Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

A river is not defined by its banks. If it were, a simple line drawing would suffice to delineate it. People who work on it and live along its banks tell us what the Monongahela River is: it is about the people as much as the geography.

This was a valley of steel and is still a valley of coal. The river defines the char­acter of the valley and affects people in ways they always aren’t aware.

The Monongahela River Valley was old when the Grand Canyon was the bot­tom of an ancient sea. It was tectonics­ – that stupendous crashing together of landmasses – that sent the Appalachians thrusting upward through Silurian seas to become Devonian mountain ranges. These massive upheavals created lakes, streams, and ponds where life began its move landward.

History speaks to you out there – a his­tory recorded in the water worn hills – a history predating civilization. Ice ages crept across the land, pushing and contort­ing the hills, sculpting the land, wearing down the mountains, cutting the valleys that were deepened further by the slow, receding glacial melt. In the hard places the stream diverted, curling and twisting. It ran deep in the soft places and widened.

The Monongahela River begins where the Tygart and West Fork Rivers meet, just above Fairmont, West Virginia. It flows north for nearly one hundred and thirty miles to Pittsburgh, where it joins the Allegheny River to become the Ohio River. The Monongahela is an ancient river, where a whole woodland culture thrived on its sliding banks and vanished sometime after 1600, leaving in its wake only a name and a mystery as to why it left and where it had gone (see “The Mystery of the Monongahela Culture: Archaeology at Foley Farm” by James T. Herbstritt, Summer 1984).

Trade on the Mon River has been a way of life since the eighteenth century. Methods of operation and equipment have changed over time, but the lifestyles of the men and women who work the river remain much the same. In the 1750s, the Ohio Company built a storehouse and small stockade where Redstone Creek empties into the Monon­gahela, just north of Brownsville, Fayette County, opening British expansion into the Northwest Territories. In response, the French allied with mostly Iroquois Indians, resulting in the outbreak of the French and Indian War. Following Great Britain’s victory, a boat building industry developed in Brownsville. Other towns huddled along the banks soon joined this boat building boom.

Early flatboatmen and keelboatmen were at the mercy of nature, with com­merce prospering during the spring thaw and rains, and literally drying up as water levels dropped during the late summer. Meriwether Lewis passed down this river on his way to meet William Clark and fame (see “Firm Foundations in Philadelphia: The Lewis and Clark Expedition’s Ties to Pennsylvania” by Frank Muhly, Summer 2001).

In 1808, entrepreneurs organized the Monongahela Navigation Company to dredge the river and build a series of locks and dams that would keep the river open throughout the entire year. Investors eventually ran out of money and the endeavor collapsed. The company was reorganized in 1840, and this time, with better financing, it succeeded. By 1844, navigation had been pushed south to Brownsville, which, because the river and the National Road (now U.S. Route 40) met there, became a departure point for adventurers and settlers heading west.

Steam power opened the Mononga­hela River to markets from New Orleans to Pittsburgh. Sidewheel packet boats shuttled up the river taking on cargo of produce, whiskey, coal, and sand, splash­ing south, returning back up the Missis­sippi and Ohio Rivers with tools, cloth, and products manufactured in the South. As demand increased, the little packets gave way by 1910 to sternwheel boats that pushed groups of wooden barges called tows. The tows were held together by wire rope tightened by ratchets. The use of heavy hemp line to maneuver the barges into tow became an art practiced by mates and deckhands. In the 1880s, Pittsburgh’s heavy industry began mov­ing up the Mon. There were new mines and steel mills and, because of the abun­dant natural gas, coal, and sand, glass factories were blooming like tulips in spring along the riverbanks.

In 1897, the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers took control of all locks and dams on the Central Western River System, including those on the Monongahela River. At one time the river had fifteen locks and dams, but over the years the corps reduced the number of dam sites to nine. Crews of more than twenty, includ­ing a captain or master, a mate, a pilot, deckhands, boiler tenders, engineers, boilerdeckmen, coal passers, cooks, and chambermaids, manned some of the sternwheelers.

A towboat captain I knew began work­ing on steamboats in 1929 as a coal passer. Ten years later he was a licensed mate and eventually obtained a master’s license. He explained to me the differences in the han­dling of a sternwheel steamboat and a screw wheel diesel. “You had to be one step ahead steering a sternwheeler,” he said. “They were slow coming around. Control of the paddle was down in the boiler room. You’d call down to them and hope things got done. Most of the time they did, but not always.”

Following World War II, more respon­sive, efficient diesel powered screw wheel boats were replacing sternwheel craft. “The boats got smaller and easier to han­dle,” the captain said. “Now you had the water being pushed right across the rud­ders. They steered quicker. You could do things with screw wheel boats, to maneu­ver, that you couldn’t with paddle wheels. Navigation and engine control was up in the pilot house.”

Propulsion wasn’t the only thing that changed in river boating. A few towing companies on the Mon still employ cooks, but chambermaids, engineers, and mates have virtually disappeared, leaving the work to pilots and deckhands.

