WJ Editorial

The High Mate, A Sustainer Of The River Community

Dan Owen, otherwise known as the “High Mate,” passed away last week at the age of 79. Already the tributes are coming in, with friends using phrases like “unfillable void.”

Waterways Journal readers who didn’t already know Dan, but who knew his work indirectly from the Inland River Record, learned from a profile in the December 18 issue about his lifelong dedication to the river community.

That community has always been sustained and enriched by those drawn to the rivers out of love. Most worked on the rivers in some fashion, but not all. Ruth Ferris, schoolteacher and river aficionado, inspired generations to share her love of the river and, through her collections, formed the foundations of several river museums.

Many, like J. Mack Gamble, found their way to The Waterways Journal, to our lasting benefit. Our current Old Boat columnist, Keith Norrington, and his legendary predecessors Alan Bates (who started out designing wooden boats in the days of steam) and Jim Swift (who maintained the column for decades) are three more examples of passions that became careers.

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Dan Owen was a worthy peer of these river legends and another prime example of the saying, “Do what you love, and the rest will follow.” What he loved was the rivers, the boats that sailed on them, and the men and women who worked on them.

That love began in his childhood as he watched the boats from his family’s home on a back channel of the Ohio River near Babbs Island. It led to what became (with a few interruptions) his lifelong compilation and editing of the Inland River Record, begun by Capt. Fred Way. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, compiling and adjusting information for the IRR is work that never ceases.

The results of Dan’s labors were already so impressive to Way (another passion-driven river legend and founder of the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen) that he put Dan Owen on the advisory board of the Inland River Record at age 16.

Dan worked on all the Union Barge Line boats except one, rising to first mate. When he left for service in the Army, his wife Jeannette, herself born into a river family, kept up his correspondence and maintained his database. After his tour, Dan went back to Union Barge Line. He joined The Waterways Journal in 1968.

Anyone who has read any of the introductions Dan wrote to the various editions of the IRR can testify to his dedication and unmatched knowledge (Way called it “uncanny”). Dan’s personal notes and reminiscences are always interwoven with details of the various boats he tracked.

During his long and productive career, he has left everyone associated with the river industry in his permanent debt.