August 6, 2016
West End, Downtown, Lowertown
A trip Downtown via Shepard Road seemed like a good idea. And so I got onto the Sam Morgan trail and took it from Highland Park to Lambert’s Landing on the edge of Downtown and Lowertown.
Docked at the Landing was an enormous Army Corps of Engineers tow boat awash with people. Then I saw the sign advertising an open house on the boat. I hesitated only to lock my bike before scaling the gangplank to the M/V (Motor Vessel) Mississippi.
I worked my up several very clean and polished flights of stairs to the boat’s upper-most level, called the pilothouse. That’s where I met Jeffrey Hopkins, nattily dressed in his khaki Army Corps uniform, each shoulder decorated with a black epaulet with three gold stripes and a gold anchor.
Jeffrey is a first mate-steersman for the M/V Mississippi, the largest diesel towboat operating on the Mississippi River. The Memphis, TN-based Mississippi is 241 feet long, 58 feet wide, and five decks high. the vessel holds up to 150 passengers, has 22 staterooms for crew and visitors, a dining room that seats 85 and a conference room that seats 115 people.
The M/V Mississippi has two major missions. The vessel’s primary mission (about 90 percent), Jeffrey said, is to help with river bank stabilization work – called revetment – on the lower Mississippi River (about 1,000 miles, from Cairo, IL to the Gulf of Mexico.) “Revetment consists of three or four crews that work to repair damage to the banks of the river or protect it from future damage.”
Added Jeffrey, “The Corps of Engineers is always in the mission to maintain the river and the river banks and the levee system. If the river caves in, the levee behind it will be in jeopardy and the levy is ultimately saving all the farm land and property behind the levees. So if you protect the banks that get to the levee you’re essentially protecting everybody else.”
The other part of the M/V Mississippi’s mission is political. Each spring and late summer, the Mississippi River Commission conducts a series of public meetings aboard the vessel. “Everybody that touches this river has a stake, a voice, and the commission is here to listen to that voice and essentially push that up to Congress to help direct where future monies go towards this River.”
That’s why the pilot house looks a lot like a family room, with plush leather couches and chairs, end tables with magazines and a coffee pot.
“This boat is built for so many different missions. It’s got a lot of staterooms on here for major events. It becomes a command center during major events.” In fact, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the M/V Mississippi was sent to Vicksburg, Mississippi and used as a floating command center until conditions allowed it to be set up on land.
When we met, Jeffrey had been a crew member aboard the M/V Mississippi for just over a year. In that year-plus he upgraded his Coast Guard license and his position on the Mississippi to First Mate-Steersman. “With some luck and learning the river this year. I’ll be promoted to Pilot, which is also called the Assistant Master.”
“This boat is built for so many different missions. It’s got a lot of staterooms on here for major events. It becomes a command center during major events.”Jeffrey Hopkins, first mate-steersman of the M/V Mississippi.
Jeffrey got hooked on river life when he was a boy. He began working on the Mississippi River when he was younger than 10. “I was a gas boy at the Marina in Dubuque, Iowa. I also helped run the boats in the marina when they had a boat show, and clean the boats and cut the grass and weeded around the marina.” A few years later Jeffrey helped his dad run a charter boat service in Dubuque.
“If you’re going to become a tow boat captain, Master of Towing vessels it takes a minimum of 1,080 days just to get to make Pilot and another year to get the full Master of Towing, so a minimum of four years. To get to Mate of an Unlimited Tonnage Vessel on the inland waters, you need a minimum of 1,080 days. That’s three years non-stop eight-hour days just to get to the Mate level and I’m at the Mate level, but I hold the Master-Unlimited Tonnage that I just got this May. So I started my first Licensing in 1994, I started with a 50-ton license.”
It’s not just hundreds of hours that Jeffrey’s dedicated at the helm of increasingly larger vessels to upgrade his Coast Guard license. There’s also learning five modules (and about 100 submodules) of complex material about maritime law, Inland River Navigational Rules, handling the boat in a multitude of weather and water conditions, and safety, all for the Master-Unlimited Tonage certification. https://www.dco.uscg.mil/nmc/exams/RVR01-master-rivers-of-unlimited-tonnage-Q300-Q383/. After all that studying, Jeffrey had to pass the 300 question Coast Guard test.
All crew members have an arduous work schedule aboard the Mississippi. The deck department – those responsible for ship navigation from the pilot house – works six hours on six hours off, which is called the “square watch.” “I’m on the front watch,” Jeffrey told me. “That means I work the first six hours before noon and the first six hours before midnight. My relief is another Steersman First Mate. He relieves me at noon and comes on watch and then I relieve him at six and we just keep that rotation going on all 24 hours a day until we get off the boat.”
