Volume V, No. 2, Winter 1977


WITH ROBERT ZANG, As told to Teresa Maddux

Even after the steamboats disappeared from the Mississippi River, river traffic continued with large diesel powered boats pushing barges. The call of the river continued, too. Robert Zang, born in St. Louis, first began working on the steamer Big Ferris in 1919 when he signed on as a deckhand. He worked his way up to a licensed pilot in 1929. His experiences includes all kinds of river boats on the Mississippi--from being on the maiden voyage of the Herbert HOover, the first and largest diesel boat, to piloting the Delta Queen, a steamboat used today as an excursion boat making runs from Cinncinati to New Orleans. His first job with boats came when he was just a teenager, carrying gas to motor boats on the river front in St. Louis.

We had these go-carts with wicker baskets and big spoke wheels with about a three-quarter inch axle. I got a 2 x 4 to make a tongue. If you got on the good side of your grocer, he'd give you a wooden box and you'd make your bed out of that. I got me two five-gallon cans. In those days there wasn't a filling station within half a mile of one another in St. Louis. I'd fill those two five-gallon cans and I'd go from 2900 to 4600 south on Broadway. You'd have to tie one wheel to go down the hill and then you'd have to carry them across the tracks. I worked all summer supplying those big motor boats that had a four foot tank on the front and held thirty gallons of fuel. I got twenty-five cents a week for that, which was a lot of money in them days.

The first boat that I worked on was called the Big Ferris. She's about the second biggest boat there was on the river. She was the largest stern wheel boat that was ever built in the world, and it was expensive to operate. She hauled coal to places like Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans. The fuel cost was so enormous that a lot of people couldn't afford it. Eventually when the coal there started petering out, the Standard Oil Company bought the boat because they had their own fuel. They converted it to diesel and later sold it to the city of Vicksburg for one dollar. They took out the boilers and made a theater out of the boat. Girls from the colleges come up and put on plays down there to help make money to maintain the boat.

The first job I had on a boat was as a deck hand. The deck hands handled the lines that make the barges form a tow. They carried the ratchets and chains out. In those days we had to carry a fuel flat, hook up the steam lines, heat the oil, and then pump it back to the boat. But now that they use diesel oil, they don't have to do all that work. Them old time boats like the Big Ferris burned coal. So you can imagine how big they were. That was the first job I had.

In the 1920's I was a mate on the boats, and we'd get to St. Louis and unload the passengers and freight on a Saturday and wouldn't leave until Monday morning. We'd pay the whole crew off--all the deck hands, what you call roustabouts. The pilot and the engineer stayed on as well as two watchmen for some of those people around the docks would steal anything that you had on that boat. In them days we carried a lot of tobacco, shoes, anything you wanted. And coming back up the river, we'd stop and load apples or fill that whole deck up with cattle and bring it to St. Louis. When we got ready to go out, we had to hire new deck hands to load the boat. We always had these head negroes who knew the men wanting jobs. The men'd be lined up maybe forty or fifty of them out there and we'd pick out which ones we wanted--fifteen or twenty of them to load the freight. We'd walk along and if there was one the head negro wanted, he' d scratch the back of his head--that was good, see. And if he pulled his ear, why that'd mean he was passable but not too good.


We burned coal so we'd have to have a barge of coal alongside. We gave these hands a nickel a box to put coal on the boat. They had a carrier--it wasn't a wheelbarrow. It had two handles in front and two in the back. Each carrier held two and a half bushel of coal. So the men'd fill them up and walk up on board and throw the load into the hopper. I hauled coal a couple of times. The back man'd generally be the husky one since he had to tip the weight. He'd say, "Go!" Now if you'd stand there, you'd end up in the damn coal bin between the shafts. When he said,

"Go!" you had to know how to handle your end to dump the box and bring it back up. There'd be about eight men putting the coal on board, singing all the time. "I got to make that four ..... make that eight." "I can't hear you." "Make that six." See, they'd try to get an extra box in--and get two and a half cents apiece. They were paid a nickel a barrel to roll the apple barrels up the levee and stack them up.

