Our History

The publication you are reading is but the latest edition of the oldest continuously published industry trade journal west of the Mississippi River.

The Waterways Journal has been printed every week for more than 125 years. (Well, not exactly every week—more on that later.) Multiply that out, and you come to more than 6,500 weekly issues full of river news over the last 12-1/2 decades.

Each one of them, except for a handful of issues from the late 19th century, is bound in leather and shelved along one wall of the WJ’s offices in the Security Building in downtown St. Louis.

There’s a lot of history in those bound volumes.

Swift WJ-125-Nelson w Guy WaltDisney_scan
Donald Wright and James Swift January 9, 1982: H. Nelson Spencer III, right, publisher of The Waterways Journal, presents a painting of the Becky Thatcher to Guy Jester, vice president of J.S. Alberici Company, St. Louis, on behalf of the National Waterways Conference and the river industry. The James Godwin Scott painting, presented at the December meeting of the St. Louis Propeller Club, was given in honor of Col. Jester’s contribution to Mississippi River navigation as St. Louis District engineer and for his work with the Association for the Improvement of the Mississippi River. The Becky Thatcher is the former Mississippi, operated by the Mississippi River Commission, Vicksburg, Miss.

The River

Many readers may be surprised to learn that the original name of the paper was The River.

That first edition of The River contained many of the elements that would persist through the years, including “letters” from various river cities—Memphis Letter, Paducah Letter, Pittsburg (sic) Letter, etc.—as well as Personal Comment, Editorial Comment, and a story about a new yacht being built for William Randolph Hearst that, it was speculated, would be able to make 30 mph., among numerous other short items.

A sampling of the brief items in that edition:

  • “The officers of the State of Kansas deny that either that boat or the A.L. Mason will go in the ‘Big O’ line this fall.”
  • “The excursion business on the local packets has fallen off considerable in the past 10 days.”
  • “Charlie Quinette who has been in the office of the Diamond Jo Line all season says he wants to stay off the river, if possible.”
  • “There is quite a difference in a steamboat fuel bill on the Upper Ohio and one on the Mississippi. As an illustration, when the Hudson ran here, her fuel bill ran somewhere near $200 a week. Now in the Cincinnati and Pittsburg trade, her fuel costs between $75 and $85 a week.”
  • (From “Cincinnati Letter”) “On the day The River makes its first trip, there will be one more bridge finished at this city for steamboats to dodge and to help bring the rates of insurance up higher.”
  • “Capt. R.D. Morrow, of the Tennessee River Navigation Company, believes in having steamboat shafts from four to six inches larger in circumference in the middle than at any other place. He says they last longer.”

Advertisers in the first issue included the Anchor Line, Eagle Packet Company, Diamond Jo Line Steamers, Mullen & Hopper Painting Company (“Steamboat Painters”), Steinberg Hatter & Furrier in St. Louis, the Olive Street Furniture Company, and others. Most were from St. Louis, in part because that was where the paper was published, but also because of the Gateway City’s pre-eminence among river cities; a distinction St. Louis can no longer claim.

The Waterways Journal

The publication became The Waterways Journal with the April 9, 1892, issue, and with this edition the size was enlarged to tabloid size from 11 by 8-1/4 inches. This size was to vary sometimes, too.

It could be that these changes in size reflected the paper stock on hand in the job printing shop that was an important part of The Waterways Journal enterprise. As advertisements to the Journal and The River indicated, steamboatmen could get portage and cash books as well as freight bills at the publication’s office.

Abbott Veach, Editor

The first man to put his stamp on the paper, both as The River and The Waterways Journal, was Abbott Veach. He is often referred to as “Captain” but in the paper he is also titled “Major” and “Colonel.” In the masthead, he is shown as editor and business manager, vice president and editor, and later just editor. There can be no doubt, however, that he was in close contact with rivermen.

Then, in the March 25, 1893, issue, his name is missing from the masthead, and in the May 6, 1893, edition, there is a note from R.J. Groeninger, then apparently the sole owner, warning that no one was to pay “any moneys to Abbott Veach, as he is no longer connected with the Journal.”

