For Capt. David Woodford, working on the river is in his blood.
“My great grandpa was a pilot, and then my grandpa was a pilot,” said Woodford, 66, of Savannah, Tenn. “My dad was a pilot, and I’m a pilot or now a captain.”
Woodford has worked for Crounse Corporation for 43 of his total 48 years on the river, first coming to the industry in 1975. He has spent the last 30 years as a captain.
As the family historian, however, his knowledge goes back much deeper.
“My family goes back to the flat-bottom days,” he said.
Woodford has seen 1911 postcards where family members spent the winter traveling on the Tradewater River to Paducah as they migrated to Tennessee. He knows they then took the Tennessee River to Savannah.
“The family did the logs, the rafts,” he said. “Supposedly my great great grandpa rode a flat-bottom (boat) all the way to New Orleans. He was born in 1867.”
His great grandfather worked for Greene Line Steamboats out of Cincinnati. His grandmother was a cook on a towboat, working with her husband for Igert Towing Company out of Paducah.
His father, born in 1927, was 5 when he rafted logs out of the Tennessee River when land along it was being impounded before the establishment of Pickwick Lock.
Woodford remembers stories his father and grandfather passed down about the river, such as that when the Corps made Kentucky Lock, water backed up 21 feet in Savannah.
As he works in the wheelhouse, Woodford said he thinks about those family members and historical connections.
“When you’re flanking in a tight bend on the Lower Mississippi, letting the current take you, you’re doing what a pilot did in the early 1800s,” he said. “It’s just more modern equipment. You see, to me, the connection is there, the connection to the old pilot who smoked an old pipe and stood on the oil burner. Our boats are capable of a lot more, but that’s a connection to history that hasn’t ever gone away.”
Woodford “grew up on towboats,” as he says it. And not any towboats. His father worked for Crounse Corporation for close to 20 years, making pilot at the age of 16.
“I was born right before my Daddy come to work here,” Woodford said. “Dad came here January of ‘57, and then I came in ‘75.”
In his tenure at Crounse, Woodford has worked every division the company has, from the Green River to Maysville and Paducah.
“I was right out of high school when I came out,” he said. He graduated in May and then came to work on the river June 20, 1975. “And I haven’t been off the river since.”
Woodford said there was no career that appealed to him like the river. Beginning when he was 12 or 13, Woodford sometimes had the opportunity to ride the boat with his father, which was allowed back then.
“This was the connection that I had,” he said. “It was part of my life. I grew up on the river up there at Savannah. Grandpa had retired, and we fished. Sometimes Grandpa would make a call, and we could take a ride. It was a life, and it’s still a life for me.”
He has passed down his love of working on the river, too. His son, Brandon, is a federal pilot based in New Orleans.
“It’s a skill to be a pilot, and I just enjoy the skill part,” Woodford said. “I enjoy the learning. I learn every day. I learn every year. There’s always something to learn. You never wake up in the same place twice, hardly. We’re always moving.”
Woodford said he also appreciates the relationships forged with people on the boat.
“You grow as a family away from home,” he said. “It’s a connection between people. People I worked with, I don’t forget them. They mean something to me.”
Woodford works a 21 on, 21 off schedule. When off the boat, he spends time with his mother, lady friend, son, daughter-in-law and grandson. He also tends to a 46-acre farm with a grove of pecan trees he is working on. “I’ll see the family as much as I can,” he said. “Family means a lot to me.”
Woodford also has picked up an unusual hobby he has come to enjoy. He has a love of plays and other live performances and is a season ticket holder at the Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville, Tenn., 3-1/2 hours from home.
He said he was camping in the area when he saw his first play there and has kept coming back. Now he also adds in shows at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville and elsewhere. Favorites have included “White Christmas” and “The King and I.”
“I’ll be going to the Grand Ole Opry when I get off,” he said of the weekly live country music show that has been going on for 98 years. “Especially when you go to the Ryman (Auditorium), it’s like you step back in history. It’s wonderful.”
Woodford also likes to travel, and his trips have taken him to Glacier National Park, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, New York City twice, New England three times, Santa Fe, N.M., the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Los Angeles, Hollywood, Big Sur, San Francisco and the Redwood Forest, to name a few. All of that has been possible, he said, because of the good-paying job he has on a towboat, combined with the longer periods of time off he also gets.
As a man of faith, saved at the age of 12, he also believes God has put him exactly where he belongs, both on and off the boat.
He told a story about getting off the boat just in time to come home and see his neighbor’s house was on fire. When he went to the door, a small child met him and said his mother and another person were still in the house.
“I went inside and got them out,” he said. “If I hadn’t been off the boat, those two wouldn’t have made it.”
Woodford is careful to deflect any praise, though, saying it is all God’s timing.
*I think God puts you in the right places sometimes,” he said. “On the boats, you might be at the right place at the right time for someone, when they need someone, when they need someone to talk with. Sometimes people need someone to talk to. It’s not all just about doing your job. It’s being there to help someone.”
Woodford has seen many changes on board over the years. His tenure has taken him from writing in logs to using computers and “technology that people would have never dreamed we would have.”
“I haven’t seen any of it that isn’t good,” he said, adding that the boat is safer today than it ever was.
“The pilothouse is just an open book of opportunities,” Woodford said. “A person like me, I don’t do it just for a job. I do it because it’s special to me. I’ll miss it when I don’t any more. I’ll miss the cohesion with the other people that I work with, doing the things I do, running the rivers and the routes that I make.”
But even at age 66, he said he has no plans of giving up life in the wheelhouse anytime soon.
“Not before 10 more years,” he said. “I’ll be an older gentleman when I retire. As long as my health is good, everything is good, I’ll be an older gentleman when I retire. I don’t even consider 66 being aged. I just look in the mirror and see somebody who doesn’t look like he did when he was 26.”
Still, he said, he enjoys looking back, remembering the past and sharing it with others.
“It’s just a journey,” he said. “It’s kind of like a good book that you set down and read that you remember. To me, that’s the way it is.”