Slowly, gropingly, at times painfully, I became one of them. I became a deck­hand.

I came to know the river, a pool at a time, from Emsworth Locks and Dam on the Ohio, the first pool on the Mon, where it runs wide and deep and slow, to the last pool up, the Opekiska Lock and Dam near Fairmont, West Virginia, where it narrows considerably and flows swiftly, even as the river bends and loops. I learned the names of government naviga­tion aids, the lights, and landmarks with names that told their own stories.

Along the water’s edge there are towns so small you think they can’t be big enough to have a name – towns that don’t make most maps, peopled by those who stand on the banks and watch in the sum­mer as the towboats glide by. Riverbank residents peer from the warmth of their homes in winter at the boats and tows that are no more than shadows in the blowing snow. Some of those towns are only a few houses, many of them vacant, with a bar, a store, and maybe a church. Patches they call them, company towns and company houses where the companies, in some cases, have ceased to exist, or moved on in search of greater profit.

The people sometimes linger. Most don’t require much. Many tell stories of grandfathers and great-grandfathers who worked the mills and mines that once dotted the banks of the river. Even though most of the mills and mines are gone, some families remain. Some of the old men and women remember a better time when the patch was a whole world, and the work, no matter how grueling, was salvation. Their towns remind you that there is another existence, another way of life, far away from them, some­times better, sometimes worse – a world mostly indifferent to the comings and goings of towboats.

Captains are the lords and masters of all they survey. They are rarely wrong. And if they are wrong, there is always someone else to blame. That’s the way it has been. That’s the way it is. If you watch them close enough and listen hard enough to what they say, you find that fear chases them as fast and hard as it pursues any man.

For them, working towboats is a job, but it’s more than that; it’s a way of life. Two weeks on. One week off. Circles and cycles. Two weeks of making tow, picking up and dropping off barges. Two weeks of coal and stone and cement and oil and dust, grumbling engines, howling diesel generators, and choking stack gas.

Work means walking steel decks that sizzle in summer and are so cold in win­ter that the damp soles of shoes instantly freeze to them. It means working six hours on and six hours off, twice a day, in sun and rain and sleet and snow and wind until someone gets sick or quits. Then it becomes twelve and twenty-four hour watches until a replacement, if one is available (and who could catch up with you) is found. It’s a sobering, monastic life where you are constantly bombarded by the rumbling roar of engines fighting current, the bump and roll of tows being lashed together by rope and wire, all the while being told to do it faster because there are other barges just down the river that need to be brought into tow before midnight.

There were hitches, cycles of days on, when you rode the tow for days, the other watch getting the landings, making all the locks, and you helped the time pass with menial tasks: checking and pumping barges, mopping floors and scrubbing toilets, cleaning lanterns and oiling ratchets, greasing pumps and putting eyes in lines, or shoveling coal or stone from barge gunwales. Then you had those hitches where you seemed to get all the locks and landings, the next six-hour shift dreaded before this one was up. Somehow it all worked out, though it never seemed it would at the time. Underway you would go down in the dark, narrow barge gunwales looking for holes in the side or bottom of the barge armed with a flashlight, a few bits of wood and some oakum – armed with what you hoped would hold out a river that wanted to get in through that hole no bigger than a dime and you watched the steel plate at the barge side flake and break away under the force you exerted pushing the soft oakum in the hole with your finger, bracing it all with a length of wood that seemed so inadequate. You had visions of the whole side of the barge crumbling away and being trapped in the dank, watery, lonely darkness.

Monotony was broken only by the sweat of hard work tripping tow-break­ing the tow into small manageable clusters in high water, staying clear of the whirl and suck of apron dams and the deadly draw of undertow near the lift gate dams and the anxiety waiting in raging water and wild currents for a reprieve, for the relentless rush of the river to slow. Off watches were spent seeing the towns slip by, remembering, wondering, reading everything and anything, from Ambush at Torture Creek to Zen in the Art of Archery, as well as tattered, three-year-old copies of Playboy that seemed to always be around. It was steak on Saturday and making tow at five o’clock on a cool spring morning with the aroma of frying eggs and bacon drifting across the barges – coffee, hot and steaming, warm in the hand, while riding a long pool through winter drizzle, or maybe a chunk of cheese and beer you weren’t supposed to have on steamy, sul­try summer nights. And uneasily watch­ing the autumn hills turning to a mound of blazing color.

You grew uneasy because winter, with its ice slick gunwales, was nearing and the thought of using ten-pound sledge ham­mers and fire axes with four-foot switch handles to crack ice from the head of the tow to put on and take off lines was unnerving. The bitter cold North wind off the river caused the body to quake and shiver until muscles ached. There were long December nights working in the glare of floods and spotlights, the harsh, cold light tempting you to step into a shadow that might be a missing hatch cover or an empty space between two barges that hadn’t come together, or your feet tangling in a web of lines some­one had forgotten to stow. Winter meant numb feet and freezing hands and a beard white with frost and racing the river to be home in time for a holiday with family and not always making it. And in that fierce wind you recall memories, sometimes long hidden, of cotton candy summers, all the while huddled on snow dusted barges with a wind cutting through a heavy, wet canvas coat.