Jeffrey continued, “The engineers are working straight 12s. That’s by choice by their department. The stewards and cooks are working this straight 12s, 5 a.m. till 5 p.m. basically. The typical work schedule for Jeffrey and his crewmates is two weeks (14 days) on, followed by seven days off.”
I asked Jeffrey why he feels the nearly incalculable years of training and study, the long work days, and the time away from his family, have been worth it? “Take a look around. This is the best office you can have. I’ve got 12, 14 windows. Some people fight their whole career to get that office window in the corner of a building and I get a 360 degree view. Plus it’s fun going up and down the river. Piloting is enjoyable and you make a lot of friends out here on the river.”
“Often people get a job on a barge industry barge and work as a deckhand; work your way up to pilot, because all the pilot is just an old deckhand.”Jeffrey Hopkins
Jeffrey admitted that the work schedule is at times trying. “It is a hardship to be away from family for a long period of time but the love of the rivers is what keeps most of us out here.”
Even getting on or off the boat to change crews can be tricky because of unexpected mission and schedule changes. “If the boat can’t physically get back to crew change spot on crew change day, they might have to get a government van, load people up, bring them down further south to meet the boat because it just couldn’t make it back on time, whether it’s weather related or mission-related.”
Jeffrey’s situation is complicated because he lives in Wisconsin and the boat is based in Memphis. “I try to buy plane tickets out of Jackson, Mississippi, New Orleans or Memphis and you don’t know for sure if the boat’s going to be close to any one of those. We try to make it to an assigned area to do crew change, but sometimes it doesn’t work out and you got to meet the boat somewhere down river. Sometimes along the Levee and pushed into the bank, using a ladder to get on board, crossing the levee.”
The crew quarters aboard the Mississippi are comfortable but modest. Each crew member gets a bed in a stateroom which will accommodate their clothing and a few personal items. “(It) is a unique style of living. You have to get used to it. It’s a bunk bed and depending on what rank and how long you been with the boat, and which stateroom you get moved in, you might be on the top bunk or the bottom.”
“We do wash your clothes on here and we were fed several meals a day and we have an exercise room, but just getting moved into it is a little bit of work. Now, if you’re somebody that it isn’t a regular member of the crew you have to plan ahead for trying to get on the boat with one backpack or small amount of bags.
Between the conversation with Jeffrey and the tour of the Mississippi, I managed to stay beyond the end of the open house. In my defense, I wasn’t the only person to disembark late.
Upon getting back on the bike, my next stop was at Needels Company, manufacturer and reseller of cleaning supplies and equipment. The company has been at 444 Wacouta Street for more than 75 years.
Within two blocks to the north are a pair of dramatic churches that have been in Lowertown for decades. The first is The Church of St. Mary, a Catholic house of worship built in in the early 1900s. Most noticeable is its landmark white steeple that rises above Lowertown.
Close by, another church, this one a Lowertown landmark more than 125 years old, beckoned. This building at Ninth and Wacouta is the third home of the First Baptist Church of Saint Paul.
According to the Minnesota Historical Society, Harriet Bishop (Saint Paul’s first teacher) and pastor John P. Parsons from Vermont, worked together to form the church. Twelve men and women, including Bishop (Harriet) and the bishop, formally approved the church covenant on December 29, 1849. The small congregation initially met in Bishop’s schoolhouse. Two years later the parishioners moved to a new meeting house on the present site of Lowertown’s Mears Park. In 1862 First Baptist Church relocated to a newly constructed stone chapel at Eighth and Wacouta. By the early 1870s the congregation had grown to more than 300 members leading to the need for a bigger church. The current building, which opened in May 1875, was the largest and most expensive religious structure built in city, according to church history.
Church records indicate First Baptist congregants have been progressive since its early years.
Although reports vary, First Baptist had some limited involvement in the creation of Pilgrim Baptist Church, Minnesota’s first African American congregation. Reports are that a group of former slaves led by Robert T. Hickman settled in Minnesota in May 1863. A year later they were granted “mission status” by First Baptist. In November 1866 Hickman and other former slaves officially created Pilgrim Baptist Church.
A Chinese language bible class was started in 1912. During World War II, First Baptist welcomed 25 Japanese people who came to Minnesota from internment camps or stationed at Fort Snelling. At about the same time a large Mexican congregation worshiped there.
First Baptist continues its tradition of serving immigrants who settle Saint Paul.
The two Lowertown churches wrapped up the sightseeing portion of the ride, leaving just the eight mile predominantly uphill climb home.
Click here for a map of this ride.