Who doesn’t feel the romantic pull of a train headed for someplace new? But for many years this sight caused shivers to run down my spine. See, for towboat pilots who are pushing a heavy raft of barges downstream, the vision of a closed RR bridge is the source of nightmares.
One afternoon on the Mississippi at South St. Paul I was trying to guide four loaded grain barges around the tight bend at the foot of the airport. The river was running and the “Lois E” I was piloting was struggling to control the tow with her small horsepower-to-tonnage ratio.
To make matters trickier there’s the infamous Pig’s Eye Rail Road Bridge smack dab in the crook of the turn. In those days of the 1980’s, the bridge operators were often coerced by the RR to override navigational priorities and shut the bridge for a train.
Headed upstream against the current: no problem, shove into the bank below and put your feet up for a half-hour break. Trying to stop in the swirling eddies above the bridge? Better have enough horsepower to stop against the current.
Lois E did not have enough h.p. for that so as the train crawled ever so slowly across the bridge our tow slipped glacially but inexorably towards the bridge and certain disaster. Finally the train was across, but, still, it took precious minutes for it to clear the signals and the nearly 400-foot long steel girder span to swing open.
By the time I could quit backing and come ahead on the engines the boat and tow were so out of shape that I knew immediately we were going to crash. Nothing to do about it but put the propellers to backing up again. In answer to the train’s lonesome whistle, I blew the boat’s horns five times rapidly, which to a towboat is the danger signal.
Once again Lois E strained in full reverse to try and minimize the damage. Somehow she was able to get back into good enough shape to miss the bridge. Once we were safely tied off in an off-channel slip I allowed myself a 15-minute break to reattach a few frayed nerves.
I was lucky that day. I know about four pilots whose luck back in those days was not so good.