After we'd leave St. Louis there was no place for them to sleep. The boilers were on the deck where they'd sleep. The cook shack was down below. All their food and everything was put on a dumb waiter. They had tin plates and all they'd probably get was fat back and beans or pig tails and stuff like that. It was pitiful. They were paid by the day on the boat. But the passengers were fed upstairs and had good food.

There were no set watches on the boats at all outside the deck hands. And every place there was a lock we'd have to land the boat and get our own man up there to open the gates. And boy, when mud got in them it would be a job, for we'd have to open them three or four times and have to close the gate and then open the other gates. Then the deck hands'd have to make all the landings. There was no specific time for them poor guys to sleep. So it was like slavery. I could say that. But there was nothing to do about it because it was the company that operated that way.

The deck hands didn't have to worry about entertainment in those boats. They never stopped working from the time they got up in the mornings. They had to sweep the decks and clean. The old time boats had coal stoves, and we'd generally have an extra man called the sailor man. Now he had to Clean all the wooden braces on these boats and sweep the decks. Since he'd also had some river experience he'd know how to splice cables and lines. But he also had to go down where he had a coal box by the cook shack and get about ten buckets of coal up a day. The men'd throw matches all over and with the guys missing the spittoon and stuff, he'd have to sweep the floors and mop them. He'd have to take the water barrel down, wash it out every day and put fresh water in it. We had our own ice machine that made about fifty pound ice blocks, and he'd fill the barrel full of ice and bring that back to the pilot house. That was his job there.

You worked your way up. You had to start as a deck hand, then become a second mate and then first mate. The mate was in charge of the crew. He'd have maybe eight deck hands who would stand six hours on and six off duty. The second mate's job was to go out and see that all the ratchets and cables were tight. During the night he had to put the lights on the boat and then check them every hour to see that they had lights out there. After they'd serve dinner at night, it was up to the mate to see that the deck hands had the whole galley clean so when the cook come on duty next morning, he could just start right out. When the boat landed, the mate had to go out in the woods and know how to put a line around a tree and tie up the boat and untie it. I got $25 a week when I was a mate on a stern wheel tow boat. But on a passenger boat, when I was a steersman, I didn't do anything but carry the pilot's coffee and carry the search light and I got $89.25. See the difference?

For 58 years Robert Zang has been part of the changes in shipping on the Mississippi.


The steersman was what was called the cub pilot. You'd be assigned to a pilot on his watch and you were supposed to take care of him and get his coffee and take care of the stove and put carbons in the searchlight. And when the boat would get into a straightaway, the pilot sometimes had to go down below, so you could steer until he got back. Course he didn't trust you, naturally, for you were learning, see.

To become a pilot you'd have to work so long as a deck hand to be eligible to get a mate's license. Then you bad to work so long as a mate to be able to work toward a pilot's license. But first you'd have to get a job as steer man. You'd probably put in three years as a steersman. Then you'd get a second class pilot's license. Then you'd put in another year to get a first class pilot's license. Then after all that you'd be eligible to get a master's license.

To get a license you take a test which allows you to pilot in certain areas. You got to draw a map of every river you get a license for. You must put in every light, its name and any obstruction, or whatever the case might be. Every five years you have to get those licenses renewed. Now, I can work on any kind of boat except a passenger or an excursion boat. Since Roosevelt's aministration, the government has taken over the license service, the steamboat service and the light house service. The whole thing is now in the lap of the Coast Guard. On the license test now they ask you so many questions that don't apply to rivers. They give you maybe ten pages, twenty questions on a page. And fifty per cent of it is seagoing ships which shouldn't be in the river tests at all. You have to know white stripe, red stripe, black, what's on a wreck, what's on the rivers, what if you meet a sailboat--who in the hell needs sailboats on a river! They've added this thing up so that seventy percent of it is just seagoing stuff.

