By Martha Jacob –
The Ohio River is over 980 miles long running from Pittsburg, through six states before entering the Great Mississippi River. All year long barges filled with everything from coal, to gravel and sand to chemicals of all kinds slowly move up and down the river each day.
One Ripley resident knows first hand about life on the river. Darrin Brookbank, a Ripley High School graduate, has spent his entire life working on the river, as did his father and his grandfather.
Darrin Brookbank began working for his father, Donald Brookbank’s company, Brookbank River, Inc. when he was only 14 years old, cleaning the barges when they were emptied making $20 a piece.
“It was a hard job cleaning the old dirty barges, but it’s what my dad did, it’s what I chose to do and it’s what my brother Donnie chose to do,” Brookbank said. “My dad’s company did real good for a lot of years, hauling and unloading sand and gravel, concrete and blacktop. But then the really big companies from Cincinnati moved into our area and bought all the little companies out. They had their own barges, so we just couldn’t compete with them.
“We had to choice to start traveling to look for work elsewhere or go to work at a Cincinnati or Huntington company that could offer things we couldn’t, like insurance and 401K and pensions, so we had to let it go.”
Brookbank said his father operated the company for over 55 years. “A lot of people know my dad,” Brookbank said. “He had his own old 1923 paddle boat which he just sold about five years ago. It was called the Donald B and most people around here remember it going up and down the river.”
Brookbank has been working for Maysville Harbor moving coal for Eastern Kentucky Power Plant (EKP) for the past 10 years. He pushes at least 15 barges at a time approximately 15 miles. He works 12 hour shifts five days in a row, then has a day off then works five nights in a row and has four days off.
“That’s pretty much my life…” Brookbank said with a smile. “I’m always on that river, even when I’m not pushing barges, I’m out there on my pontoon boat, enjoying it. That’s my getaway, You haven’t lived until you’ve watched a sunset go down over the river while you’re in the river.”
Brookbank said he would recommend what he does to young people, but added that it isn’t for everyone. It’s a hard job, but rewarding.
He said the business of hauling coal, however is getting harder and harder each year with all the government restrictions.
“Hauling things in the river is still the most economical way to move things,” he said, “It’s cheaper than by semi or train. Fifty-three semis will fit onto one barge, and I push 15 barges at a time, so you do the math.”
Darrin Brookbank has two children Collin and Claire and is also the owner of a business in Ripley called Brookie’s.