In his account of WJ history that graced the publication’s 100th anniversary—from which this article borrows heavily—James V. Swift noted that there was “a rumor around that the paper had been set up by the railroads so they could keep better track of the steamboat business, but as far as is known no proof of this has been found.”

William Arste

Issues are missing for late 1893 and early 1894, but in the April 7, 1894, issue, the masthead shows William Arste in charge of The Waterways Journal Publishing Company. He was to be the paper’s leader until 1921. In a story in the March 26, 1927, issue on the occasion of the Journal’s40th anniversary, it was said, “Mr. Arste can never be given sufficient credit for regularly publishing The Waterways Journal during the years that steamboats all but vanished from the rivers. Many times, he was on the verge of quitting, but he held on.”

The firm was still in the printing business; there is one ad saying “steamboat excursion tickets furnished on short notice.” Some highlights of Arste’s career were the St. Louis cyclone of May 1896, which the Journal staff witnessed first hand from their office, and the special issue of April 19, 1919, featuring the river trip of President Howard Taft.

Donald T. Wright

A major turning point in The Waterways Journal history came when Donald T. Wright, Oil City, Pa., became editor in January 1921. In December, he bought the paper and the River Publishing & Investment Company that controlled it. The company was dissolved and the Journal was the surviving entity.

Indications of the interest remaining in river history is the fact that in all the legal language in the sale paper, special attention is given to a “certain miniature steamboat enclosed in a glass case…the sole and exclusive property of William Arste…shall remain in the possession of said party of the second part (Donald T. Wright) to be used exclusively in connection with the operation of the business of the corporation and for no other purpose.” This was the model of the steamer Mary Morton that was in the offices of the Journal for so many years and was later in the River Room (now defunct) of the Missouri Historical Society.

(For more on Wright and the model of the Mary Morton, see the article by Keith Norrington elsewhere in this issue.)

The offices of The Waterways Journal were also moved uptown to the Chemical Building at Eighth and Olive. It is said that Capt. Wright’s father picked out this place because of its center of business. There is another version: he wanted to get it away from the river so the staff wouldn’t be looking out the window at the river! The paper was in the Chemical Building in various locations until October 1976, when it moved to the Security Building and again had a river view.

Wright took over the Journal when the river was still at a low ebb. The paper only had 350 paid subscribers. However, World War I had shown the need for river transportation, and the Federal Barge Line was starting to revitalize towing. The new editor and publisher had “heard the call of the river in high school,” according to his obituary, and he had worked on boats in the Pittsburgh area.

Capt. Wright was active and a leader in many river organizations, and the Journal became a spokesman for them and the river generally. One of his biggest peeves was low bridges, and the river industry today owes much to Wright for satisfactory clearances in high water. He led a continuing fight against permits for low structures.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1965, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

H.N. ‘Ray’ Spencer

Fortunately, a change in ownership had already been in the works before Capt. Wright’s death. H.N. “Ray” Spencer Jr., a St. Louis advertising executive who had worked with Wright, became the publisher immediately, and the paper continued on a prosperous course as the towing industry grew. He also supported the river organizations in all ways.

Ray Spencer retired as publisher of the Journal in July 1979, turning the helm over to H. Nelson Spencer III. He remained as chairman of the company until his death in 1992. Nelson Spencer continues the Journal tradition of being active in waterways organizations and river affairs.

The Waterways Journal has always been fortunate in having many friends along the rivers who have supplied it with news throughout the years. In the first years, it was the practice to have news columns from various communities with such titles as “Cairo Callings,” Paducah Plucks,” “Hill City Hits,” “Gallipolis Gossip,” “Chattanooga Chatter,” and “Louisville Loops.”

The writers did not often sign their offerings, using instead nicknames such as Buck E.T. Plank, Tom Sawyer, Coal Shovel Bill, Little Mike, Duke of Paducah and Huckleberry Finn. The authors were such rivermen as Capt. William H. Tippitt, Capt. F.L. Wooldridge, and Alene Stottlebower. With Capt. Wright, a more serious note was struck, with only headings for various locations, but columns still came in from L. Sibley at Gallipolis; George Perr, Pittsburgh; Dorothy Warren, St. Paul; Courtney Ellis, Nashville; Robert L. Miller, Keokuk; and many others. C.W. Stoll was writing news and stories while still a college student.

