21 days straight on the boat. Bailey, who is 54, has been on the river for almost 40 years; Krug, who is 38, has been on 17. Bailey is buoyant and garrulous; Krug is quiet and measures his words.

Bailey tells Krug where the five barges are headed and where to pick up a sixth, an empty, that's also going upriver. He also says that he's bought Krug the Tribune and the Sun-Times. Krug swallows his coffee. "Go on. Get out," he says with a smile. Bailey laughs and disappears.

The pilot of the Lorna Hackworth radios that he has nothing better to do and offers to help Krug put on the empty barge. Krug radios back his thanks, and the Lorna Hackworth turns in the canal and heads upstream. Krug pushes the engines full ahead, the speed he calls "company notch"--the point where the owners make money.

The Peace uses one gallon of diesel fuel per horsepower every 24 hours--about 900 gallons a day, depending on the weight of the tow. The fastest she can move upriver with a full tow is three to four miles per hour--about walking speed. With a tow of empties, she'll do seven to nine. Once, after Bailey left Lemont with a tow, the dispatchers had time to park his truck far out in the middle of a flooded field behind the office, take a Polaroid snapshot of it, and drive the photo upriver to a point where they knew Bailey would have to stop. When reminded of the story, Bailey guffaws; he pulls a plastic bag from the cabinet under the engine controls and starts rummaging through it trying to find the picture.

Krug guides the tow upriver with only slight movements of the two levers that control the port and starboard rudders; he calibrates his motion by two meters whose needles swing to indicate the position of the rudders, and by the slow drift of the front of the tow in the river. He knows every curve and shallow of his trip, and will note on the way up where every barge and boat is tied so he'll know where they are when he comes back down in the dark. He listens to two VHF marine-radio channels and to the office sideband, so that he knows where every other tow or potential problem on the river is.

The tow lumbers north along the Sanitary Canal, past piles of scrap, past hills of coal and salt, past open and covered barges tied up along the stone walls that line this stretch of the canal. Before he reaches the railroad bridge east of Lemont Road, Krug steps on a floor pedal and lowers the pilothouse. The bridge slips past close overhead; under some bridges the radio antennae scrape steel. On the other side he pushes a button and the pilothouse rises back up, stopping with a thunk. His view seems clear, but even with the pilothouse all the way up, he has a blind spot in front of the tow.

About a mile farther upriver Krug backs the engines to stop the tow, and the Lorna Hackworth, which is waiting with the empty, slides the barge into the remaining front slot. The deckhands from both boats quickly tie it into the other barges, tightening the cables with long-handled ratchets. When the cables are tight, you can jump on them and they won't bend. "There's an old saying that you tighten till it won't tighten no more," Krug says. "And then you give it three more turns." He thanks the other pilot for his help and shoves the engines back up to full speed.

Turnover among the deckhands is high; of the four men on the Peace, three are new. George Rone, who lives in Arkansas, has been on the boat for four years. He gets tired of commuting 500 miles every three weeks, but says there's no work around home that pays anywhere near as well. Deckhands are paid $40 to $120 a day, though most of them get around $80. But like many pilots, who make between $140 and $250 a day, they work 12-hour days and usually work only half the month. One of Ham Tug's boats is small and has no living quarters, so the men on it work 12 hours on the boat and 12 off. But the men on the Peace, which is larger and has a galley and bunks for six men, work a traditional river schedule: three weeks on, three off. Even for a company that makes only short runs, this schedule is the most efficient--at least when business is good--because it's hard to predict when a tow will arrive or when the boat will make it back to the office; a round trip to the south side takes anywhere from 20 to 30 hours. Many of the men who work on the river (river work is still very much men's work; Bailey says he once heard of a woman deckhand who later became a pilot, but the only women he's ever seen have been cooks) live far from their port office, and so they like the traditional schedule. Krug lives almost 100 miles from Lemont and Bailey nearly 300; two of the crew are from Arkansas, one from Kentucky, and one from New Mexico.

If the deckhands or pilots get sick, they almost always work on. The boat is a bad place to be sick. It's small, and the pounding of the engines is everywhere, though the owner has tried to cut the noise by adding higher exhaust stacks, lining the walls with lead, and insulating. "The noise is the thing that gets to me on this boat," says Bailey, and then smiles. "But then when you get home, you can't stand it, it's so quiet. You have to have a fan or something going just to get the vibration." Krug can remember only twice being ill enough that he had to be put ashore. One of those times both he and Bailey were so sick with the flu that they had to leave the boat to find a doctor; they spent two days in a motel room recovering.

