24 Hours on The Phyllis

A dense fog had caused The Phyllis to be running behind schedule Tuesday morning, so in order to meet her we needed to travel a bit farther south than had been planned, to Lock & Dam No. 25 at Winfield, MO, which is about a 100-mile drive from where I was at Quincy, IL.  Carol, an Administrative Assistant at Alter Barge picked me up in a crew van and drove as fast as she could get by with to make my date. We got there just in time, as the boat was making its way into the lock. I handed my gear down to the deck hands, put on a life jacket and climbed down the ladder on the inside of the lock onto the barge platform, then we made our way onto the boat. 

The Guest Quarters are spacious with a big picture window that looks straight out over the barges. I was introduced to Pilot Jeff Keller, who was on duty at the time. 

He and Captain Ross Marcks alternate at the helm in six-hour shifts. Nothing was off-limits; I was welcome to wander the boat and photograph whatever I liked. As Jeff told me some of the basic statistics of the boat and the load it was pushing, I started to feel more and more like Alice after she took the shrinking potion! Everything is so over-the-top enormous, it’s hard to comprehend.

Here are a few stats. Tows in this part of the river often push the maximum of 15 barges, five long and three abreast. That means the load out in front is 1,000 feet long and 105 feet wide. The boat burns 2,000 gallons of diesel per day, refueling about every 10 days with 2 semi loads of fuel. The engine is 6,000 horsepower. When loaded, each of the 15 barges weighs 1500 tons and carries the equivalent of 15 jumbo hopper train cars or 58 large semi loads.  See what I mean? Just hard to wrap the mind around!

A crew of eleven makes it all happen, changing shifts every six hours around the clock and working for 30 days on and 30 days off. It’s a bit like family, living and working in fairly close quarters. Although I didn’t get to meet everyone, those I talked with made me feel very welcome. People seemed to like their jobs, but admitted it’s hard to be away from home and family that much. Several people shared stories of missing important events and feeling out of touch with family.

It’s also hard not to put on weight, they say. The food is great, plentiful and always available and some told me they sometimes eat out of loneliness or boredom.  Marilyn Deam is the onboard cook responsible for all that good food.  Her groceries are ordered every 7-10 days by fax and then delivered to the boat by a “boat store”. Delivery day is exciting because it usually brings a fresh newspaper as well!

Everything is cleaner and homier than I expected – not fancy, but I imagined it might look bleaker or more industrial or even gritty. “It’s not for everyone”, said the Captain, “people either love it or hate it.” The pace is slow and deliberate and there is lots of waiting; these behemoths take time to maneuver. It’s definitely not the job for a Type A. Southbound traffic always has the right of way, because it takes much longer to stop while moving with the current. Since we were traveling upriver, several times we pulled into designated “wait spots” along the shore to allow a southbound boat to pass. “Locking through” at a Lock and Dam usually takes 1 ½ hours, unless you have to wait your turn and then it can be much longer. Our upriver speed was around 3mph; southbound it might be as fast as 6 to 8 mph, depending on current, weather, traffic, etc. I was on board for almost 24 hours and we traveled 85 river miles.

When we pulled up to Lock & Dam No. 24 at Clarksville, MO, it was dusk. The load is too long to be in the lock at once, so the first 9 barges are pushed in, then unhooked and the tow backs out. The water level is then raised and the barges pulled out the other side by a winch. Then the remaining barges and the tow go through the process, the barges are hooked up again and we can be underway. By the time that was completed, it was dark.

I was standing behind the Captain watching as we pulled away from the brightly lighted lock into the blackness beyond. I was already amazed at the skill required to maneuver something this enormous into the lock with only 5 feet of leeway between the barge and the walls, but pointing it out into the night made my heart clutch.

There is a giant spotlight mounted on top and the Captain or Pilot sweeps it back and forth – everything else is darkness!

I tried to go to bed several times, but I would sense a change in speed, look out the window and see something happening – a drawbridge or another tow or a tug coming to take one of our barges and I would throw my clothes back on and run outside to shoot it. I finally gave up and stayed dressed. On the back deck away from the spotlight, the stars were brilliant in the dry air of a perfect autumn night. The river was black and silent and seemed bottomless. When we passed lights from a bridge or a building, the water would sparkle with spun gold interweaving with the black. The engine churned and rumbled like a deep heartbeat, not straining, just consistently doing the job. It was magical.

Just when I had made peace with the fact that it would be a sleepless night, the hypnotic movement, rhythm and vibration overtook me and I slept a deep, sound, dreamless sleep. At 4:45, I heard voices and smelled coffee and bacon, so I got up and showered. Although I was at breakfast by 5:45, I was told I was the last one to eat!

The sky was just starting to show light at the horizon and the rest a bowl of indigo blue.

The deckhands were lifting the hatch covers on every barge to check inside for any signs of leaks and then hauling the gigantic ropes to the opposite side preparing for the next lock. No one was hurrying, but jobs were being done steadily and thoroughly.

Just a few more hours and we would be back at Quincy. I had hoped for a foggy morning, partly because I love to shoot fog, but partly because it would buy me more time on the boat. It had gone very fast and since everything was so new and interesting, there hadn’t been time to settle into the rhythm of this life on the river. But the day was bright and clear. 

I am enormously thankful for this opportunity. I understand even more clearly now how rarely this experience is available to those not working on the boats. It has allowed me a glimpse of a unique life of hard work on the river and I have great respect for those who do it. It is an integral part of the story of life along the Mississippi River and one we can usually only wonder about from afar. Thank you, Jeff Goldstein of Alter Barge, for making it possible and to all of the Alter Barge employees for being so gracious and helpful. Thanks to my buddy Ellis, and thanks, of course to Serendipity! It was an experience I will never forget.                                                 


About Gayle Harper

Travel Photographer and Writer
This entry was posted in IL - Quincy, MO - Clarksville, MO - Winfield and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to 24 Hours on The Phyllis

  1. What a vicarious thrill! thanks for the evocative words and beautiful photographs.

  2. All I can say to this one is WOW. And what a terrific job you did of sharing it with us.

  3. Frances Spedding says:

    What a magnificent story – so well told. I felt as though I was there with you, having a most unique experience.

  4. Stephen Marshall says:

    Gayle I was mesmerized by how and what you wrote about on your 24 hours on the Phylis. Great job!


  5. Sandy Reese says:

    Incredible journey ! I am so enjoying all your posts.

  6. John F Hughes says:


    I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw this post.

    I was aboard PHYLLIS, as a guest, in the very same cabin as you were in – 33 years ago.

    Just like on your trip, I was amazed at the whole operation. The crew were very skilled and very welcoming. The food was superb. The scenery was breathtaking.

    To this day, it’s one of my fondest memories in a life spend largely on the water.

    Thanks so much for bringing back the flood of memories that I experienced reading your excellent post.


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