River Legend Bill Beacom Still Going Strong

Capt. Bill Beacom
Capt. Bill Beacom

Capt. Bill Beacom was inducted into the River Rat Hall of Fame in August 2007, but at age 77, he is not slowing down.

The veteran captain, waterways industry expert witness and consultant has been working on or around the rivers since at least age 11. According to his resume, he has operated “everything from 10 hp. outboards to 5,200 hp. towboats with various size tows, commercial, passenger, bulk and liquid, on every major tributary of the Mississippi River system, and most of the minor tributaries, plus the Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, east and west.”

Beacom’s early years were spent on the Missouri River. His grandfather, John Beacom Sr., had relocated the family to Iowa after losing the family farm to a land bank in 1936 during the Great Depression.

After seeing a piledriver working on the river, Beacom says, his father decided that working on the river might be a better way to earn a living than farming. His father became a watchman for a fleet, living aboard a floating shack, and later worked for construction firms Cunningham-Kiewit and Pine Bluff Sand & Gravel before turning to boat-building.

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The first boat his father built, in the driveway of the family house in Salix, Iowa, just south of Sioux City, was a 36-foot-long by 11-foot-wide boat. His father built five boats in the course of his career. According to Beacom, one boat he built is still working on the Parana River in South America.

Beacom told The Waterways Journal he began helping his dad early on. At age 11, he did all the scraping and painting on his father’s second boat, the Kathleen. “Nowadays, the way my dad had me work might have gotten him reported, but in those days it was just what you did to turn your boy into a man. I never minded; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said.

He began piloting his dad’s boats at about the same age. He recalls that he had to stand on a soapbox in the wheelhouse in order to see out the windows. At age 14, he said, Beacom was foreman of a crew that unloaded logs for piles off railcars and rode rafts down the river for the Corps’ contractor.

John Beacom’s boats were assisting in the building of a bridge over the Missouri River. This was the then nationally famous “Dryland Bridge.” It was built in the middle of a cornfield by the Burt County Bridge Commission because the Missouri River channel for its specified location had not yet been dredged by the Corps of Engineers. By the mid-1950s, the bridge was mocked by national media as a “bridge to nowhere” and an example of government waste and incompetence. It was finally installed in 1955 after the Corps used a variety of new techniques to nudge the river’s course and scour its bottom. Beacom says he had stood on every single piling that went toward that bridge.

Beacom was not yet 18 when he took charge of moving his first tow, from St. Louis to Kansas City. He earned his first U.S. Coast Guard license in 1961, at age 20. “My dad was trying to get a government contract, and they required all wheelhouse personnel to have a license.” He maintained continuous Master of Towing Vessels licenses for the Great Lakes, Inland Waters and Western Rivers for 50 years, until 2012.

Beacom left his dad’s company in 1968. By then he had five children and wanted to spend more time with his family. Three more children soon arrived while he captained various boats for Port City Barge Line and Sioux City & New Orleans Barge Line. “In 1968, I was Port City Barge Line’s only pilot that operated the whole year without an accident,” he notes proudly.

Safety Is Central

Pride in his safety record often surfaces in Beacom’s conversation. “I was captain on the mv. Siouxland, which was 65 feet long and only 1,000 hp., operating on the Missouri River for several years with four loaded barges without accidents. Other barge lines were using much larger vessels, either 1,500 hp. or 1,800 hp., to do the same thing. In 1968 I carried twelve 9-foot loads from St. Louis to New Orleans with a short 1,800 hp. boat.”

The next year, Beacom remembers, “Junior Crowley and I took 14 loaded barges from St. Louis to Cairo in high water with the mv.  Nebraska City, a 2,400 hp. boat with only two small flanking rudders. In 1973, Henry Ashworth and I regularly took 20 loads from St. Louis to New Orleans with the 4,300 hp.  mv. Walter Stephens Cox.”

Among his industry awards, Beacom received a commendation from Sun-De Transportation for five consecutive years with no lost-time incidents on the mv. Omaha.  He also had five years with no lost time incidents on the Betty Brent and earned the industry-wide Devlin Award in 1994 for having no lost time injuries for a five-year period, although Beacom is quick to point out that it was actually seven years.

Beacom spent 21 years with Brent Towing, serving as captain of the mvs. Belinda Brent and Betty Brent, during which time he traveled nearly 10,000 miles of the Mississippi River system and Intracoastal Waterways system. Under Beacom the Betty Brent was the first towboat to earn the ISO 900 safety designation. After several years with Brent, he became a spokesman for the company’s captains. “Early on, I was known as the ‘big-mouthed Yankee,’ because most of the guys that worked for Brent were Cajuns or from the South.” He added, “But I got along great with them once they saw that I was not afraid to ask for advice. My work ethic also helped. If you can keep up the work pace with a southerner, he’s your friend for life.”

Career As Speaker, Consultant

As Beacom became involved with industry groups and began speaking and testifying, his natural curiosity and drive led him to read compulsively in order to gain the necessary scientific background. He wound up participating on many science and conservation forums. He calls this period his “pariah years.” “The towboat people thought I was a traitor to the environmentalists, and the scientists thought I was a spy. I’ve been underestimated on the stand or on panels by many experts who didn’t do their homework that day because they thought they were facing an uneducated towboat captain,” he said.

After being invited to the National Transportation Safety Board to give a briefing in 1997, Beacom was no stranger to Washington, D.C. While attending numerous Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) meetings, he met Alex Landsberg, then head of the Maritime Administration. Landsberg invited him to make a presentation to the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) on handling heavy southbound tows on the Lower Mississippi River in September 1999.

While serving  on a panel at the International Riverine Biodiversity Conference in Fort Collins, Colo., Beacom met Bill Leary of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Leary asked him to come to Washington and brief him on Missouri River Issues.  Beacom made several trips to visit Leary, and later Kathy Copeland and Terry Breyman, also CEQ  members.

Missouri River Expertise

Beacom acquired his extensive knowledge of the Missouri River through up-close experience.

“In the spring of 2004, after several years of Missouri River drought, the Army Corps of Engineers was only releasing enough water through the dams to support a vessel navigation operating draft of 7 feet 6 inches for any vessels transiting the river,” he recalled. “I was called by operations manager Jeff Kindl, with the passenger vessel River Explorer, which had an operating draft of 9 feet, asking if I could get that vessel to Sioux City, Iowa with passengers to commemorate the 200th anniversary return of Lewis and Clark from their expedition.  I told him I could. Despite naysayers working with the Corps, I got the River Explorer to Sioux City on schedule and returned it to St. Louis without incident.”

As a member of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC), Beacom helped write its charter in 2007. He still serves as executive director of the Missouri River Navigation Caucus. In 2010, he moderated a panel regarding MRRIC for the Environmental Conflict Resolution (ECR) team.

In 2012, he went to Washington, D.C., and briefed Steve Stockton, director of civil works for the Corps of Engineers, on Missouri River Basin issues. Later, in 2014, he briefed both Stockton and Maj. Gen. John Peabody, then deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on Missouri Basin science issues at an industry meeting in Louisville, Ky.

Beacom has testified before Congress and still actively consults on crew fatigue and environmental safety issues. But these days, much of his time is taken up visiting with his 39 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. “I’m hoping to become a great-great-grandfather someday,” he said.

Next year, Beacom celebrates what he considers his most important accomplishment—the 60th anniversary of his marriage to his wife Renée, whom he calls “the Admiral.”