When the tow is under way and there's no work to be done on the barges, the deckhands who are on watch mend lines or clean the boat; the galley is mopped twice a day. But the deck work is difficult and dangerous. Deckhands put their whole bodies into ratcheting those cables tight. The ropes they use to tie the barges together can catch their legs or break. Mark Green, who's on Krug's watch, once had several ribs broken when one snapped. The heavy lines that tie the barges into the walls of a lock, says Krug, can cut a man in two if they break. A slip can mean a crushed hand, and every man wears a life jacket so that if he goes over he isn't sucked under the tow. Deckhands go out when they're needed, no matter how miserable the weather. And winter, when grain is pouring out of the north as shippers try to beat the ice, is the busiest time of the year. Only thick fog or a blizzard will force a pilot to tie off in the middle of a trip. "If I can see the treetops, I can run," says Krug.

Mark Krug grew up with his sister and two brothers in Manlius, a town of 450 people in northwestern Illinois. He started working early, partly to get out of the house, partly because his family needed the money. When he was ten he began taking out the garbage for a local restaurant, and gradually added doing dishes there after school, then before and after school and at lunchtime. His father died when he was 15. At 16 he dropped out of school and went to work in a local factory, where he stayed until the managers learned he was underage. He found another job pumping gas until he was 18, then got hired at a steel mill. When he was 19 he joined the Army, hoping to be shipped to Vietnam. He wound up in Korea. When he came home he went back to the steel mill. But, he says, "I didn't like being cooped up--it bored me being inside. That's when I came out on the river. And I've been here ever since."

He started, as every river pilot must, as a deckhand, putting in five and a half years on the rivers around the Twin Cities. While he was there he met Beetle Bailey. He decked for him and was eventually trained by him to be a pilot. They have known each other for 15 years and have worked together for 12. "He's like my dad, or big brother," Krug says. "Or something."

Krug and Bailey piloted together for three years with a company that ran between Ottawa, on the Illinois River, and Lake Michigan. But the owner eventually decided he was going to "tramp"--use his towboat to run any cargo he could get--between Lemont and Saint Louis. Krug and Bailey knew they couldn't be sure of steady work and that they might have to pilot a "lunch-bucket" boat--12 hours on and 12 off--when they did work. Krug didn't want to commute every day to and from wherever the boat would be; he had worked a swing shift in the steel mill and would nearly fall asleep on the two-hour drive home. Then Ham Tug, which had started operating only three years before, offered them both jobs. Now, Krug says, the deckhands wake him up with a cup of coffee, and "you stagger 60 feet up here, and there's another pot." He and Bailey have been together on the Peace for seven years.

Krug says he and Bailey probably spend only an hour together each day. He smiles. "You can only take so much of him." He clearly enjoys teasing Bailey. "He'll lay his glasses down, and I'll pick them up by the lens. That really irritates him. Then he'll lay them down in the galley, and I'll put butter on them. That drives him wild." Bailey acknowledges Krug's jokes with a laugh. "Or he'll salt my bed. Or put crackers in it. He's a little Dennis the Menace." He clearly doesn't mind; he even admires Krug's sense of humor. "Mark, he's witty. He'll say something and it'll have to go all around the room before it goes in the other ear." Asked if they ever argue, Krug pauses and then says, "Words. Nothing that ever lasted."

When they're at home, one of them calls the other every week. Bailey sometimes drives up to Krug's place in Manlius to go pheasant hunting. Krug doesn't like to travel far, and though he's been down to see Bailey a few times, the last time was years ago.

Like Bailey and many other river men, Krug sometimes works extra hours on the boats on his days off. He also helps friends on their farms during harvest or shells corn for people who let him hunt on their land. He says that in 10 or 12 years he might get a "bank job," river men's slang for any job that's not on the river. The woman he's lived with for years wants him to help her start a commercial greenhouse, and he might go into business for himself, maybe run a bar.

Around 11 AM, just east of Argonne National Lab, Krug makes a right turn from the Sanitary Canal east into the Calumet Sag Channel. The front end of the 70-foot-wide tow seems headed straight for the corner of land between the two canals, but at the last moment it swings neatly into the Sag, easily clearing the cement wall that runs along the north bank. Krug uses reference points--a familiar tree or pole--along the river to help him calculate his turns, but says he steers by the feel of a tow more than anything else.

The ideal tow is made up of "rake" barges at the front and rear--these have one end cut on a slant--and "box" barges, which are square on both ends, in the middle. This arrangement gives a tow something like the shape of a ship, with an angled bow that slides over the water instead of plowing into it. The towboat is simply the engine and propellers on the back of the cargo hold--a motor with living quarters on it, Krug calls it.

No two tows will steer alike. The wind, the current, the tow's direction up- or downriver, and whether the front barges are rake or box barges must all be factored in. Ice on the river may shatter in an even pattern when a boat is moving straight ahead, but often it doesn't break predictably during a turn. In addition, the weight in the barges will never be distributed the same way twice. A tow that is heavy in the bow will swing slower than one whose weight is more evenly distributed, and once it's moving it's harder to stop. A full barge will draw nine feet of water, but an empty may draw only one; "Empties are just like a big sail," says Krug. He and Bailey know where the channels in the rivers are, but they also pay attention to subtle changes in the vibrations of the boat and the noise of the engines as a tow moves into or out of shallower water.

