From the time he was 8 years old, Capt. Michael “Mike” Coyle knew he wanted to be a riverman. He was going to school in Oakville, Mo., which is just south of St. Louis, not far from the Mississippi River, when, in the school’s bookmobile, he came across a copy of Pilotin’ Comes Natural by the noted river historian and author Frederick Way Jr. It was the beginning of a lifelong appreciation for the river and everything connected with it. Although his father was a venerated mail delivery man who has a post office named after him—the Charles J. Coyle Post Office in Lemay—Coyle said from that point on, he had his mind set on piloting a riverboat.
“I’m 60 now and have never done anything else. This is all I ever wanted to do,” said Coyle.
After high school in 1977, he hired on as a deckhand on a couple line boats, the mv. Ed Renshaw owned by Federal Barge Line and the mv. Harry Mack owned by American Commercial Barge Line, but he had his eye on harbor work and being home at night. He got his chance when he was attending a concert headlining a popular musician who happened to be a riverboat pilot himself, John Hartford.
“I got to talking to him after the show,” Coyle said, “and he told me to go see Fred Leyhe, owner of Eagle Marine Services in St. Louis. He made the introduction for me.” Capt. Coyle started decking for Eagle in the late 1970s and earned his first license, limited to the St. Louis harbor, in 1980. Today, he is on his ninth issue.
It was while working for Eagle that he experienced the “wildest” thing he has ever seen on the river, he said. In April 1983, Valley Towing Services’ towboat City of Greenville and a three-piece oil tow hit the Poplar Street bridge. “We were on the Helen Capps building tow at Federal’s fleet at Lesperance Street when it happened,” he said. “We saw a huge fireball. It looked like the whole shoreline on the Illinois side of the river was on fire.” As they were corralling the burning barges, the “bottoms of our boots got so hot,” Coyle recalled, “they melted.”
In 1984, he left Eagle Marine to fill a need of West Lake Quarry Company for a captain to run limestone on the Missouri River, which he did for six years, until he joined Luhr Bros. Inc., out of Columbia, Ill.
“I started piloting on the mv. Admiral in 1990 and have worked on every boat in the Luhr fleet,” Coyle said. The company has a fleet of 25-plus towboats. “For the last 22 years, I’ve been on the Twyla Luhr,” a 160-foot, 6,800 hp. towboat built by Jeffboat in 1982. It was named Twyla A coming out of the shipyard. Luhr renamed it in 1999. “I originally got on board as relief captain in 1998 and became senior captain in 2011.”
On the Twyla, Capt. Mike, as he is oftentimes called, typically delivers 30-barge tows of stone from the company’s quarry in St. Genevieve, Mo., to the Gulf.
When he’s off the boat, other than spending time with his wife, Vera, four daughters (three of whom were delivered simultaneously) and two granddaughters, Coyle can often be found leafing through a stack of books at the Pott Library, a special collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library, feeding his seemingly unquenchable thirst for river lore. He has a collection Waterways Journals from the 1920s, 1930s and early teens.
“My wife and I also enjoy traveling and attending bluegrass music festivals,” he said.