The Waterways Journal published some of the first stories written by Capt. Frederick Way Jr., and regularly ran stories from Hermann, Mo., done by Capt. William “Steamboat Bill” Heckman. Other articles came from his brother, Capt. Ed Heckman, who was on the Yukon River. And there were many others.

The News Department

Back in St. Louis at the Journal, in the Donald Wright era the news was digested by Veach, Arste and Wright. Wright wrote much of the paper’s copy, and he had with him Capt. Sam G. Smith, a former steamboat master and clerk, who acted as business manager. Andrew D. Franz, who had been a steamboat passenger agent and salesman, came aboard as advertising manager.

Some notable men served as news editors, including Irwin M. Urling, from Baden, Pa.; James H. Lavely, who had written the Illinois River news; Richard Armfield, who had been in the public affairs office of the St. Louis Engineer District; and Arthur Hirsch.

Jack Simpson became editor when Hirsch retired in 1974, and served in that role for 21 years before retiring in 1996. But his retirement wasn’t complete; he continues to write the WJ Editorial. His successor was John Shoulberg, who continues as editor today.

The Waterways Journal continues to carry all the river news—good and bad—but probably there will never be a column such as that in the early Journal, “Missohiomississippiouri, River News Collected, Condensed and Compounded.”

The Old Boat Column

James V. Swift, who joined the WJ at the end of World War II in the business department, had a lifelong fascination with the river and river history. Wright convinced him to start writing a column about river history, and the Old Boat Column was born.

Each week, the column—which then generally ran on Page 8 or 9; in the mid-1990s it was moved to the first inside back page, where it has found a permanent home—featured a picture of a historic river vessel, along with Swift’s description of it. He also made the column a home for any river news that was historical in nature: news of river museums, gatherings of the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, etc.

Swift continued the column until his death in 2002. Alan Bates, a marine architect, author and historian, took over the column and gave it his own flair for 10 years, until he passed away at the end of last year. Keith Norrington, curator of the Howard Steamboat Museum, now pens the column.

For much more on the history of the Old Boat Column, see “Old Boat Columns Keep River History Alive” elsewhere in this issue.

Special Issues

Over the years, the WJ has always printed larger-than-normal editions to coincide with major industry meetings, such as the Mississippi Valley Association’s annual convention, the International Workboat Show, or the annual Waterways Council Inc. Symposium, among many others.

And of course the WJ Annual Review Issue is a longstanding tradition; not only does the edition feature an extensive look back at the year’s events, but it also contains valuable tables showing all of the boats that were constructed that year, boats that changed hands—even a listing of boat pictures that appeared in the Journal. And since the Annual Review Issue is one that advertisers save their best ads for, the advertising index is a valuable resource for industry buyers in the successive year.

Other special issues have focused on excursion boats, dredging and marine construction, shipyards, and, once a year, a focus on a particular inland port.

Until the 1990s, the WJ produced about six or seven special issues a year. Since then, though, we’ve expanded the editorial calendar to feature one special every month.

Magazine Or Newspaper?

Is the WJ a magazine or a newspaper? It’s question that comes up often. Although for the first couple of decades, the paper the Journal was printed on was close to newsprint, the quality of the paper and inks has improved steadily over the years, and is now, we think, as fine as any slick, glossy magazine on the market. And while the layout of the publication is decidedly in a newspaper style, to hold it in one’s hands and read it, it feels more like reading a magazine. It doesn’t help matters that the size of the page is roughly in between that of a traditional magazine and a broadsheet newspaper.

As one staffer put it recently, “I call it a trade journal and leave it at that.”

Other Publications From The WJ

Over the years, Waterways Journal Inc. has acquired several other river-related magazines and journals, to complement the WJ Weekly’s barge-industry coverage.

The first was the Inland River Record, an annual directory of every towboat that operates on the inland and Gulf Intracoastal waterways. The hard-bound book features information such as the boat’s dimensions, engines, gears, construction date, current and former owners, and much more.