The captain was in charge of the boat and all the equipment and he assumes the responsibility for that. The captain and the two mates are officers. The pilot is not classed as an officer but as a navigator responsible for the course the boat takes. If he would get his signals mixed up or hit a boat and somebody drowned or something, he'd have to report what happened and where it was. They'd then have a court to ask him questions like whether he blew the whistle and what he did.

There are many rules and regulations concerning river navigation. The ultimate responsibility for the boat belongs to the captain, but the pilot actually does the navigation and must follow the rules. However, there are so many regulations--some pertain to steam and not diesel boats, some to passenger and not freight--that it is not unusual to use common sense. An example of this is the regulation regarding whistles.

Steam passenger boats have to blow a whistle to pass. But you never know by looking at a boat if it has passengers. You blow one whistle to go to the starboard which is your right and two to go to the port which is to the left. The law says a licensed pilot must blow the whistle, but the diesel boats don't require a licensed pilot.

Naturally the boats coming down the river should have the right of way, because it takes them twice as long to stop as the fellow coming up. If a boat is in the bend going down, he generally blows the whistle. But now with these big boats coming down trying to steer the bends, my gosh, just imagine. There's five barges two hundred feet long and five barges wide--twenty-five barges with about thirty thousand tons of coal or whatever they're hauling. These barges will slide in the current just as fast as they will steer. They're taking up a thousand feet, so if you know your river, you'll get out on the buoy line or next to the bar so they've got all the river to slide in.


Sounding the river was a non-stop chore because of the varying river depths. The men would sing out the depths to the pilot.

With a passenger boat you're more cautious than you are with freight because with freight all the damage you can do is hit the barges, but to hit a big passenger boat like that with people standing all over ....

Now these diesel boats started in with two barges and had what you call a string line tow. It's something to see. These barges are 290 feet long, and they have two of them in the raker. They are about seventy feet wide and they'll have them hooked together in a unit. Well, they found out they could shove two of them, so they built a big vice and stuck that in the middle. Now they've got two units hooked together. Those boats, when they get started through the water will average seven miles of water in any kind of current up the Mississippi River. But it'll take them half a mile to even reverse the engine to stop them.Of course, now they have the radio on twenty-four hours a day and most of the time, the boats coming down the river to a bad sharp bend or something, will call to see if there's any boats in the vicinity. If you're there, you'll answer him, tell him about where you're going to be and ask, "Well, can I get past the bend so I'll be in the straightaway when you come down?" Both agree. Half of the time they never blow a whistle then to pass.

Besides the big whistle to communicate with other boats on the river, the boats had a smaller whistle, called the nigger whistle, which was used to give many orders to the crew. One blow on the whistle while the boat was underway would mean for the deck hands to go to the lead barge to measure the depth of the water.

They had a lead line to throw in the water which started at nine feet. Twelve feet would be mark twain, fifteen feet would be half twain and then you'd get to mark three. The line had a red mark. The next mark was leather with one thong, the next with two thongs, the next with three so the deck hands could read the marks at night. These fellows would go out and maybe the barge would be out of the water three feet, so they'd take this line which had about an eight pound weight on it, and the man would throw it way ahead of him because the boat was going ahead. It'd come down just a touch. Then if he was three feet from the top of the deck, then he'd pull that in one, two, three, see, to take up that, and he'd read whatever that mark was and he'd pass the depth up to the pilot on the megaphone that was tied out on the lead barge so that the pilot would know how much water he had. If they run aground with them seventy foot rigs, my gosh, it's a job to get them off. Sometimes it would take two or three days to get two barges off a bar.

Manuvering around the bends and avoiding sandbars in the daytime is difficult enough, but nighttime is even more difficult. To help in navigation there are light houses and lights marking the way. Today the Coast Guard tends to the lights, but before that time and before there were electric lights, someone had to maintain the lights.


