The Million Dollar Mile
Where did all the towboats go? Former river baron Howard Brent thinks Greenville can get them back and re-establish its rule over the Mississippi River .
By Marianna Breland
Once, it was The Million Dollar Mile, a stretch of Greenville waterfront bristling with towboats, barges and shipbuilders. It provided work for thousands of big, rawboned Delta boys. It shipped enough grain and chemicals and steel to make Greenville the Towboat Capital of the World. Then it disappeared, chased away by the likes of NAFTA and a grain embargo and fuel taxes and economic trends far beyond anyone’s control. It became one more tragedy in a series of events that led to the deterioration of Greenville. But now, something may be stirring at the new Port of Greenville, relocated south of town a few years ago.
Not so very long ago, a visit to the shipyards of Greenville yielded a ghost-like civilization of abandoned propellers, rudders, and men, jobless, from the decline of the towing industry. But now, business has picked up. “We’re picking up steam,” says Port Director Tommie Hart, surveying his domain. Barges are being loaded. Towboats are pulling in and out. And now a new ship is being built. To Hart, the ship being put together in the Mississippi Marine shipyard is not just a new tow, but a sign of new life. Like the metamorphosis of a butterfly, the towing industry may be about to break through the rough, ugly cocoon of the last 30 years. Last year, the Port of Greenville filled up 300 railway cars for shipment on the big river. This year, the port filled up 300 railway cars in February alone. It would have been an even better year for the port if a record Mississippi River flood hadn’t shut it down in May, temporarily putting people out of work. And business is only getting stronger. It is not the booming, dominant force of the past, but it is growing. And in a city reeling from hard times, growth is synonymous with hope.
That is music to the ears of Howard Brent, once one of the biggest of the river barons. His father, Jesse Brent, pioneered the industry and reigned as king of all things towing. The man credited with leading Greenville to river dominance died just as the business started going down. But the Brent legend is still revered here. After all, Greenville has always been a river town. There was something of the pioneer spirit about the business the Brents built. It put Greenville on the map. And Greenville has never forgotten. It worshipped the brash, brave men whose exploits brought the city rich torrents of publicity, which was good for business. Men with little more than their life savings and a vision risked everything on the belief that they could make big money shipping goods up and down a river famous for dangerous bends, tricky currents and shifting sandbars. Greenville, a town traditionally all about business, appreciated that local cash registers rang more often as others swarmed to cash in on the stream of money the Brents had discovered. Jesse Brent’s sons stayed with it as long as they could before selling out. But Howard Brent has never given up on the dream that did so much for his family. Considering the reaction he gets on his wanderings around town, you might say Greenville doesn’t want to give up, either. On a bright spring day, Brent walks into Sherman’s restaurant. Met with brisk hellos. He doesn’t have to order. The bartender knows what he wants. Walks into Does. Declared “one of the finest men in Greenville.” Brent is no ordinary fellow. He has the air of a maverick, the voice of John Wayne, the heart of an angel. He’s a father of four but a daddy to three daughters, all of whom have their songs on records. One, Eden, has won several blues awards.
Brent is the type of man who orders for the ladies in his company. When confronted about how everything he touches turns to gold he guffaws and then replies, “Naw, baby. I’m
just showing you all the good things.” But Howard Brent could not save the towing industry on the Mississippi River from collapsing. And that hurt, because towing is in his blood. Brent’s great-grandfather, Wilson Hemingway, had a little boat that delivered farm goods on the Sunflower and Yazoo River before roads were paved. The patriarch of the family had a heart dedicated to helping others. Brent recalled how in the 1927 flood, Hemingway paddled to a church where people were stranded on the roof. As the rising, rushing waters lifted the old church off its foundation, the people leaped for their lives into his little farm boat and watched their church float away down the Mississippi. Years later, the launching of another seemingly insignificant wooden hull gave birth to an industry. Jesse Brent and two other men owned the boat and went into business traveling up and down the river after quitting their jobs with the U.S. Corps of Engineers. By 1949, there were five of them in business together. Then in 1956, Jesse Brent sold out and struck out on his own, starting Brent Towing Company.