A large tow is tricky to steer. Krug says he took ten barges up the narrow channels north of Lemont only once. "Six barges is about right. Any more and there's no margin for error. You use the whole river up in those bends in south Chicago."

Miscalculations are inevitable; according to the dispatchers at Ham Tug, any river man who says he hasn't had an accident is a liar. "The towboat companies have bought and paid for a lot of bridges," says Krug. And his accidents? "A few cracks. Hit a cover on a bridge. Put a hole in one." The barges are made of one-half to three-quarter-inch steel plate, so it takes a lot to punch holes in them. They also have double hulls with bulkheads, so cracks, unless they're long, are unlikely to sink them. Towboats carry small pumps to siphon out water, as well as wooden shakes that can be hammered into the cracks as a temporary repair.

Bailey once ran into a railroad bridge near Peoria with a tow of 15 barges. "I hadn't been a pilot too long--young, cocky, thought I knew everything." He had been maneuvering around traffic in the river and hadn't realized how close he was getting to the bridge. He "threw her ears down"--slammed her into reverse. "But I was past the point of no return--I knew I was going to hit that bridge. I sounded the general alarm, and the captain came running up. He said, 'Oh, my God.' And then he left. I splattered those barges to kingdom come. But I didn't sink any of them." He laughs. "That took the sails out of me." Four years ago a near accident made him give up smoking. He was closing in on a bridge when smoke got into his eyes and blinded him. "I threw that pack of cigarettes away and never picked it up again."

Just as railroad engineers worry about cars crossing the tracks in front of them, pilots worry about pleasure boats, the numbers of which are rapidly increasing. According to the American Waterways Operators, there are now 7,000 towboats and tugs on inland and coastal waterways--and nearly 15 million recreational boats. "They just know how to put gas in the tank and beer in the cooler--and they're gone," says Krug. "You get up in the city, and they'll be thick as fleas." A 40-foot yacht can create a large enough wake to break a tow apart or snap the lines that tie a barge to its dock. A loose barge can then break off the barges tied up below it like dominoes and send them crashing downriver.

Still, both Krug and Bailey wave at every pleasure boat that passes--a distinctive slow, full-armed river man's wave. Krug tells a story, which Bailey confirms with a loud laugh, about a deckhand who fell off the back of a towboat while trying to move an oil barrel. He swam to shore and ran along the bank till he caught up with the tow. He waved frantically at Bailey, who was sitting in the pilothouse peeling an orange. Bailey gave his big wave and went back to his orange. "It wasn't until he gave Bailey the river man's wave that Bailey said, 'That's my deckhand!'"

Krug, wearing blue-denim overalls and high-topped black sneakers, is sitting in a high padded chair, which is pushed aside whenever the tow is being docked or taken apart. An air conditioner, installed in a hole cut into the side wall of the pilothouse, is blowing on him. Most of the Calumet Sag Channel is a straight stretch, and on a calm, sunny day there's little for him to do. He shifts in the chair and puts his feet up on the ledge that runs behind the engine controls. "I owe Beetle for this one," he says, with a slight smile. "Usually guys try to put the work off on the other guy. But Beetle and I, we try to give each other this boring stretch of the trip."

The Sag Channel was built between 1911 and 1922 to dispose of sewage from the south side of Chicago by reversing the flow of the Calumet River--much as the Sanitary Canal had been built to dilute to a point "beyond offense" the human waste flowing through the Chicago River. Only secondarily were these channels to be deep-water passages from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River.

The Sanitary Canal, which was begun in 1892, runs 28.5 miles from Lockport, just north of Joliet, to Damen Avenue near 31st Street. It is 22 feet deep and ranges from 160 to 290 feet wide. To create it, workers excavated more earth than those who cut the Panama Canal several years later. More than 40 million cubic yards of dirt and rock were dug, blasted, and hauled out by 8,500 workers, who used dredges, steam shovels, mule-drawn plows and scrapers, and even wheelbarrows. What they didn't have, they invented; their inventions were critical to the building of the Panama Canal. Quarried rock was cut into blocks to line the stretches of rock wall; in some places the top blocks are now crumbling, but much of the wall is still solid and the edges of the blocks still form sharp lines along the water. In December 1899 the Sanitary District's board of trustees found out that officials of the state of Missouri, who couldn't understand what right Chicago had to drain its sewage into their drinking water, were about to file an injunction to stop the opening of the canal. On January 2, 1900, the trustees quietly ordered the opening of the dam between the Chicago River and the canal. On January 16 they ordered the opening of the lower end of the canal at Lockport--the day before the injunction was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

A little more than three miles northeast of Lemont, the Sag Channel veers off from the Sanitary Canal and heads almost due east. Nearly 14 million cubic yards of rock and dirt had to be dug out before it was completed in 1922. It ran 16.2 miles to the Little Calumet River and was 20 feet deep and 116 feet wide, except where it had been blasted through rock and was only 60 feet wide. That was so narrow that tows were restricted to two barges, and in 1955 widening began. One million more cubic yards of dirt and rock were removed to create the current 225-foot-wide channel.

