Don’t call them tugboats.
The ubiquitous movers and shakers that push cargo up and down the Mississippi River are called towboats. It’s just one fact about the boats you’d know if you owned a copy of “The Little Tow-Watcher’s Guide,” the recently updated guide written by Winona author Pamela Eyden.
The popular guide offers a comprehensive list of the towboats that travel the upper Mississippi, from the American Beauty to the Walter E Blessey. The updates include a short history of towboats, as well as a short-story excerpt by towboat captain Bob Deck about his experiences lashing together barges near St. Paul.
Eyden decided to write the guide in the 1990s shortly after she moved to Winona and began to experience the river and its culture.
“I would walk out to the levee and see the towboats. They were weird and gigantic, so I started watching them,” she said.
She soon realized that no two tows are alike.
“There were big towboats and small ones. Some were old and worn out, while others were new,” she said.
Eyden, a bird-watching enthusiast, “had this hare-brained idea to do a bird-watcher’s guide to towboats,” she said.
She got towboat names from area locks and dams, talked to towboat operators and captains about working on the river, and logged the trickiest places to navigate for the crafts, which move barges sometimes wider than 100 feet and as long as 1,000.
Near Minneiska, Minn., one spot is so narrow and winding that towboats have to make an 80-degree turn.
“Watching them do that is quite a feat,” she said.
Eyden’s guide, first released in 1996, is popular with both people who follow the river, and those who live on or near it, particularly those who own houseboats.
Recently, Eyden received a copy of the second edition of her guide that a man had used for many years.
“You could tell that he had thumbed through the pages several times, and that it had fallen into the river and been dried out,” Eyden said.
Eyden said she hadn’t planned on updating her book after the fourth revision, but eventually gave in to popular demand.
“It was always just a fun little project that got me closer to the river,” she said.