These Guys Tow Coal Barges, Hear Them Discuss Jobs, the Environment, Pollution

Aug 30, 2019

A decline in coal production over the past decade affected more than just coal miners. It also impacted the riverboat industry. Amherst Madison is a riverboat company based outside Charleston, West Virginia. For decades, the company has made most of their money towing coal barges. But a downturn in coal meant the company had to look for other ways to stay afloat. 

West Virginia Public Broadcasting spent some time with these folks inside the river industry, and we asked them what the future of the industry looks like.

Aboard the Dreama G. Woods, Captain Marvin L. Wooten tows five barges of coal along the river (a load of more than 8,000 tons). 

Captain Marvin Wooten pushes five loads of coal along the Kanawha River. He has worked for Amherst Madison since 1979.
Credit Eric Douglas/ WVPB

He started working for Amherst Madison in 1979. “I got two job offers the same day, and I took this job. My dad always said the river will always be there. So that’s what I’ve chosen to make my living at.” 

A captain earns about $500-$600 a day, usually more than $100,000 a year. “I’ve made a good living,” Wooten said. 

Deckhands working on a coal barge as the tow boat goes through the Marmet locks and dam.
Credit Eric Douglas/ WVPB

But it’s not just the money that keeps Wooten working here after forty years. It’s also the comradery he feels for his crew, and the rest of the men who work with him along this river.

“I want to go where somebody knows me by name,” Wooten said. “They call it a mom and a pop place. And that’s about what this is like.”  

He shows an article in a magazine, featuring his boss Charlie Jones. “Good river man. Treats his people with respect.”

Charlie Jones, chairman of Amherst Madison.
Credit Eric Douglas/ WVPB

Back on dry land, Mr. Jones can be found in his office, managing the company's finances. This company has been in his family for over a hundred years. At 101 years old, he still comes to work each day.

"I think you just got to be practical. You can't keep loading a planet up with people. Unless you do something with the toxicity they produce."- Charlie Jones

He said he has faith that his riverboat company will survive, but he warned that they need to diversify. They won't always be able to survive by transporting coal. 

“If you look at all the companies that have tried to survive by doing the same thing, they haven't been able to make it,” Jones said.

Already, his company has taken on more jobs shipping rocks, chemicals, and doing construction work along rivers and ports throughout the east coast. They have jobs in Nashville, and in Cairo, Illinois. They’ve diversified, Jones said, largely because his company had to downsize a few years ago, when the coal industry took a big hit. He blames the Obama administration for that. 

“President Obama started this crusade shutting down coal mines,” Jones said, referring to environmental regulations that put restrictions on the emissions from coal fired power plants.

But despite his feelings toward those restrictions ruled by the Obama administration, Jones said he believes we have to clean up our air. He doesn’t call himself an environmentalist, but a pragmatist. 

Five barges full of coal being transported along the Kanawha River in Marmet, W.Va.
Credit Eric Douglas/ WVPB

“Are we concerned about the quality of our air? Well let's do something about it. We're not doing anything about it right now. I’d say there's a big challenge ahead of us.”

Jones said he thinks the planet has a limit, and points out that in his lifetime, the population across the globe has exploded. 

“I think you just got to be practical. You can't keep loading a planet up with people. Unless you do something with the toxicity they produce,” Jones said.

And he said this includes trying to reduce emissions from boats — or possibly even changing the type of fuel they use to power their fleet. They currently use diesel. 

But Jones said Amherst Madison is looking to try to adapt to a renewable source of fuel -- one day. 

In Europe and China, some countries are exploring intermodal transportation — a combination of rail, boat and truck transportation to ship goods long distance, as a way to be more sustainable. Here in the United States, however, water transportation isn’t often discussed. 

Charlie Jones being interviewed by Roxy Todd.
Credit Eric Douglas/ WVPB

Jones said he feels like most people ignore the river shipping industry, when they talk about infrastructure, or transportation. “And very few people know anything about it. Particularly the politicians.”

Infrastructure along the waterways is managed through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They maintain all the locks and dams, and their latest budget includes an increase in funding from the federal government to improve infrastructure along waterways, a total of more than $4 billion. That budget has been increasing every year since President Donald Trump took office. 

There’s also been a major change in how Jones manages the finances of Amherst Madison. A few years ago, when his son Nelson, who was going to take over the family business, died from cancer, Jones decided to turn over the ownership of the company to his 300 employees. As of this year, his employees all share in the fate of the company -- and in the profits. 

A tow boat owned and operated by Amherst Madison.
Credit Eric Douglas/ WVPB

Back on the Dreama G. Woods towboat, Captain Marvin Wooten said he’s cautiously optimistic about this new redistribution of the company’s profits.

“I’m 60 years old. I probably won’t see much reward from it.” But he has a son who works for the company. “He’s 19 years old. If he sticks around till he’s 40 years old, he’ll reap the rewards of it. I think it’s a good thing. If everything goes the way they’re hoping it will.”

Like Charlie Jones, Wooten said he’s not interested in retiring anytime soon. He said he would miss the crew, the people he works with. He would also miss the views. 

Credit Eric Douglas/ WVPB

This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia about the ways people interact with rivers.