For miles the land along the Sag is undeveloped, and maples, aspens, elms, sumacs, and willows line the banks. Wild grape trails down the wall that runs along the north side. As the tow churns along, small white butterflies flutter around the windows of the pilothouse, and swallows dart from under every bridge and make flickering swoops across the mounds of coal in the barges. A black-crowned night heron stands in the shallows, so close that you can clearly see his red eye. Krug says he often sees deer and foxes that come down to the river to drink. One winter he and the deckhands roped and hauled onto the boat a young buck that had fallen in the water and couldn't get back out because of the ice. They tied its feet together to keep it from kicking them, dried it off, let it warm up, and then released it on the bank.

Only 15 years ago Krug saw the Chicago River catch fire. He remembers that some agency used to post regulations that included a specific prohibition against throwing lighted material into any upper Illinois waters. According to Richard Lanyon, assistant director of research and development for the Water Reclamation District, very few pollutants now run into the Sag, the Little Calumet River, or the Calumet River. Most industrial wastes were routed into the sewer system ten or more years ago, though every now and then someone illegally dumps toxics into the system that the treatment plants can't handle, and those pollutants pass into the river. Bilge water from boats was once a problem, but it can no longer be flushed into the river. Industries are still allowed to pour warm water from their cooling systems into the rivers and canals, which is one reason they almost never freeze solid in the winter. The amount of oxygen in the water is much higher than it used to be, but the water is hardly clean. The biggest source of pollution now is the sediment on the bottom of the rivers, which the barges and other boats stir up. The sediment contains large deposits of waste from years of dumping; Lanyon says that the steel mills used to dredge the bottom periodically and mine the iron from the sludge. This sediment is still so polluted that dredged material cannot be disposed of in conventional landfills; it must go to a special crib of steel pilings in Lake Calumet. Lanyon says the shallower areas of the rivers may one day wash clean, but the deeper portions, where the sediment has stabilized, may not.

The Peace pushes the tow past an old fireboat that's tied up along the bank. A dog runs back and forth on its deck. A little farther upriver the boat slips under the 104th Avenue bridge, which took off one of its antennae the previous trip. One of Ham Tug's dispatchers, Wendell Hackworth, radios Krug to ask him for his barge numbers, which are painted on their ends, and to tell him where to pick up barges for the return trip downriver. The three Ham Tug dispatchers work together five days a week and divide up the weekend and night hours. They all have radios in their homes, and when they're on duty, they periodically call the pilots just to see how things are going.

Hackworth also announces that Bailey has lost his $5 bet on the Cubs-Cardinals game, and asks Krug to tell Bailey to pay up. "That Wendell," Bailey says later. "If he can beat me out of $5, he'll have $100 worth of fun with it."

Just below the South West Highway bridge the first houses visible from the Sag appear. Then the trees temporarily fill the bank again. The bridges start crossing the channel nearly once a mile: Harlem Avenue, Ridgeland Avenue, 127th Street, Cicero Avenue, and the 294 tollway. The tow drifts under them as cars flash overhead. At 3:30 Bailey ducks through the pilothouse door. Krug shows him the list of pickups they'll make, and Bailey asks him to take his laundry out of the dryer when it's done. Krug says he won't, but six hours later when Bailey goes down to the room that the two of them share, his wash is spread on his bunk.

Lowell Thomas Bailey, who was named by his aunt after the radio broadcaster, grew up in Calhoun County, a long, narrow strip of land cut on the east by the Illinois River and on the west by the Mississippi. The family of eight was poor, and there was no electricity in the house until Bailey was 12. His father, who had been a medic in World War I, never recovered from being hit by mustard gas and died when Bailey was eight.

Enthralled by the towboats he watched as a boy and with two older brothers who were river pilots, Bailey started decking the summer after his sophomore year in high school. "The day after I got out of school I was out here. I knew what I wanted to do." When he was old enough to go into the service, he wanted to sign up to fight in Korea. But one of his brothers had just come back from there and told him he was going nowhere near a war.

Bailey says one of the first boats he worked on was a steamboat. At that time towboats were still changing from steam to diesel power, the Sag Channel was only one barge wide, and the rules for deckhands were terribly strict. They were not allowed to read on their watch, or do their laundry, or listen to the radio. They were never allowed in the pilothouse except to bring the pilots coffee, and they ate separate from the officers. Now Bailey cooks for the two deckhands on his watch, and Krug for the two on his. The deckhands do the dishes. They still take coffee up to the pilothouse, but they also stay to talk.

