JEFFERSONVILLE — Dressed mostly in dark colors, the guests invited to Jeffboat’s last barge launch lined the Ohio River in the rain on Monday morning, clutching umbrellas for shelter.
The scene reminded Mayor Mike Moore of a funeral, and you go to a funeral to pay your respects.
“It’s a sad day,” Moore said. “But it’s also a day you reflect and think back of all the good times. And Jeffboat has had more of an impact on the city of Jeff than any other entity in our community.”
Around 11 a.m. Monday, the 80-year-old Jeffboat launched its 12,917th — and last — vessel. The shipyard is expected to close around May 14.
Approximately 75 people attended the last barge launch, Moore estimated, including a few community guests and the remaining Jeffboat and American Commercial Lines employees. The hundreds of employees laid off prior to this week were not invited.
The company’s CEO and general manager gave a short speech at the event, thanking the employees and acknowledging Jeffboat’s long history, Moore said. Even before Jeffboat came to Southern Indiana, a shipyard had been operating in the area since 1834.
After the speeches, onlookers watched as workers with axes hacked the ropes holding up the barge. The boat slid into the river and began its float.
The last Jeffboat barge launch. Video by Gerrin Moore. pic.twitter.com/fpkTn3njja— Danielle Grady (@dgrady1222) April 23, 2018
Rick Stevens, a 22-year former Jeffboat employee who was invited by the union’s staff to come, stood near the action — thankful for the rain masking his emotions.
“… It was kind of heart-wrenching, you know?” Stevens said. “End of an era. A long era.”
Stevens’ last day at Jeffboat was April 16. There are 55 employees left at the shipyard now, according to Jim Kincaid, a Teamsters employee. In recent years, the company had been employing as many as 1,300. This Wednesday, another round of layoffs will leave Jeffboat with only around 25 employees left.
When Stevens walked into Jeffboat on Monday, wearing a denim shirt with a label bearing the company’s name, he came in through the human resources office — a route that would have been abnormal for many of the years the plate worker labored at the shipyard.
It’s likely the last time he’ll visit Jeffboat. Stevens has another Teamsters job lined up at Fireking in New Albany making safes.
He’ll be making products for an American company — one thing Stevens liked about his job at Jeffboat. But it won’t be the same.
“You hear people talk about being in their comfort zone,” he said. “I’ve had 22 years to get comfortable. So all of a sudden it’s going to be different.”
For years, Jeffboat provided workers in Southern Indiana with high-paying jobs, even if they didn’t have a secondary education. Now, many of those workers are looking for similar employment.
The union has been doing a good job of helping most of them find jobs, Stevens said, but many of them will not be earning as much as they did at Jeffboat.
Monday’s barge launch was not the first that Stevens had attended — nor was it for Moore, who helped launch one himself a few years ago.
But this one was different.
“This one was more impactful,” Moore said. “Seeing the men and women who are seeing their last launch, you know? This place obviously carries a lot of stories and a lot of dreams that, like I said, not only created a place for people to work — it created our city.”