The book was begun by Capt. Frederick Way, but the WJ acquired it in 1968.

Four years later, sensing a need in the industry, the WJ originated a new annual book, the Inland River Guide. The Guide can best be thought of as a Yellow Pages-type directory, with barge companies, ports and terminals, shipyards and the many equipment suppliers all categorized for easy access.

Dan Owen, who joined the WJ upon the acquisition of the Inland River Record, edited both that book and the Guide. Although retired from the Journal now, he continues to edit the Record.

In 1989, the WJ purchased Quimby’s Cruising Guide, an annual directory of marinas and locks on the inland and Gulf Intracoastal waterways. Over the years, the publication has been expanded, and it’s now considered an invaluable resource for transient boaters.

Also on the recreational side, HeartLand Boating Magazine was acquired in 1998. Published eight times a year, it serves the same market as Quimby’s.

International Dredging Review was acquired by the company in 2010; it continues to be edited by Judith Powers of Denver, Colo., but all production and advertising duties are now performed in the St. Louis office.

This year, Waterways Journal Inc. added yet another magazine to its stable of publications: Marina Dock Age, a trade journal for marina operators. MDA, edited by Anna Townshend of Chicago, complements the recreational focus represented by Quimby’s and HeartLand Boating.

Printing Improvements

Several major changes have allowed us to increase the quality of the printed product we deliver to readers. First, the change from hot metal to offset printing lowered costs and sped up production, allowing us to produce a timelier and more visually pleasing publication.

Second, after publishing exclusively in black-and-white for more than 100 years, the WJ went to full-color in late 2004. The first issue to feature color throughout was November 22 of that year.

Around that time, the Journal began offering a “photo page” feature, which gives extra visibility to companies that want to highlight an event like a christening. The feature has proved to be very popular, with companies lining up to be included.

The Journal used to go to press on Friday night with a Saturday publication date. The publication date was later changed to Monday, to better reflect when it would be expected to be delivered. The last few years, however, we made the decision to have the weekly edition printed on Thursday night and mailed on Friday, with the hope that it will be delivered on its publication date, which is Monday.

For the last few years, the WJ has been printed at Swift Print Communications of St. Louis, Mo., which has proved to be an excellent partner. As the Journal celebrates its 125th anniversary, in fact, Swift Print is celebrating its 100th.

Oh, regarding not printing every single Monday…the WJ is committed to printing 52 issues per year. Occasionally—about every five years—a year will have 53 Mondays; those years, everybody on the staff gets to take a breather for the last week of the year. (By the way, 2012 is one of those years; there will be no WJ for December 31.)

Online And Digital Edition

The WJ’s website, www.waterwaysjournal.net, gives readers another way to connect with the publication. The site features a capsule news summary of the current week’s news, all of the current classified ads that are printed in the weekly edition, along with river photo galleries, industry videos, and a blog that features links to up-to-the-minute waterways news. Viewers can also subscribe through the website, or purchase any of the other publications we produce.

Beginning on January 1, 2011, the Journal became available as an all-digital edition for reading on computers or on tablets such as the iPad. The digital edition features all of the content in the printed edition, and is available on the publication date, so readers don’t have to wait for a delivery from the U.S. Postal Service. Subscribers can purchase the digital edition by itself or in addition to the print version.

Historical researchers are gaining an online resource for The Waterways Journal as well. The Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library, part of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has been engaged for several years in a lengthy project to index the old issues of the Journal. The first 25 years are currently available for keyword searching; the library staff is working on adding more. For more information, visit www.umsl.edu/pott/collections/journalindexes.html.

The WJ Staff

Today, Nelson Spencer continues as the publisher of The Waterways Journal, as well as the other publications now under the WJ banner.

His son, Nelson “Spence” Spencer Jr., is the business manager of the company, and advertising manager for all of the publications. One or the other Spencer can invariably be seen at just about every major river-industry event on the calendar.

John Shoulberg has been editor of the WJ for nearly 16 years, after five years as assistant editor under Jack Simpson.