Bailey, who started as a pilot at $115 a month, eventually became the port captain in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he was in charge of 17 boats and 250 men. But he got tired of the pressure and went back to running the rivers. He says he has licenses as long as his arm, a separate one for each river system he's worked. The Coast Guard tests pilots every five years, requiring them to draw from memory every detail of the rivers and canals they want to be licensed to run--every bridge, every light, every clearance, every high- and low-water mark. When Bailey pulls his seventh license renewal from a manila envelope, he grins and rubs his fingernails on his chest. "You have to be a leader to be a pilot--you have to be willing to think for yourself. You can't care about what people say about you. My responsibility is to please the guy that signs my paycheck. And they know we'll take care of the boat like it's our own." Later he says, "The two greatest aspects a man has to have are pride in himself and pride in his work."

When he goes home he likes to work with his hands. All his river work is "up here," he says, pointing to his head. Off watch he and Krug read a lot; he concentrates on novels and magazines, Krug on war history. When he retires, he says, he may write a book or give lectures. "I won't have to worry about something to do, as many interests as I've got." He and his wife--who have one son, two daughters, and nine grandchildren--own an antique shop in the town of Michael near where he grew up. American antiques only. He met his wife when he was in high school, and after they were married she often rode with him on the river. He laughs. "Two of our children are boat babies, so we had to quit that."

He likes growing roses, listening to Mozart, and hunting turkeys. "There's a thousand ways to spook a turkey, and I'm up to at least 800." Yet he says he has almost decided to put away his gun; in his plastic bag under the engine controls he has a poem that was printed in an Ann Landers column about a man who shot a duck and felt so terrible about its mate that he decided never to hunt again.

Around 5 PM the Peace slides out of the Calumet Sag Channel and into the Little Calumet River, though it's difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The sun is gone and the wind is driving a light rain onto the pilothouse windows. There's a rusted car lying in the shallows near the bank and a greenish slick on the water where it roils behind the corners of the tow. Partway through the tight horseshoe bend that curves around Acme Steel east of Halsted, the Peace stops to wait for a tow that's headed downriver. It's far more difficult to control a boat that's moving with the current, particularly through a bad turn, so that boat is generally given the right of way. Bailey has a plug of Kodiak chewing tobacco--"the only bear you'll ever pinch"--in his cheek. Every once in a while he picks up an old peanut can lined with a paper towel and spits into it.

Bailey says that even during the busy season he'll meet only a few other tows on a round trip. Summers are always slow, but this year Ham Tug's business seems down more than usual. No one is quite sure why. Some shippers may have found a barge line that ships their goods cheaper than the lines that Ham Tug ferries for. Others may have moved their goods early because the winter was so mild or to cover themselves in case of another drought like the one that severely hampered river traffic last year. Some may simply have booked another form of transportation.

Barge companies struggle to keep their business away from other transporters, especially railroads. River men still swear that competition is the reason the railroad bridges are so low. It's an old rivalry. In the mid-1800s the railroads began laying track parallel to the rivers and quickly drained off the trade that had belonged to the packet boats, flat-bottomed passenger boats that carried small loads of cargo on their decks. Towboats, which appeared on the rivers in the late 1800s, could push huge amounts of freight in tows of wooden barges, and coal that was shipped from Pennsylvania to the south quickly became their major cargo. The rates they charged were well below what the railroads were asking, until the railroads set up low rates along the rivers, which they made up for with higher rates inland--something they still do. But it was hard to predict when the towboats would deliver their loads, because they could only run the northern rivers when the water was high. According to Edwin and Louise Rosskam's Towboat River, coal tows would wait for rain behind the few dams that had been built on the Monongahela River outside Pittsburgh. When the rains finally came, they would push off and ride the wash of water in a line of tows that was often 100 miles long. It wasn't until the 1920s that the federal government authorized the building of dams that allowed them to run these rivers regardless of the weather.

The weather can still hamper trade on the rivers. Boats have to be out of the upper Mississippi by late November or early December if they don't want to be trapped in ice. When the ice breaks up in the spring, it can choke the Mississippi down to Saint Louis and tear up the tows that try to push through it. During last year's drought, towboats running the big rivers could push no more than 16 barges where they usually run 50 or 60. The draft of the barges also had to be cut to eight and a half feet instead of nine, which meant that far less cargo could be carried per trip. The American Waterways Operators estimate the barge lines lost $150-200 million.

The losses were especially painful because barge operators were only just starting to come out of what had been for them a decade of depression. Their trouble had started in the late 70s with investors who discovered a loophole in the tax code that made barges a tax shelter. A glut of barges was built; Krug remembers seeing barges with the names of individual investors painted across them. Then came Jimmy Carter's grain embargo, which slashed the amount of cargo there was to carry. "I'm a Democrat for life," says Bailey. "But that grain embargo was a terrible idea." Then came the manufacturing recession of the early 80s. And then came deregulation in 1982, which undid the tariff system that for years had allowed barge operators to charge the same rates. In 1982 the going rate for freight between New Orleans and Chicago was $17 a ton; one year later it was $5 to $6 a ton.

