James Coomer

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When young James Coomer was offered a job as deckhand on the tugboat Pat Murphy at a dollar an hour, he took his first smell of diesel fuel and knew he was hooked. Life on the Ohio puts the reader in the pilot’s seat as Coomer wrestles with runaway barges, navigates through ice and fog, pacifies angry crew members, and contends with the loneliness of working a thirty-day stretch. A modern counterpart to Twain’s account of life as a steamboat pilot, Life on the Ohio depicts the working river as it is today with its immense towboats, gigantic locks and dams, and millions of tons of cargo. Coomer captures the movement of the boats and the colorful language of river people. Coomer admits that he stuck at his job not for money but for love of the river and his work. “Over the years I had experiences I wouldn’t trade for a barge full of gold,” he says, “and that's what this book is all about.”

Worth the trip. -- Booklist

One that river buffs will enjoy. -- Filson Club Historical Quarterly

A fascinating series of sketches of river life told by a keen observer. -- S & D Reflector

Shows that Mark Twain's steamboat genre is equally compelling when the captain's voice emanates from the wheelhouse of a post-World War II 3,000-horsepower diesel towboat. -- The American Neptune

This riverman's memoir never fails to keep the reader's attention tightly moored. -- The Valley Magazine

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Ohio River


United States History

Life on the Ohio
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