A passing barge. A fisherman circling toward the shore in his motorboat. Water skiers and an occasional pleasure craft. The automobile ferry, swinging like a pendulum between Missouri and Kentucky.
For several decades, that was the extent of activity at the Columbus waterfront after the town was moved to higher ground.
But in the 1980s there was a rebirth of activity. Two St. Louis firms leased land in the area for the fleeting and re-fleeting of barges. With headquarters near the old Columbus ferry landing, Lower River Marine Service and Wisconsin Barge Lines began reorganizing tows in the Belmont area just opposite the Columbus bluffs.
These two corporations have gone elsewhere but in September 1988 the Great Rivers Marine Service selected the site for a similar effort. (See Photo.) Moving its operations from Wyatt, Mo., the firm, whose parent company is Ingram Barge Service of Nashville, Tenn., uses five tugboats to “make and break tows.”
Harding Conn, director of administration, explained that the Ohio River which flows into the Mississippi at Cairo, 20 miles north of Columbus, is narrower and therefore carries smaller tows.
“We are, of necessity, at this point,” he continued, “building a bigger tow to move on the Mississippi or splitting one down for the Ohio.”
Such reorganization is economically advisable because it allows the bigger diesel-powered towboats to navigate the lower river while the smaller tows travel the upper Mississippi and its tributaries.
Conn said that Custom Fuel Service, a sister company, sells diesel fuel, oil and lubricants to boats traveling the river. “We’d midstream fueling whereby one of our tugs shoves a fuel barge alongside a towboat and pumps metered fuel into its tanks.”
The firm also does barge cleaning, contracting with Wilburn and J.L. Ferguson for that service. “Our equipment includes a drydock, which allows us to make barge repairs,” Conn added.
Shore property on both sides of the river has been leased for the fleeting service. The firm employs about 85, some of whom are part-time employees. Works reside in Columbus, Clinton, and Bardwell.
Once Columbus was the third largest city in the Jackson Purchase. Paducah and Hickman, also located on waterways, were larger. That was around 1874 when Major rivers were the nation’s interstate highways.
But Columbus lost its position as an important port for sundry reasons, the last being the 1917 ice gorge. After the ice broke up and gouged a new route, the river current struck directly at and undermined the town.
Even so, Columbus has continued to be influenced by the river, with many of its citizens finding employment because of the waterway. For example, Iron Banks Rigging, headed by Bradley Ferguson makes and repairs cables and other equipment for barges. Some Columbusites have been or are commercial fishermen. Others tended the signal lights along the shores or operated the ferry. Several have chosen careers as pilots, engineers or cooks for towing firms.
Among those to whom a towboat is “home” about half the time are: Tom Baker, James Grimmitt, Mike Grimmitt, Sue Grimmitt, Eugene Holder, Leamon Lane, Earlene Martin, Ada Mofield, George Muscovalley III, Thomas Redden, Bill Rogers Jr., Joseph D. Russell and Mary Hopper. E.C. Mays, formerly of Columbus, heads Mays towing Co., Inc.
The job of “running the lights,” a position last held by Girt Frizzell, became obsolete in 1959 when the U.S. Coast Guard came along with battery-powered beacons.
The Columbus Ferry, an important link between Kentucky and Missouri for 150 years, made its last trip across the Mississippi in December 1981. Its operation had become unprofitable, so J.L. Ferguson, owner, decided it was time to shut down after 14 years at the wheel. Since about 1918, others who have operated the ferry have included Brown Maree, Waller Brown, George and Leo Muscovalley, Elmo Drew, Jesse Grimmitt Sr., and his sons, George and Jesse, Jr., and Harold Shadwick.
Jesse Grimmett, Jr., has continued working on the river ever since those first days in the late 1940s. He now pilots the motor vessel, Susan K., which is one of four towboats owned by the Bunge Towing Corporation.
Though Columbus has changed Old Man River remains much the same as it flows by the town in its unpredictable search for the sea, giving and taking as it goes.