Reading Mark Twain, comparing truckers to a steamboat pilots

January 11, 2019

Chuck Robinson


I often read late at night. Right now I am reading about Mark Twain’s career as a steamboat pilot in his book “Life on the Mississippi.”

I read it on a Samsung tablet, which would be handy in the cab of a truck. You can download a free copy of the book through Project Gutenberg.

While reading this book, it seems natural for people associated with trucking to ponder correlations between the steamboat pilots of the 1800s and the trucking industry today.

I grew up in Iowa. It is sandwiched between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Our family vacationed on the Mississippi. Given that, no wonder I am drawn to Twain’s book. However, the river differs greatly from Twain’s river. He mentions the physical changes starting with the construction of wing dams, dikes, lighted crossing markers and bank protection in the late 1800s.

Perhaps largely thanks to Twain, the magic of the steamboat era has long outlasted the era itself. In a mere 60 years or so, steamboats came into being, became transcendent and seemingly indestructible, and then abruptly ended.

Here are the reasons that Twain lists, distilled to bullet points:

  • Specialized knowledge of the river was required of steamboat pilots.
  • High rates charged by steamboat pilots, who were protected by a pilot’s association, and the companies that hired them.
  • The growth of rail, also powered by steam but requiring less specialized knowledge of the route.
  • The advent of towboats pushing several cargo barges at a time.
  • The Civil War, which abruptly curtailed traffic.
  • Theft and scandal in the steamboat pilots’ association by its treasurer.

The first bullet point, about the specialized knowledge of the steamboat pilots, is echoed by the knowledge truck drivers need. However, I won’t dwell on that here.

The second bullet point is not much echoed in today’s trucking business, but maybe it once was.

With the steamboat pilots, the association helped bolster pay rates. At first the shipping companies balked. However, they found they could pass the costs on to the farmers and tack on more for themselves. It made for a happy time for both parties.

The pilots’ association also helped devise a method of communicating the ever-changing location of snags in the river and other ways that the river kept transforming.

For more on all of this, read Chapter 15, “The Pilots’ Monopoly.”

In trucking today, we don’t have the monopolistic hold enjoyed by the steamboat pilots’ association. As a result, not as much money comes to drivers percentagewise.

However, once upon a time things were different. Now I draw from a Land Line article by John Bendel, contributing editor-at-large, the trucking sage of New Jersey. In December 2018 he wrote a commentary titled “The driver pay problem – how we got here.” You need to read it and maybe re-read it. It is clear, concise and thought-provoking.

In the article, Bendel recalls a time in the mid-1900s when truckers had a steamboat pilots’ association of their own, the Teamsters. At the same time, the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated trucking in minute detail. It regulated rates and required them to be published. Blessed with an exemption from antitrust laws, carriers created rate bureaus and fixed rates favorable to drivers and carriers. The Teamsters could negotiate contracts with groups of carriers at a time even though they might be competitors.

In 1964, Teamster chief Jimmy Hoffa engineered the first national labor contract in 1964. For 15 years or so, driver pay was good.

“Even nonunion carriers had to raise pay to attract drivers,” Bendel wrote.

It resembles the steamboat pilot’s association that Twain described, I think.

The trucking industry changed greatly when Congress passed the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. That wiped out the trucking industry’s exemption from antitrust laws. It stoked competition among carriers. Driver pay has suffered.

Again, I say, read Bendel’s take on this.

The third and fourth bullet points might relate to trucking today. Self-driving trucks and platooning might be the trains and towboats of the trucking industry.

Some fortune tellers are bleak about the prospects for truckers (see Land Line’s “Autonomous trucks report suggests bleak future for long-haul owner-operators” from December 2018). Others say it isn’t coming soon. However, it is clear that manufacturers are keyed up about the prospects.

There are dozens of Land Line headlines to this point, but here are a few:

Also, lawmakers are clearing the way by amending following-too-closely regulations to accommodate platoons and allowing testing of autonomous and driver-assistive technology. Here is a short survey of Land Line coverage:

OOIDA has stepped into the discussion, too, to protect the rights of all truckers.

The fifth bullet point, about the Civil War, correlates not at all for today’s trucking industry despite what seems like a politically polarized society.

The sixth bullet point, about the scoundrel stealing association funds, seems equally unapplicable to trucking now. We still have scoundrels, but the industry is too large for just one to deliver such a blow.

Historical distance rounds the edges of events and anguish. Twain’s prose also is comforting. However, the steamboat pilot’s life provides depth to the history-making pressures on truckers today.

We are at a crossroads. Big changes are afoot. It is more important now than ever for truckers to work together to guide and inform the debate about regulatory reform and the many issues affecting the trucking industry. Our era is not at an end.