Huguley son reminisces on 30 years as riverboat pilot on Mississippi River

Published 8:00 am Saturday, June 8, 2024

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VALLEY — Kenny Williams was like most young people who were growing up in the Valley in the 1960s. He lived with his family in the Huguley community, and most of the adults he knew worked in the local mills.

As a young boy, he loved to read the books of Mark Twain and his stories about life on the Mississippi River in the 1800s. He wondered if riverboat captains in the twentieth century had the same exciting kind of life as the ones who lived in the nineteenth century.

He got bitten by the wanderlust bug, so much so that when he graduated from Valley High in 1972 he moved to New Orleans and sought training as a tow boat operator. He was still just 17 when he got a license to do that, and being on the Mississippi opened up a whole new world for him.

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He piloted tow boats up and down the river and its tributaries for 25 years before transitioning into a cruise ship pilot. He now works for Viking and drives their huge ships on 21-day cruises along America’s mightiest river from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minnesota.

Williams talked about his career as a river pilot at Monday’s meeting of the Valley Lions Club.

Though he’s been all over the U.S., Chambers County is still home to him. When he’s not on the Mississippi or with his wife out west, he’s back home not far from Chambers County Lake.

“I started my career on the river in 1972 and fifty-two years later I’m still with it,” Williams said. “I love what I do and wouldn’t change it for anything else in the world. I am so glad I read Mark Twain when I was young. I still have many of his books and have collected all kinds of stuff about Mark Twain over the years. Obviously, his writing had a big influence on my life.”

Williams said that most Americans have no idea how important barge transportation is to the U.S. economy. One barge on the Mississippi, for example, can carry more cargo than 70 tractor-trailers. 

The typical barge displaces approximately nine feet of water. Most are about 35 feet wide and over 200 feet long. They can carry more than 1,400 tons of cargo on any trip. Most carry sand, coal, soybeans and other agricultural products, and lots of fuel. 

“I have carried fuel for Space Shuttle missions and for Elon Musk’s Space X program,” Williams said.

A skilled tow boat captain can guide a fleet of 35 to 40 barges at a time.

If anyone has ever been stopped by a train at a railroad crossing and seen the lettering on passing boxcars or tanker cars they may have seen the designation ADM followed by a series of numbers with an X at the end. The ADM stands for Archer Daniels Midland, and the X means they privately own the car.

Williams said that Archer Daniels Midland was one of his best customers when he was towing barges. For more than 75 years, Archer Daniels Midland has been a global leader in human and animal nutrition. The company transports vast quantities of food items by water and rail.

Williams is now into carrying lots and lots of passengers on the mighty Mississippi. Viking is best known for its cruises on European rivers but also runs a healthy business in the U.S. While the famed Viking longships of the past could carry limited crews of oarsmen, the modern ones are basically what could be called a huge hotel on water. 

“It can hold up to 387 passengers and 100 crew members at a time,” Williams said. “It has a 2,500 horsepower diesel engine and uses around 10,000 gallons of fuel in a day. A Viking river ship holds 150,000 gallons.”

(Try putting that much in your car at Circle K).

“We run on No. 2 diesel, and it takes four hours to fill up,” Williams said. “To say the least, it’s a big upgrade from a tugboat.”

While the Viking longships could be up to 65 feet in length, today’s Viking river ships are well over 440 feet long.

Both in Europe and in the U.S., Viking is recognized as the World’s No. 1 river cruise line. Its 21-day trip from New Orleans to St. Paul covers more than 2,000 miles and takes in such attractions as the French Quarter in New Orleans and its world-famous Creole cuisine, and upriver in Baton Rouge, the Cajun food is first rate. There’s plenty of Civil War history at the stop in Vicksburg, and in Memphis, there’s great barbecue, Graceland and Delta Blues. All along the route are steamboat sightings and lots of wildlife.

One of Williams’ favorite stops is at Hannibal, Missouri and Mark Twain’s boyhood home. The farther one goes upriver, the more common are sightings of the bald eagle, America’s national symbol. Guests and riverboat pilots alike love this. On the upper reaches of the trip is a place called Vesterheim. It’s where visitors can experience Norwegian culture. There are also lots of locks the boat has to travel through.

“They are 14 miles apart on the upper Mississippi,” Williams said. “I just can’t tell you how much a boy who grew up in Huguley loves driving that $360 million boat on the Mississippi River.  I never get tired of it.”

The big boat can’t travel fast. It’s anywhere from five to eight miles per hour upstream and 17 mph downstream. That’s okay. It’s the laid-back, luxurious pace that everyone enjoys.

There’s a full engineering crew on board at all times to make sure the ship is running in tip-top condition.

There’s a common misconception about who actually steers the ship and keeps everyone safe. It’s the pilot, not the captain.

“The captain has so much paperwork to do,” Williams said. “It’s his job to make sure everything is going smoothly on the ship.”

On most trips, Williams pilots Viking’s Mississippi. His favorite is The Delta Queen. Built in 1924, it’s one of the most legendary boats that has ever plied the Mississippi.

While Williams is piloting the boat, his wife is the chief of security. 

“She recently retired,” he said. “When she was with security, she would walk seven miles every night checking on things.”

Crew members are treated well on Viking river cruises. 

“Our personal accommodations are very good,” Williams said. “I have no complaints on that. We have good views, satellite TV, access to the pool and the exercise room. Each town we stop at is about 70 miles from the last one.”

“It’s so much fun driving that big boat,” Williams said. “I had wanted to do that for a long time before I was able to get on with Viking. The pilot gets to see so much that’s going on along the river. There’s lots of barge traffic and people on the river in boats. You get to see so many eagles, deer and other kinds of animals. One stop along the way in Minnesota is called the Bald Eagle Capital of the World. The movie Grumpy Old Men was filmed there.”

Williams’ travels on the water have not been limited to the Mississippi. He’s been as far east as Pittsburgh. That’s where the Allegheny and the Monongahela come together to form the Ohio. From there it’s some 980 miles to where it joins the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois.

Williams likes to come back to stay in Chambers County for a while before heading back to the mighty Mississippi or to one of his wife’s homes in the far west.

Reading those stories about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer paid off pretty good for him. He’s been able to live a dream those boys never had.