At the helm: Capt. Terry reflects on river life
Capt. Steve Terry, now in his 44th year at a Mississippi River pilot, narrates his 505th tour of the season on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 10, 2023. His goal is to serve as Mississippi River pilot until he reaches the age of 70, marking 50 years on the river. Photo by Mary Lou Montgomery
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
As Capt. Steve Terry pilots the Mark Twain Riverboat during afternoon and evening cruises along the ever-flowing and unpredictable waters of North America’s greatest river, there is plenty of time to reflect upon the role the river played in this country’s development.
Perhaps the best known of all riverboat pilots - whose pen name was borrowed for the identity of Capt. Terry’s boat - was Sam Clemens aka Mark Twain himself. This pilot-turned-writer transformed the adventures he experienced along the pre-Civil War Mississippi into lore for later generations to relive.
Like Mark Twain, Capt. Terry, now experiencing his 46th season on the Mississippi - his 44th as a pilot - has a story to tell about his original draw to the river. Like Twain, Capt. Terry grew up in Hannibal, located as it is along the banks of the Mississippi. But while Mark Twain followed the romance of the river, Capt. Terry was drawn by a more practical lure: The need for a job.
He quit his job at Food for Less, a grocery store which occupied space at the Steamboat Bend Shopping Center.
“A couple of days later (his friend) Becker Spaun said they needed help at the riverboat. Capt. (Robert) Lumpp hired me.” It was July 1977.
Capt. Terry worked for Capt. Lumpp for the next 19 years, before he and his wife, Sandy, purchased the boat in 1997.
Just as they were in the days of Sam Clemens, riverboat pilots are a close-knit group. Capt. Steve Terry had two mentors in his craft: Capt. Robert Lumpp and Capt. Harold Eskew.
“Capt. Eskew, he was the guy who really trained me,” Capt. Terry said. “Eskew was the chief engineer who ran the boat” during Capt. Lumpp’s ownership, which meant he fixed everything. From Eskew, Capt. Terry learned “90 percent of boat operation and mechanical and electrical stuff.”
“From Capt. Lumpp I learned the business side and promotion side and how not to treat people. Capt. Lumpp didn’t enjoy running the boat as much as he did the business side of it.
“In 1993, I was the relief pilot,” Capt. Terry said, and Capt. Lumpp “asked me to come back full time. I was the ping pong ball between him and the customers and the crew, trying to keep peace.”
“One of last things (Capt. Eskew) ever told me, he looked at me and said, ‘you talk too much.’ He didn’t talk as much as I did” while piloting the Mark Twain Riverboat. “It was just stacked in there a little different.”
Some years ago, Capt. Terry bid farewell to Capt. Eskew, who lived outside of Springfield, Ill.
“We had special cruise, for 30 or 35 people who came. And then we had dinner for all that came to be there. He was a one-pot cook. He taught me how to make rigatoni and garlic bread. We had a nice time visiting.”
Now, Capt. Terry is preparing to bid a final farewell to Capt. Lumpp, who died April 30, 2023, in Florida.
“They are having his memorial service Nov. 11. I’m going down to speak,” per Capt. Lumpp’s wishes, Capt. Terry said.
By listening carefully to Capt. Terry as he narrates along the river cruise, passengers learn not only the historic significance of the river and its ties to Mark Twain, but he also shares information about current happenings along the river.
For example, during Tuesday afternoon’s cruise, (Oct. 10, 2023) he made note: “The Sir Robert (a harbor boat) is pushing four half loads of cement, just loaded this morning. It is my guess,” Capt. Terry said, “because they are half loads, they are headed to Memphis, Tenn. Below Memphis is where they’re having the most (low river level) problems.”
(Capt. Terry noted that the river reading at Memphis (on Oct. 13) is -11.2. It is supposed to be +5 or above.)
Passengers aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat also learn: The Mark Twain Riverboat is 120 feet long, 33 feet wide and is documented at 94 gross tons. When fully loaded, the boat draws six feet at the stern.
In 2000, when then-vice president, Al Gore, was launching his presidential bid, he and his wife, Tipper, rode aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat during daylight hours for five days, from LaCross, Wis., to Hannibal, making whistle stop visits at towns along the route.
“As people, he and his wife were pretty awesome,” Capt. Terry said. “My wife, Sandy, was really taken with them, and they thought she was awesome. “But when the cameras turned on, he turned in to somebody completely different.”
At the end of the cruise, just before docking on Hannibal’s riverfront, Capt. Terry blows a whistle sequence that has ties back to Sam Clemens’ riverboat days.
He warns those at the front of the boat to cover their ears, and prompts others aboard to count the number of times the whistle echoes off the hills of Hannibal.
“A long, two shorts, a long and a short.”
The sequence of the whistle was adopted from the Eagle Packet Boat Company out of Alton, Ill., one of the biggest packet companies, with ties back to the early days of steamboating. “They are no longer in business, so we have adopted their signal as our own,” Capt. Terry said.
Capt. Terry’s long-range goal is to serve as a pilot until he is 70, which would give him the distinction of 50 years as a Mississippi River pilot.
When Steve and Sandy Terry purchased the Mark Twain Riverboat, their original goal was to operate the boat for 15 seasons, then to move on to something else. But that didn’t happen.
“I originally thought my children would want to take over the business, but none have any interest.
“I think (daughter) Jenna had some interest in it, but at the same time she’s no longer with us, so that ship has sailed.”
“If there was any regret at all, it would be that.”
Tuesday afternoon’s excursion was Capt. Terry’s 505th trip of the season; 191 days in a row.
“I have two backup pilots, one on workman’s comp and the other is trying to get his renewal, and his renewal is held up in Washington D.C.”
“So here I am,” he said.
Regardless of how many trips he takes on the river, Capt. Terry is proud that he offers live and unique commentary on each excursion.
“You go on a lot of boats,” he said, and they have taped commentary. “They are not personable. Monotone. Drone. No, that’s not the way it should be. They should be hearing it like it’s the first time I’ve ever told it. That’s what I try to do.
“I like what I do. I like visiting with the people, I like giving them a nice boat ride. I like to tell the stories. I work with some very nice people, such as Gary Fowler and Colton Horstmeyer. I like being semi retired in the winter months. It all kind-of fits.
“When you have a new pilot and he takes his first solo trip and he comes back and is drenched in sweat. They say ‘you make it look so easy.’ I’ve only been doing it for 44 years.”
Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on Amazon.com by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870,” “Hannibal’s ‘West End,’ and the newest book, “Oakwood: West of Hannibal.” Montgomery can be reached at Montgomery.firstname.lastname@example.org Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com