That one business venture would lead to 100 towboats, 1,000 barges, 2,000 workers, and the title of “towboat capital of the world” for Greenville. Jesse Brent, who controlled 24 towboats and 60 chemical tank barges, was named “RiverMan of the Century” by the St. Louis Waterway Journal. Time magazine called him one of a “Breed of Bright Brash Entrepreneurs.”
When the Time reporter asked about his financial holdings, Captain Jesse replied, “Son, I’ve got enough to buy all the whiskey and steaks I want for the rest of my life.” Jesse Brent would also form the American Waterways Operators. Like his dad, Howard Brent went through practically every position in the business, working as a deckhand, getting a tankerman license to load gasoline barges, piloting tows, and then finally, moving behind a desk in the main office. But in 1981, the industry busted as fast as it boomed.
Thirty years later, like a sun creeping out of darkness, the barge industry is making a comeback just in time to give Greenville a ray of hope. Now, people watch the river and wonder. Can the comeback continue? And, why Greenville?
A Bargain for Your Buck
A former port director, Colonel Milton Barschdorf, declared Greenville “the million-dollar mile.” With shipbuilders, repair facilities, barges and towboats strung up and down the busy riverside, the nickname stuck. In 1927, the great flood washed Washington County with frightening force, leaving the town flooded for months. However, the rainbow after the storm came when the Corps of Engineers made three cutoffs, essentially straightening the wildly curving river channel. While that is nothing but a detail in a report to many, it means big bucks to the waterway industry. Howard Brent explained, “It makes the river shorter and swifter so you have to have more horsepower to get up the river. For every horsepower running an hour, you burn a gallon of fuel roughly.” He explained that if a barge is coming from New Orleans to St. Louis, it makes sense to stop in Greenville for money reasons.
Greenville is a still water port, so boats do not have to fight the current going upstream. They can glide across the still water and exhale, as they are not facing a swift current and most importantly, not using hundreds of gallons of gas just to stay in port.
Brent explained that some barges can use up to 10,000 horsepower an hour, using up 10,000 gallons of fuel. However, put that barge in an area where it does not need half the horsepower, and you have half the cost. Why, he wonders, can’t the rest of America can’t see the logic of shipping on the river?
The Beauty of the Barge
Trucks often have an advantage over the river because they can load up at a plant and take cargo right to its
destination. But Brent will tell you that the river is often the safest, cheapest, and fastest mode of inland transportation. To make his point, he asks two questions, then answers them.
Q. How many towns does a train go through when it’s traveling from New Orleans to Saint Louis?
A. There are scores, perhaps over 200.
Q. Now, how many towns are on the river, truly on the river?
A. Well, there’s Natchez, Vicksburg, Rosedale, Memphis, St. Louis, New Orleans, and of course, Greenville just to name a few. “The railroads,” he says, “go through every little old town. If they have a train wreck, it’s close to every little town. Greenville is on the river, but a mile away.” Then there’s the statistics that towboat advocates love to cite: A normal 15- barge tow can hold up to 1,050 large semi-trailers worth of stuff or 216 rail cars and 6 locomotives worth of exports. That’s 1,050 18-wheelers off the highways and interstate systems where most people travel. That’s 1,050 less chances of an accident on the interstate.
According to a report by the National Waterways Institute, there is one injury in the inland marine sector for every 125.2 in the rail sector and 2,171.5 in the highway sector, and one fatality in the inland marine sector for every 22.7 in the rail sector and 155 in the highway sector. Furthermore, there is a less chance of having spills in waterways than on roads or rails. Trucks lose only 6.06 gallons per one million ton-miles, rail cars only 3.86 gallons, and barges 3.6 gallons per one million ton-miles. As far as cheapest, the tow industry’s only competition is pipelines.
