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The Sprague was 'Big Mama' of towboats
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The Sprague was 'Big Mama' of towboats

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The Sprague, the largest steam towboat ever built, was built by William Peter Sprague while he was in his 70s. He built it for the Monogahela River Consolidated Coal and Coke Co. The company was formed in October., 1899 when over 90 independent coal operators of Pittsburgh were consolidated, becoming the largest river operation of all time.

Someone was needed to take the immense responsibility of the job of maintaining their fleet of over 100 steam towboats. Mr. Sprague took it when he was 71. He later built the Sprague to take the place of the Smoky City which went up in flames at Pittsburgh in 1900. The “Big Mama”, as the Sprague became known, took the place of several towboats. Tender boats traveled with the Sprague to deliver and pick up barges along the route. The boat took empty coal boats from New Orleans to Louisville.

The Sprague was built at Dubuque, Iowa, by the Iowa Iron Works. Three trainloads of steel, including two full carloads of rivets, went into the boat’s construction. The boat was 318 feet in length with the paddlewheel. Her sternwheeler was 40 feet, later shortened to 38 feet ,in diameter to give the boat more speed and power. The boat had 2,079 horsepower and six Hopkins boilers. The high-pressure cylinder measured 28 inches in diameter and the low-pressure cylinder 63 inches with a 12-foot stroke. “It’s kinda hard to understand that a boat can actually be designed to do what these boats do-just as their steamboat forefathers did,” William Zumwalt, known as “Old River Bill,” told me. “Meaning churn mudd & chew stumps and survive going aground on a daily basis without damage to their hull, steering or wheels,” he said. (Today the propellers are still called wheels, he said. He also wanted my readers to know that tugboat is an incorrect term for a towboat.)

The Sprague was launched at the Dubuque Ice Harbor on Dec. 5, 1901. The boat had to carry a large number of coal flats to keep her steam up. It consumed coal in tons per hour rates, or by the truckload by today’s standards. Boilers were hand fed by crewmen with shovels and wheelbarrows.

In February, 1907 the Sprague set the record for the world’s largest coal tow, pushing 60 barges and carrying the equivalent of 1,500 railroad cars of coal. The Sprague also set a world’s towing record for oil, pushing 19 barges with 11 million gallons of crude oil. “Mainly due to the massive tows and cargo she could handle, that were often so-massive in size, they caused the Mississippi to actually run backwards after she passed going upriver, “wrote Mr. Zumwalt on his Web site.

“Some accounts claim her ‘wheel wash’ would often splash the banks for hours after she passed.”

The Sprague rescued about 20,000 people fleeing the high waters of the great flood of 1927. People stood on barges surrounded by chicken wire with no place to sleep.

The boat was decommissioned at Memphis, Tenn. in 1948 and laid up at Vicksburg, Miss. as a floating museum. “As we swung around the big bend and looked up the Yazoo the captain handed me the glasses to pick out the Sprague moored to the Vicksburg Landing, “ wrote Walter Havighurst in his book “Voices of the River.” "The big vessel was freshly painted on the shoreward side; the rest of her was peeling and rusty.” Apparently the captain preferred to remember the “Big Mama” when she pushed 50 barges up the river according to Mr. Havighurst. The boat’s captain kept a pen of chickens on the roof, feeding them on millions of willow bugs killed by the steamer’s arc lights.

(Today the Old Court House Museum at Vicksburg houses a steamboat display that includes the original captain’s wheel and parts to the Sprague. Captain Peter Sprague was inducted to the National Rivers Hall of Fame Sept., 29, 2000.)

Marlene Gantt of Port Byron teaches in Rock Island.

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