Waves rise from the river, pushed by a biting Norther. Icy claws grip the tow and heavy barges grow heavier with ice, being drawn down into that seemingly bottom­less river, the freezing wind finally mak­ing further navigation impossible. Tying into an old lock wall or landing, unable to move until the wind dies down, we watch the white flare of sun stalk across the gray skies, we see patches of snow dot the bank and high, yellow brown, wind stroked grass. We waited.

It was a thankless, unrewarding job where the shotgun blast of breaking plastic lines, snapping bones, and the pop­ping crack of broken wires cutting into flesh; the crunch of feet and legs and hands as they are caught in tightening lines and falling in the darkness on ratch­ets and wires; and the sharp feel of a steel deck after a ten foot fall into an empty coal barge. Old men were carried off tows who had too long walked with sprained muscles, slipped discs, and stooped shoulders, with hearing dimmed by grinding, angry engines, and vision dulled by squinting into the unrelenting sun and glaring lights. Their skin, timber­head tough, took on the texture and color of old leather. It was tows being torn apart as they slammed into lock walls and bridge piers. All of this and the pick­ing of the drowned, beaten bodies from the chilly, murky green water made you wary and weary of this river life.

It was the nervous excitement of high water, the baptism of fire the first time at Lock Seven, now replaced by Grays Land­ing Lock and Dam, with the boat and tow in a flank against the upper guide wall, a sense of dread as the engines scream and the tow fights the out pushing of the current as it begins its swing toward the land wall so it can be driven into the lock chamber – and you standing by the head end deckhand at the break coupling with spare lines and an axe in case the line is fouled or snaps. Too much swing and the tow breaks up on the land wall; too little and it breaks up on the bull­nose of the outside lock wall. The river scatters your tow, and barges float off to bump bridges and tear out landings. You always gauge if you are close enough to the land wall during the flank to lump to it if the tow breaks up.

In flood, the rust colored water rages between the banks. The banks struggle to contain the savage water and they are defeated in a deluge of drift. The locks and, ultimately, the river shuts down, and you struggle to keep the landings from washing out. Breakaway barges and debris of every imaginable size and sort are the only things that move on the water.

But the rain ends and the water slowly recedes – the banks contain the river again. Fields and towns and mines and mills dry out. Sunken barges are raised from the muddy river bottom and land­ings are lashed back together. Clocks for­ever tick and time is forever gone. It was waving to a deckhand on a passing boat in the summer twilight and seeing a cer­tain sadness cross his face, knowing he saw it in you even before the smile faded. Rivermen wave a greeting with both hands raised. It was seven days off where clocks meant very little, though they moved too quickly. Even unseen, the moving hands would haunt you like old memories.

Coffee in bed with your wile, the smile of children, the feel of them sitting with you, and the look in their eyes as they stare up at you put a loss in your chest knowing you will soon be leaving for another two weeks. But it goes so very fast and the work is always out there waiting with two more weeks serving the iron vir­gin-two more weeks spent looking for­ward to that time off again when you go home and try to forget something you know you never can.


For Further Reading

Baldwin, Leland. Keelboat Age on the West­ern Rivers. Pittsburgh: University of Pitts­burgh Press, 1941.

Bissell, Richard. The Monongahela. New York: Rinehart and Company, Inc., 1952.

Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers. Cambridge: Harvard Uni­versity Press, 1949.

Kidney, Walter. The Three Rivers. Pitts­burgh: Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, 1982.

Lorant, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of An American City. Garden City, N.Y.: Double­day and Company, 1964.

Palmer, Tim. Rivers of Pennsylvania. Uni­versity Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Parker, Arthur. The Monongahela: River of Dreams, River of Sweat. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Van Voorhis, John. S. The Old and New Monongahela. Pittsburgh: Nicholson Printer, 1893.

Way, Frederick Jr. Towboats Old and New. Sewickley, Pa.: Steamboat Photo Company, 1946.

Wiley, Richard T. Monongahela – The River and Its Region. Butler, Pa.: Ziegler Company, 1937.


Dave Biles, of Allenport, Washington County, was born in Mineral Wells, Texas, in 1943 and raised in Pennsylvania’s Monongahela Valley. He completed his first professional photogra­phy assignment at the age of twelve. He served as a photographer’s mate in the U.S. Navy from 1964 until discharged in 1970. He con­tinued his documentary photography while working as a truck driver, cigar salesman, deckhand, tanker man, bartender, oil terminal manager, census taker, and video editor. Employed under the Carl Perkins Program at the Mon Valley Career and Technology Center, Charleroi, he is also at work on an illustrated publication entitled Denbo Mud: The Visual Poetry of the Monongahela Valley.