The RED Towboats under the Old High Bridge


Robert E. Draine worked his whole life on the river. As a licensed steam and diesel engineer, he rode the old Blaske boats up and down the Upper Mississippi until he got the urge to be his own boss. He bought a little fleet of small towboats in 1971 from local riverman Old Man Harris and set up shop in Saint Paul.

Draine’s initials are RED, so he painted his towboats red and white. Draine-O, as his crews affectionately nicknamed him, called his business Capitol Barge Service. He kept his new fleet of four harbor towboats moored to a small wharf-barge under the old Smith Avenue High Bridge.

Anyone walking across the old bridge between 1969 and 1987 could look over the Shepard Road side of the bridge and see the Mike Harris, Harry Harris, Lois E, or Arlene tied up to the wharf when towboats weren’t busy pushing barges up through the locks at St. Anthony or up the Minnesota River to the grain facilities around Savage.

Draine could do any job on the boats himself. It wasn’t unusual for him to get up in the middle of the night, jump into his jon boat, and locate one of the towboats pushing barges somewhere out on the river. He would pull up alongside and clamber aboard, tinker with something in the engine room, then head for the pilothouse to check on channel conditions with the pilot.

He was piloting the Harry Harris the day a kid jumped off the High Bridge in front of the office barge. Another deckhand jumped into the river and fished the limp body out, then dragged the jumper onto his boat, which was pushing loaded barges to Minneapolis. Draine-O touched up to the other boat with the Harry Harris and we took over the body. Once the boy was lying splayed out on the head deck, he whispered to me, “I wished I hadn’t a-done that.” Draine-O grinned at me from the pilothouse. “Good. It means he’s gonna make it.”

I worked for Draine-O from 1977 until he sold the business in 1987. He hired me as a young deckhand, and after I gained some piloting experience, he took me on as one of his pilots. I was quite proud in 1982, when he allowed me to be the first pilot besides himself to drive the Lois E, named after his beloved mother.

Working for the cranky old Scotsman was a unique experience. He could be extremely prickly about the smallest details. He chewed me out once for forgetting how to perform some minor task in the engine room of the Mike Harris. “I don’t have time to retrain my utility men every year!” he growled.

But he could also be extremely patient, as he was once during a drought, when three days in a row I stubbed my tow of barges on a point bar below the 35W Minnesota River bridge. I expected to get a pound of my rump bitten off and handed back to me. Instead, Draine-O simply said, “Well, did you learn anything?”

Years later, he paid me his highest compliment: “Robert, I hope you work for me until they pat dirt on my face.”

The barge business dropped off dramatically over the years, and Draine sold out to a big grain outfit from St. Louis the year before they tore down the old High Bridge in 1985. He stuck around for another year, trying to teach the new owners how to run towboats in Saint Paul, but the company went under a few years later. They just weren’t able to run a business the same way here that they ran their operations downriver. There are no more men like Draine-O, who could wrench on the engines, turn the ropes loose, drive the boat, and then manage the finances. It’s all pencil pushers and business majors now. The days of “towbiz” are gone, and with them a bit of Saint Paul’s history.