When the price gouging stopped, most of the small companies had been driven out. Only the very large, the very efficient, and the very specialized were left. Ten years ago Ham Tug delivered barges for 15 to 20 companies; now it runs for 6 or 8. As in other deregulated industries, many barge lines cut back on maintenance and on buying new equipment. In 1982 the average barge was probably 9 or 10 years old; now it's 15 or more. In 1986 Time magazine lamented the closing of an Ohio River barge builder, "the last major shipyard on a river that once boasted one in almost every town." But the shippers were pleased with the low rates the barge lines were charging, and the volume of cargo being barged began to go back up.

Many people were forced to leave the river when the barge industry crashed. The numbers of river men were never well tracked, so there's no way to know how many of them quit. But unemployment in the barge building and repairing business hit 95 percent. With the companies that had survived pressed to cut labor costs, the unions that had represented the river men were nearly wiped out. The Marine Officers Association (MOA), which once represented the majority of licensed men on the rivers--pilots, captains, engineers, and mates--lost 1,100 members in 1983 alone. It is now a Teamster local with 480 members, barely 1 percent of those who could join. The District 1-Marine Engineers Beneficial Association/National Maritime Union still represents unlicensed workers--cooks, deckhands, and some mates. The union refuses to give out the exact number of its members, but it probably doesn't have many more than MOA. George Matz, the local branch agent for the union, estimates that perhaps 5 percent of all river men are now unionized. Elmer Stokes, the former president of MOA and now the business agent for the Teamster local, guesses the figure is closer to 2 or 3 percent. Bailey, who was a member of MOA for ten years, says the unions always had a hard time organizing the men on the rivers. "I don't know if it was because we were scattered out so much, or if it was that there were so many from the south on the river who thought it was great money." He pauses. "Now it has got to where if you're a good pilot you can make good money. But you don't have the union to protect you either." Krug, who was also a union member for years, says there's another reason unions have a hard time holding river men together. "You just can't organize river people. They're too independent."

The best measure of the tonnage that is now being barged up and down the rivers and canals around Chicago is probably the volume that passes through the Lockport Lock. Of the 15.8 million tons of cargo that were locked through in 1988, the most frequently shipped commodity was coal--4.1 million tons of it, most of which was headed up to Chicago. Second was petroleum products, half of which went downriver and half of which came up. Third was grain, almost all of which went to New Orleans. The remainder included iron, steel, industrial chemicals, cement, sand, gravel, salt, lumber, paper, detergent, asphalt, sugar, and molasses.

Paul Soykee, chief of the economics branch of the Army Corps of Engineers in Rock Island, expects the tonnage shipped through Chicago to rise by 1 to 2 percent a year, though he says that the shift toward a global market makes any prediction difficult. He doubts there will be any major increases--unless the steel industry suddenly expands.

The rates that the barge lines could charge began to rise again in 1987, and the companies have started to replace the barges in their aging fleets--at a cost of $500,000 to $600,000 each. The Ohio River barge builder mourned in Time magazine reopened last spring. But the barge lines--and the companies they contract with--are still forced to run tight operations. That's one reason Ham Tug and its competitor across the canal, Lemont Harbor and Fleeting, will push each other's barges if it will save them from sending out less than a full tow. Other companies seem obliged to cut odd corners. Bailey and Krug laugh about one towboat that has a short pilothouse; to get a good view of the river, the pilot sits on the roof in a lawn chair, relaying steering instructions to the deckhand below through a walkie-talkie.

"They're fixin' to rock us," shouts Bailey, pointing at six or seven children who keep popping up and then squatting down behind the weeds on the bank. Some of the children stand up and wave, then duck back behind the weeds, but they don't end up throwing anything. Bailey says kids often throw stones at the tow, drop rocks off bridges onto the pilothouse, and even shoot at the boat--there's a small circle of shattered glass in one of the side windows to prove it. Krug says he once watched a boy shoot an arrow at the pilothouse and then slam his fists through the air when he missed. A golfer in Blue Island also missed.

At 7 PM the tow is creeping into the Thomas J. O'Brien Lock, which is on the Little Calumet River just south of Lake Calumet. The Peace's engines are full astern to slow the barges down. Bailey has his head cocked toward the AM-FM radio, listening for the day's lottery numbers. He didn't win anything today, though he has several times before. He logs in the time the tow enters the lock, as he does every stop that's made. The two deckhands are standing in a drenching rain on the far corner of the tow, waiting to tie it into the wall of the lock. The lock keepers wait while two motorboats slip in beside the tow, and then close the broad gates behind them. Twenty minutes later and three to four feet higher, the Peace is powering the tow back into the river.

