‘Capt. Dan’ Owen: A Lifetime Of Following Towboats

A young Dan Owen works on his towboat database.
A young Dan Owen works on his towboat database.

“Grab a pen,” Dan Owen barked gruffly, as if he were still the first mate on a Union Barge Line towboat. Why, you’d have thought he was ordering a deckhand to pick up the nearest cheater bar and start “cranking” on some ratchet over yonder. Only this time, the longtime editor of the Inland River Record (IRR) and contributing editor of The Waterways Journal was speaking from his bed at an assisted-living facility, where he is recuperating from a stroke.

His words were directed to a co-worker who was wondering how the WJ was ever going to put together its annual compilation of boat data for this year’s Annual Review And Directory Issue without his help. He spelled out the names of people who serve as his “eyes on the river” and keep track of towboats’ comings and goings on the inland waterways. Survey them, he said, as the co-worker, pen in hand, scribbled down the names.

That is how this year’s boat tables were assembled, by a committee consisting of Mike Herschler, Jeff Yates, Ed Christianson, Jeremy Tardy, David Smith, Dave Wilson, C.R. Neale, Tom Waller and Steve Huffman. Since “Capt. Dan,” as he’s sometimes called—as well as “The High Mate”—had his stroke in August and hasn’t yet been able to enter anything into the IRR database, the information had to be cobbled together from WJ articles and specifics from the field.

Union Barge Line

The onetime first mate worked on all of the Union Barge Line boats, except the mv. Liberty, he said. He started in 1958, which was when he got out of high school in East Liverpool, Ohio. He grew up there, along the Ohio River. Union Barge Line had a fleet of 11 towboats at that time, the most powerful being the mvs. Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western, all 3,200 hp. towboats built by Dravo.

As a kid, he developed an interest in the river from watching towboats take the back channel around Babbs Island, which faced his family’s home. Ask him about his hometown and he will tell you with no small amount of pride that he once straddled the state of Ohio with one foot in West Virginia and one foot in Pennsylvania. Early surveyors established this point as the basis for all surveys that were made to the west. East Liverpool was also the residence of Hall of Fame football coach Lou Holtz and gangster Pretty Boy Floyd, Capt. Dan is quick to add. At one point, abundant in yellow clay, the town was known for its pottery, some of which was shipped to market via steamboat.

Capt. Dan had more than a casual interest in the boats that he logged. He relayed what he found about each to Capt. Frederick Way Jr., the founder and, at the time, editor of the Inland River Record. In the foreword of the 2018 edition, Owen writes: “From the beginning, Fred never doubted my uncanny way of ferreting out information on towboats that nobody else could seem to manage. This resulted in Fred placing a 16-year-old kid on the Advisory Board.”

His river career was put on hold from 1961–1963, when he joined the Army and was shipped off to Germany. Stationed in Illesheim, a major Army garrison near Nuernberg, he was assigned to the Motor Transport Corps, where he drove a “Deuce and a Half,” he said. That was the nickname for an M35 2-1/2 ton cargo truck.

Move To St. Louis

When he returned home, he went back to work on the river, then in 1968 answered an ad in The Waterways Journal, the owner of which had just purchased the IRR and was looking for someone to help out with it. He eagerly accepted the job, even though it meant moving his wife and two daughters to St. Louis. It not only kept him in touch with the boats, but “pushing a No. 2 pencil was a heck of a lot easier than pushing a ratchet,” he said. Owen became assistant editor of the IRR under Fred Way in 1971 and editor in 1977, after Way retired. He was also an editor of The Waterways Journal.

Boat statistics were not the only thing the young reporter amassed. As a hobby, he had started taking and collecting photographs of all the diesel-powered towboats on the river. The collection, named simply Boat Photo Museum, is now one of the most extensive in existence, and includes more than 37,000 black and white photographs of over 13,500 different inland towboats and Gulf-area coastal tugs, Owen said.

He carved out enough space in his basement to make room for his office and filing cabinets, which now take up about half of it, he said. There are 14 four-drawer and 2 two-drawer steel filing cabinets for the photos and negatives, and one 27-drawer 3-by-5 card file for his IRR records and negatives. Sandwiched in amongst all this is an old wooden desk with an Underwood manual typewriter, he said, and, of course, a complete set of Inland River Records.

He kept a marine single side band radio in his WJ office, which looked out on the river, and, whenever he heard a boat that he didn’t have a photo of calling for traffic, he would mad-dash out of the office with his camera to arrive at a good vantage point, usually the Eads Bridge, before the boat did. His knowledge of boats was a constant source of amazement to his officemates.

With the radio off (although it had no doubt been on earlier), Capt. Dan was never shown to be wrong in identifying an approaching boat that others could barely make out. “That’s the so and so, of course,” he’d say, showing little patience for the less well-informed.

His work habits were also noteworthy in that you could set your watch by the military-like precision with which he would arrive at work, take his midmorning break, lunch break and midafternoon break, and leave for home. It varied about as much as the brown bag he’d bring his lunch in—which was never. And, he was never sick.

Now 79, Dan Owen retired from The Waterways Journal in 2001 after 33 years, only to continue his work on the “Boat Book,” as the IRR is familiarly known, at home. If you talk to him, you can expect to hear an irascible “Awright, now get back to work,” which is what he always harrumphs into the phone to end a conversation.

Be assured, getting back to work is exactly what The High Mate himself is making every effort to do.