Simpson, actually, still writes the WJ’s editorial each week, continuing a role he performed for decades as the magazine’s editor, 1975–1996.

David Murray is the senior staff writer, and churns out mountains of copy each week to fill both the pages of the Journal and, to a lesser extent, International Dredging Review. Murray, who earlier in his working career was a merchant seaman, joined the staff in 2008.

Heather Ervin assists the editorial crew as a staff writer for the WJ and Marina Dock Age, while contributing as the Assistant Editor of HeartLand Boating. Some of the other hats she wears includes database management for the Inland River Guide, Inland River Record Online, Quimby’s, the IDR Annual Directory and Marina Dock Age’s Buyer’s Guide. She also assists with marketing and other communications.

On the sales side, Jason Koenig assists with advertising sales for the WJ, as well as the other publications. Koenig, too, has vessel experience, having decked for his father, a towboat captain.

Alan Thorn works as a graphic designer and also leads production for several WJ magazines and publications.

Marie Rausch is the “Webmaster” for the company and its sister sites while assisting with production.

Julie Fisher is the company’s bookkeeper and takes care of accounts-payable.

Cindy Bequette takes care of mail-order fulfillment, among many other office duties.

Patricia Platter handles circulation duties for the WJ and other publications, managing multiple databases of mailing addresses, as well as keeping up with the breathtaking array of postal regulations. She has been doing so for six years.

Also on the masthead as contributing editor, although retired from full-time duties, is Dan Owen. As mentioned above, Owen is the editor of the Inland River Record, and is known throughout the industry for his encyclopedic knowledge of diesel towboats, and as the “go-to guy” for towboat photographs. He maintains an ever-growing collection of pictures—at last count it was upwards of 40,000—which he makes available at reasonable prices to fellow towboat fans.


Of course the work of the WJ couldn’t be completed by just the St. Louis staff. A number of correspondents from around the river system provide weekly or just occasional columns, articles, dispatches or photographs that help broaden the Journal’s river coverage.

Jeff Yates, who lives in Paducah, was formerly on the WJ staff in the New Orleans office, and later in the Paducah office. Although he no longer works full-time, he follows activities on the lower Ohio and Tennessee rivers and contributes many articles about Paducah events. Perhaps more importantly, he is an excellent photographer and endeavors to capture pictures of every new or remodeled boat as it passes through the area.

Carlo Salzano has been writing the “Washington Waves” column for the WJ since 1990. He keeps up with the many legislative and regulatory developments in the nation’s capital, as well as the Washington-based industry associations.

Capt. Richard Eberhardt is a deep-sea tug captain, who is a regular contributor to the WJ about New Orleans and Gulf-Coast events. He has been writing for us since 2004, following the death of long-time New Orleans staffer Bill Evans.

Because Capt. Eberhardt is often on the boat for weeks at a time, in the last year, another free-lancer, Frank McCormack, has stepped in to help with the New Orleans coverage.

Since 2005, the WJ has printed one full-page river-related photograph each month from famed river photographer Gregory Thorp. For years the photographer behind Midland Enterprises’ beautiful calendars, Thorp’s work also graces the walls of the Center for Maritime Education in Paducah, Ky. We’re proud to feature his work in the Journal.

Another contributor to the WJ is John Miller, who occasionally sends in articles and pictures from the Keokuk and Peoria areas. He is the son of longtime WJ correspondent Robert Miller, who, in addition to writing for us, manned the Geo. M. Verity steamboat museum in Keokuk.

Many other people from throughout the river system also contribute occasional articles and/or photographs, to go along with the regular company news featured in our pages. As one example, for the last year or so we have occasionally invited readers to submit river pictures for our “photo corner” feature; we were pleasantly surprised by both the quantity and quality of photos that started to pour in, to the point that we have a backlog of excellent shots waiting to be published. Keep them coming—we may have to turn it into a weekly feature!

For 125 years, The Waterways Journal has been the preeminent source of news and information for those in the river industry and river buffs. Through thick and thin in the industry, a new Journal has gone into the mail week after week for more than a dozen decades. And we plan to keep it up, maybe for another dozen.