On the Water

Chart Book, Upper Mississippi River

This book of navigation charts for the Upper Mississippi River was published in 1972 by the U.S. Army Engineer Division, North Central Corps of Engineers, in Chicago. It was owned and used by Capt. Jack Libbey, a river pilot from Lansing, Iowa, who steered tows on the Mississippi for over 25 years. He piloted many types of tows, but among the largest he handled on a routine basis were those made up of 15 barges, each measuring 200’ long, 35’ wide, and carrying about 1600 tons of cargo. Overall, these tows measured 1200’ long and 105’ wide, and took a great deal of skill and knowledge to pilot safely.

The chart book reflects Libbey’s working knowledge of the Mississippi River, still the nation’s major conduit for transporting grain and other bulk commodities. To become a pilot, Libbey was trained, tested, and licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. But like virtually all river pilots (including Mark Twain in the 1850s), he learned the ways of the river and the skills of the pilot from his elders and from experience.

That experience is revealed on these worn and weathered charts. Virtually every page has Libbey’s own markings and notations. In bold, red ink, he meticulously printed the names of major aids to navigation on both sides of the river, as well as the distance in miles from each marker to Cairo Point, the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers. Libbey’s handwriting stands out from the official markings and mapmakers’ symbols, and suggests the complex history of life along the river. Names like Winnebago, Muscatine, Maquoketa Levee, Zollicoffer, Pomme de Terre, and Wabasha reflect the region’s many cultural layers.

Captain Libbey also made navigational notes on the pages as a way of reminding himself to take special care in tricky situations. Steering under bridges in the shallow waters separating Iowa and Illinois inspired a number of notes, such as this one from December 10, 1975, concerning the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and Highway Bridge near Fort Madison, Iowa: “SB [Steering bridge] Keep stern on light and head on tank. When pilot house passes black bouy [sic] bring jackstaff around to 3rd pier out from channel span. Hold until red bouy below bridge opens up ½ way. Keep jackstaff on red bouy and stern 100 yds over from first Miss stacks. Slow ahead until lined up.”

Captain Libbey discussed being a pilot in an interview for the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in 1996. He said, “ . . . you’re moving at a pretty good clip, you have all this momentum, and you can’t just steer it on a dime. And what we do, we send the deckhands out to talk us through the bridge . . . . That’s why you have marks also, so you know, you can kind of double check what they’re saying to you. Very, very important. And that’s what makes a good pilot . . . is being able to get through the bridges.”

ID Number:
2006.0103.03
Material:
paper, wire
Date:
1972
Dimensions:
16 x 11 x 3/4 in.; 40.64 x 27.94 x 1.905 cm
Source:
Basil Jack Libbey

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