“Pipelines is the way they move oil or gasoline,” says Brent. “The Alaskan pipeline comes down and gets the oil out of the Alaska. You have got pipelines running all over the place. There’s a pipeline crossing the river. They drop ‘em way down yonder and dig a trench. You got pipelines running all over the country. Used to be the safest mode, but now with the older pipelines, the river is the safest mode. Pipeline is the cheapest, but river transportation is the cheapest mode of transportation for bulk commodities. “ Also, if you think in terms of gasoline and roadwork instead of money, you cannot help but think how much cheaper it is to send 1,050 18-wheelers worth of cargo at one time on a tow in a river, compared to 1,050 18wheelers on the road. Howard Brent runs through all this with a cry of exasperation. How, he wonders, can anyone not see the logic? “The people that don’t live next to the river don’t understand what all is going on. But, like, 60 percent of farm products that go for export are moved by barges. Man, if we didn’t have barge transportation, look how crowded the highway would be. And the railroad system couldn’t handle it.” A National Waterways Foundation study found that if all waterborne cargo were diverted to rail or highways, heavy traffic would double and two inches of asphalt would be needed to increase the pavement thickness of 126,000 lane-miles of intercity Interstate. In the Ohio River System, the CSX railroad would need 156 new locomotives and 5,616 new coal cars. The system’s average train velocity would drop by one-third. A barge can move one ton of cargo 576 miles per gallon of fuel, whereas a rail car can only move the same ton of cargo 413 miles and a truck only 155 miles. Last but not least, river towboats are responsible for very little air pollution. But one simple act and one simple tax completely devastated the towing industry three decades ago.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter banned grain exports to the Soviet Union, America’s biggest grain buyer. The embargo was meant to punish the Soviets, but it also drew howls of pain from farmers and towboat operators. To make matters worse, the embargo was enacted alongside a fuel tax on every gallon of gasoline. By 1981, the once-busy Greenville riverfront was desolate. A random traveler here and there. “Everybody had grain barges and moved the grain for export and it just failed to nothing. So the barges were tied up here. One guy built 10 barges, cost about $3 million, and he wound up never using them and had them for two years, paying for them to be tied up,” said Brent. “We had 30 family-owned towing companies here before everything was growing broke. And now, we don’t have any that are.” The number of local shipyards fell from seven to two. Howard Brent and his family’s business held on for dear life. But in 1989, after 33 years, he sold out. The Brent
legacy was over in one fell swoop. “We had 610 employees with the Howard Brent Company. We had three drydocks,” he said. Brent still maintains his office downtown but just he, his daughter, and a secretary or two work there. Over time, Brent said, “the big companies swallowed the little companies and now everything has moved to Paducah, Kentucky.” After so many years of a reduced towboat presence here, the recent expansion gives Brent a sense of hope that better times are ahead on the Big Muddy. After 30 years, the towing industry has seeped back into Greenville’s economy. Port director Hart says there are three reasons. First, grains have replaced cotton as the dominant Delta crop. “Grain is the best bulk product to ship,” Hart says. “Regardless of what export, barges can move the most with the most efficiency.
“Two, the fuel price is changing the flow of goods across the nation. Four dollar gasoline is going to cover us up in business.
“Last but not least, the state support and development of the steel supply has made Greenville become the main port. Half of our business is scrap steel.” Hart well remembers how Greenville lost more than a thousand jobs with the collapse of the river business. “I didn’t like our (Greenville’s) existence tied to that level of jeopardy.” “At one time,” he said, “Greenville owned ten percent of equipment on inland waterway barges.” But Hart doesn’t think Greenville’s time of river prosperity has passed for good. He believes the industry has an opportunity “with focus on the right kind of development.” “If the community works hard enough, the darkest hour can turn into your brightest day,” he said.