We had one lighthouse boat with four what you call rowboats. They're big yawls, hanging on davits. And they were big enough so that two men could handle it. The light boats'd go from St. Louis to New Orleans and service every light. Of course, it'd take maybe a couple months, but to show you how it worked, they'd land a steamboat here to service this light and before they landed, why they dropped the yawl here with maybe three men in it who pulled down to take care of three or four lights downstream. Then they' d drop another one off. He'd go down ahead of them while they were going down the river. This fellow would float out in the current and float on down. But they'd be servicing three sets of lights with one steamboat. They'd take all the supplies they'd need for probably ninety days. Now most of the places where you have a town, they'd have a light there--just an electric light. Of course, it would be in the Coast Guard housing.

Years ago your channel, lights were coal oil lights with Fresno lenses. There were light keepers and they'd pay them depending on how easy it was--seven, eight to nine dollars a month for each light. The lights had big containers for oil. The light keeper would go up the river one day and then down the river the next day and fix the lights in his territory. Some keepers lived in shanty boats. Some lived in town.

We have so many lights on the river that it got to be so that nearly up to the '40' s any prominent Pilot or outstanding Pilot, why when he died, they'd name a light after him somewhere where he'd either had an accident or liked better than anyplace else. But, hell, who wants to die to get a light named after him?

Zang has worked for hundreds of boats. In 1930 he "hung out his shingle like a doctor does." He became an independent pilot for anyone who needed a pilot for the lower Mississippi. When he became known he had all the work he could handle. Having begun on steam engines, he's been a part of many changes in shipping.

Oh they still got some steamboats. The Admiral was steam and the President. But, you see steamboats was different than a diesel. On a steamboat You had to have a chief engineer, two engineers and he had two what you called strikers--someone learning the trade like a striker engineer or striker pilot, which would be a cub pilot. And he had two of those to assist the engineer to do the oil and stuff. And a daylight man that did nothing but just clean up the engines all the time, mop the floor. Then you had two firemen. Like the mate--there was the mate, second mate, eight deck hands. But, they got down to three men operating the diesel--really cut down expenses.

In the steamboat days they'd buy their meat in quarters and have great boxes of supplies. The cook cut up all his own meat. But on these diesel boats you call in a day ahead on Your mobile phone to the regular grocery stores built on barges. It's a big multimillion dollar deal. They've got everything you want--ropes, lines, oils, then they leave their own boats with their diesel oil and fresh water. The boats never stop. They just come out in the stream along side and pump Your oil and water, bring your groceries out. The boat itself is built like a novelty store with any kind of magazines, cigarettes, tobacco, candy and everything you want. So these boys can step off their boat onto the supply boat and buy anything they want while going up the river.

Now everything is synchronized and technology. We used to have about thirty-two men on the steamers towing ten thousand ton. Now they've got boats that tow thirty thousand tons with seventeen men. There used to be a captain and two pilots. They paid off the captain, and one pilot now is the captain-pilot and the other, pilot. The chief engineer used to have two engineers under him, but they paid an engineer off. Eventually all the work started going to the pilot house. We had a radio operator. So they put a radio in the pilot house and paid off the radio man. So the pilot had to operate the radio. Then they put radar in. The pilot's got to operate it. They used to have stern men to help You learn the river. Now You can't get anybody. It's a lot different from the steamboats.

At 77 Zang has spent better that fifty-six years on the river. Now he lives in a small town nearly 200 miles from the Mississippi, but just by listening to him tell of his life on the river, we knew he still hears the call of the Mississippi.

I've retired four or five times. But something always comes up to get me back out on the river.


Above and left--The shallow draft of the Osage River boats allowed them to land almost anywhere. A couple boards were all needed to load and board. (both courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri )

More permanent docks (above) were cobbled and equipped with chain moorings. Today (below) shipping on the Mississippi is by diesel tug boats pushing several loaded barges fastened together in a unit.


Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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