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The life of a riverboat captain

Prescott native Tom Struve always enjoyed his time on the river and dreamed of working on a towboat when he grew up. He spent 20 years as a full-time towboat captain and will share his experiences in his presentation, "Life of a Riverboat Captain," at 1 p.m. June 17 at Freedom Park in Prescott. Submitted photo 1 / 2
Tom Struve will talk about life as a towboat captain at Freedom Park on June 17. Copies of his recently published book, "All About Towboats," will be available for purchase. Submitted photo2 / 2

Growing up by the St. Croix River fostered one gentleman's love of the river and inspired him to work on a towboat when he got older.

Prescott native Tom Struve said his dreams of working on a towboat started early in his life.

"I grew up on a farm outside of Prescott," Struve said. "When I was 7 to 8 [years old] we moved to town. I spent every spare moment out on the river and dreamed about being on a towboat."

Struve started working on the river at a young age and his passion for the river grew.

"As a teenager [I] worked down by the marina," Struve said.

After he graduated from Prescott High School in 1970, Struve pursued his passion to work on a towboat.

"A captain named Lowell Bailey lived in Prescott at the time and he took me to Joliet, Illinois, to get enrolled in the deckhands union at that time [before Struve graduated from high school]," Struve said. "Then when I graduated from high school I went to Joliet and waited my turn till I got a job as a deckhand on a towboat."

Once he was in Joliet, Struve had to wait about two weeks before he was able to get a job as a deckhand. He said getting that first deckhand job is the hardest, but once he got one job it was easy to get other deckhand jobs.

"I got a job as a deckhand on the MV (motor vessel) Albert S. Heekin for the Valley Line Barge Line Company," Struve said. "We moved loaded coal barges that originated in the coal mining area of Illinois up and into the city of Chicago to power plants there."

Struve continued working as a deckhand to gain the experience he needed to become a pilot and captain. In order to become licensed as a towboat captain, Struve had to have 730 documented work days as a deckhand serving on a towboat.

"I studied on my own and was given the license examination at the Coast Guard station in Chicago, Illinois," Struve said. "The exam at that time took three days to write and map. I was the youngest captain ever licensed at that office when they issued my 1000 Ton First Class Pilot License in April of 1973, the year and month I turned 21."

Struve became a pilot and within 60 days the company he was working for advanced him to captain. He continued his career as a towboat captain for many years before moving on to other career options.

"I worked for 20 years as a full time towboat captain, migrated a little to heavy marine construction and then began the next phase of my working career as a public works operations manager for the cities of Eagan and Minnetonka, Minnesota," Struve said. "I continued to work as a pilot of towboats periodically after that also. I retired from Minnesota public employment in 2012 when we moved to Goodyear, Arizona. Goodyear is a western suburb of Phoenix. I went to work for the city of Avondale, Arizona, right next door and I continue to work there serving as their Pavement Management Coordinator."

No matter where his career took him, Struve knew that someday he wanted to share his experience on towboats with people. Wherever he went people asked him what it was like to be on a towboat, so he thought he would like to write about his experiences in a book. He recently published "All About Towboats" and will give a presentation titled "Life of a Riverboat Captain" at the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center at 1 p.m. June 17 at Freedom Park in Prescott. Struve will share his experiences on the river, but will have plenty of time to answer questions.

People who attend will have a chance to learn some interesting things, such as how a towboat steers completely different than a car because it turns in the back, that much of the water towboats travel in isn't as deep as people think, and that the captain always has to have a crash plan in place.

Working and living on a towboat is a different way of life than most people are familiar with.

"Living and working aboard a line-haul towboat is six hours on and six hours off 24 hours a day for most commonly 30-day shifts," Struve said. "Most jobs offer an equivalent amount of time off so that is a plus. One of the biggest differences between living and working on a towboat and a job shoreside is the constant change. You go to job on shore and most things change little including co-workers, etc. Living and working on a towboat means constant change. Change of crews, tows, circumstances."

For more information about his book, go to