Between the lock and the lake, most of the shoreline belongs to industry. Huge factories and elevators rise one after the other: a liquid-fertilizer plant, a Ford factory, a Cargill elevator, a sulfur plant, a Continental elevator. Soon the daylight is gone, and the sky turns faintly copper from the scattered lamps that light the factory yards. Twenty years ago riverboats could run by the light that poured out of the steel plants all night. Tonight only one furnace throws light through an open doorway; the Peace is using her searchlights.

By 8 PM the bow of the tow is drifting into the dock at the LTV Steel plant on the Calumet River. The pilots still call it Republic Steel; they say the names change so often that it's less confusing to call companies by their old names. Buildings, cranes, conveyor belts, and mounds of coal hunch along the dock. There is no one around but the crew of the Peace. Bailey is on his feet, peering into the darkness with the help of two powerful lights. One of the deckhands scrambles onto the dock and wraps a heavy rope around a timberhead. Bailey moves the beam from one of the lights around, trying to help the hand see while keeping the glare out of his eyes. For a moment the man is pinned in a circle of intense light.

The Peace moves sideways, and the stern of the tow eases up to the dock. The deckhands walk cautiously along the wet rims of the barges and tie the stern off. When the tow is secure, Bailey winds out the cables that hold the Peace to the tow. The deckhands lift the slack cables from around the kevels on the barges, and the boat slips free.

Two empty barges are moored under the crane that LTV uses to unload coal. Bailey slides the Peace up to them, and he and the deckhands move them out of the way, farther down the long dock. Then they break up their tow and individually dock each of the five coal barges they have brought upriver. At 9:20, pushing only the empty they brought from Lemont, they swing back out into the open river.

"Nobody'll have to tell me when to retire, because I'll know it," Bailey says. "Your depth perception is one of the first things to go." He says he wants to stay on the river for several more years, but when the weather gets bad he sometimes wonders why. "It gets to your nerves out here--we go as hard as we can for three weeks. When you get a real wind, there are eddies around the elevators--" He stops and shakes his head. "Or coming through the Loop--when you get strong winds up there, it can terrorize you. You start worrying about whether you'll lose your nerve when the wind's moving at 90 miles an hour and you're dodging boats. Or after a rain, when the river's running like a wild creek and it gets so swift you wonder whether you can stop. I don't care how long you've been out here, I don't know a pilot who doesn't get scared."

It is dark inside the pilothouse, except for the light from the instruments. The Peace churns north past a massive ship that's headed downriver toward Lake Calumet. Bailey radios to the 106th Street bridge tender that he's coming. The cars stop, and the bridge quickly rises. He radios again as he approaches the 100th Street bridge. As he closes in on it, the bridge tender radios to ask if Bailey wants the bridge opened. Bailey politely replies that he has just radioed that he did. The bridge tender angrily tells him that he didn't hear a whistle. Bailey sighs. "They all want something different," he says.

By 9:45 the deckhands have tied the empty to the dock at Calumet Marine Towing, which ferries barges across Lake Michigan. High overhead the Skyway arcs across the river, just a mile from the lake. Bailey turns the Peace around and heads her downriver. As he approaches the 100th Street bridge he gives three long, piercing blasts of the horn. The bridge swings open without a word from the tender. When Bailey reaches the 106th Street bridge, he shines a searchlight on the electric eye that turns the bridge lights on and off with the sun. He chuckles as the lights wink out.

Back at LTV, Bailey picks up an empty that must be taken to Lemont. He is headed west on the Calumet River toward Lake Calumet when Krug comes to relieve him at 10:15 PM. He asks Krug how he's going to make up the tow of the three barges that will go downriver, and nods as Krug explains. Earlier Bailey had said, "I've brainwashed him till he thinks like me--and I never dispute him on a tow anymore. I used to eat Mark out until he couldn't see. He'd get so mad at me. But it really made him a good pilot. One of the best." He paused for a moment. "Better than me." Later he repeats his appraisal in almost the same words, and then laughs. "Well, at least as good."

Asked if he's a better pilot, Krug pauses. "Oh, I don't know. He's got three times the experience I do." He pauses again. "He's more cautious. I'll do things he won't."

Krug steers the empty barge into Lake Calumet and settles it next to a covered barge of grain at the Gateway elevator, a cliff of huge silos that rises just beyond the dock. Wheat is scattered along the rim and over the sloping steel covers of the barge. A rat runs along the edge of the dock. "We call them mice," says Krug. "Wait'll you see the ones the size of dogs. We call them rats."

The two barges are lashed together, then Krug shoves them down the lake to where he'll make the last pickup, a tank barge filled with more than a million gallons of antifreeze. This enclosed barge is 52 1/2 feet wide, nearly 17 feet wider than either of the other two barges. When put one behind the other, the grain barge and the tank barge must be flush along one side for the tow to run safely downriver. When Krug guides the grain barge into the antifreeze barge, they're only out of line by six inches. He backs the grain barge up and slowly brings it flush. Because the barges are different widths, one of the deckhands is having trouble fastening the cables that will hold the two together. Krug, irritated, goes out to help him.

