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Great Jobs: Chapter 8-Breaking Ice on the Mississippi

By Leocthasme

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 is open”.

“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”.

“OH, OH”.

“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 Orleans”.

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 4F card.

Be sure to read July's other episode "So Who Needs A 4-F ID?" in this issue
And for the next episode in this series, check the August publication.
Click on author's byline for bio.


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Reader Comments

Name: John I. Blair Email:
Comment: Leo, I loved this story. It gave me some information about WWII experiences that I've never read before. My mother's family being from Missouri (and originally from St. Louis County) adds interest for me. Never knew about the ice breakers on the Mississippi and Illinois, or about the boat hulls being built upriver for finishing at New Orleans during WWII. Thanks!



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