Much of the nation’s electricity generation stills comes from coal. Huge amounts of the fossil fuel are needed to light, heat and cool hundreds of millions of American homes and businesses. Shipments are made by rail, truck and barge.

The latter method of delivery combines the nostalgic romance of steamboat days with modern technology used by river pilots to maneuver barge lines in tricky currents, shallow water and narrow locks along major eastern waterways

The inland river systems are arteries of commerce for our nation. From the mighty Mississippi to the Tennessee River, Ohio River and others, navigable streams provide transport, trade and the energy to keep us economically secure.

From Pennsylvania to New Orleans – and through much of Appalachia – towboats are modern reminders of bygone days when the rivers were preferred methods of travel and shipping. As a lifetime fan of Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) and his riverboat stories, I always had a hankering to take a trip on a towboat.

This item on my bucket list was fulfilled when I was invited aboard the AEP Mariner, an impressive towboat that plies the Ohio River, making coal deliveries to power plants. The Mariner is owned by American Electric Power’s River Operations. A friend, Brian Bennett, finagled an invitation for himself and two others: John Lowe from The Daily Jeffersonian newspaper and me.

On a spring-like day in early March, we boarded the Mariner at Powhatan Point and met a wonderful group of people. The nine-member crew and cook welcomed us like family, eager to explain their mission and individual jobs – and proud that they are part of a transport system that keeps the power plants operating in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and beyond.

I could say that Brian, John and I “roughed it,” but that would be a lie. The Mariner is a modern and large towboat, well equipped and designed for the crew’s comfort during their 21-day stretch on the river. The cabins are spacious, with big screen high-definition TVs and satellite service.

There are lounges for relaxing and even an exercise room.

Cook Genese Henderson’s galley is amazing, and so is her cooking.

If the lady from St. Louis, Mo., ever opens her own restaurant, I will be one of her loyal customers. Don’t ask me about her orange-marmalade and honey-glazed pork roast or the shepherd’s pie! And she did not bake me a sweet potato pie, I swear.

We were allowed free rein of the towboat’s interior but spent hours in the wheelhouse with Capt. Dan Wallace and Pilot Brian Oiler. With a four-story high view, we watched the shorelines roll past and noted how much industrial infrastructure exists along the river.

Billions of dollars in investment and trade activity, a massive jobs base and communities dependent on river traffic exist out of sight and mind for most Americans. But the public’s ignorance of this maritime economy doesn’t make it less important.

“People sort of forget about all of this,” says Oiler, gesturing to the manufacturing plants, tank farms and warehouses along the river. He’s at the Mariner’s helm for the afternoon watch.

“I miss my family but really love my job,” says Oiler, who started on the river in 1992 “right out of high school.” Growing up on the river, he’d seen the towboats but never thought he’d make barging his career. He worries that today many people who depend on electricity don’t appreciate the modern watermen.

Like employees in other sectors of the coal and power generation industries, the boatmen worry about the future. If regulations aimed at closing coal-fired power plants succeed or lawmakers pass a carbon tax, the economic hit will be massive along navigable waterways of the eastern U.S.

The boatmen are aware of this and sensitive to what the future holds for their way of life and livelihood. Without coal and reliable, affordable electricity, the river will still flow, but the strong current of commerce will be weakened.

From the wheelhouse of a towboat transporting 25,000 tons of coal downriver, it’s easy to see what’s at stake.

■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.