Far across the yard a man steps out of a guardhouse to look at the Peace, then ducks back inside. The deckhands set the Peace loose, and Krug drives her around to the far end of the antifreeze barge. Because it weighs at least 700 tons more than the grain barge, the antifreeze barge will make up the back of the tow. By 11:50 PM the new tow is headed downriver. Twenty-five minutes later the gates of the O'Brien Lock are closing behind it.

As the tow moves away from the faint light around Lake Calumet, the night separates into only two shades of gray: the dark gray of the sky and the river, and the barely darker gray of the trees between them. The rain pours off the side of the roof every time the boat tips slightly, and steam curls up off the hot exhaust stacks. The wiper slaps back and forth across the front window.

At 2:30 AM the tow is back in the Sag Channel, slipping toward the Martin Oil dock. The two forward barges will be tied here temporarily while the antifreeze barge is delivered just downriver to Union Carbide's Alsip dock, which isn't big enough for all three.

The river is running fast and shallow. Whenever it rains the sluice gates at the Lockport lock are opened to drain water down from Chicago's rivers and canals, so that they can quickly carry away the extra water and prevent the city from flooding. The water normally flows through the sluices at 3,300 cubic feet per second; now it's running at 10,000. "Being in the canal is like being in the neck of a funnel," says Krug.

The deckhands are standing on the corner of the grain barge as it closes in on the dock. "How far down you want to go, Mark?" one of them says anxiously over his walkie-talkie.

"Kill her out right shortly," says Krug, and a moment later he throws the engines into reverse. The deckhands lash the front end of the grain barge to the dock, and walk back and tie down its stern. Then they uncouple the two forward barges from the antifreeze barge.

As the Peace slips past the tied barges, the deckhand calls up that he thinks he heard a line snap. "Well, we ain't going to worry about it now," Krug says curtly. But as the Peace churns downriver, he looks back to see the dark mass of the two barges slowly drifting into the middle of the river. He says nothing.

Just below the next bridge, Krug slams the Peace into reverse and the antifreeze barge slides up to the dock. The dock is well above the barge, and the deckhands struggle to heave a wet rope from the bow to a timberhead on the dock. When the bow is fast, they unyoke the Peace and Krug wheels her round to drive the stern end in. The deckhands walk back to the stern and stand on the corner as it arcs into the dock. "Three feet to be abreast," one of them calls out over his walkie-talkie. "Two. One. Abreast of it." When they finish there are four taut ropes and two cables between the barge and the dock.

The Peace plows back into the middle of the river, where Krug can see that luck has run the two loose barges aground on the south bank. He guides the Peace behind them, the deckhands make the cables fast, and the tow slides back into the main current.

At 4:50 AM Bailey pops through the door. He stands talking to Krug for a moment, then sits down on the bench that runs along the back wall of the pilothouse. Then he bounces up. "Out, out," he yells good-naturedly.

It has stopped raining, but a haze hangs above the river, veiling the banks and the water ahead. Green and red bridge lights emerge from the mist long before the girders on which they are mounted become visible. The front window is propped open slightly, and the slosh of the river against the boat can be heard faintly above the engines.

The pilot of the John Alexa, which is shoving six barges upriver, radios Bailey, and they agree to pass starboard to starboard below the next bridge. Bailey slows the engines as they pass. As barges push the water in front of them, it seems as if they are sucking water from the bottom of the river and away from the bank or a passing tow. If tows pass too quickly, they may break each other's rigging apart or, when the water's low, drive a barge aground. Bailey waves at the other pilot and says, "Mark and I did many a watch on that boat."

Bailey pushes the engines full ahead again. "We've got the reputation in Chicago that nobody can run with us--nobody can make the time we do. We can make a trip and a half while the average guy's making one trip."

Later, when asked if he agrees that they're two of the fastest pilots in the Chicago area, Krug stands quietly for a long time, his eyes half-lidded. "We get the work done," he finally says.

The sky is slowly getting light. The clouds are high and the wind is down. A great blue heron flaps down past the Peace and settles on the river. The tow nears, and the bird rises awkwardly and flies farther downriver. The tow approaches again, and the bird lifts and turns upriver, its wings beating in long strokes as it passes the pilothouse.

At 6 AM Bailey turns the Peace southwest into the Sanitary Canal. On the south side of the canal, boilers are heating the asphalt in a tank barge so that workers can pump it out. On the north side, the night's rain has puddled in the fields and is waterfalling here and there over the rock wall.

By 7 AM, nearly 21 hours after leaving Lemont, Bailey has guided the last of the three barges into a slip, and the deckhands have tied it fast. When the Peace is moored next to the office, he goes down to the galley and puts a ham in the oven for the crew. By 2 PM Krug and the second-watch deckhands have finished stringing together six more barges and are pushing back upriver to the south side of Chicago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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