A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: AVALON on the lower regions of the Mississippi and a young man discovers New Orleans

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. The is a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Steamboatmen of an older generation called the stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge down to the sea, the “Coast.” Even the climate was different. Along this inland “coast,” sultry, humid semi-tropical air broiling beneath a searing Sun sucked the sweat and sapped the strength of the boatload of pale newcomers arriving from the more benign temperatures to the north. Thus, I and others of the AVALON’s crew got our first introduction to the lower regions of the Mississippi.

Our first stop below the capital city was at Plaquemine, Louisiana, near a government lock where small boats could take a shortcut across Bayou Plaquemine and get into all sorts of backwaters best known to the Cajun boatmen who were native to the region.

Our first stop below the capital city was at Plaquemine, Louisiana, near a government lock where small boats could take a shortcut across Bayou Plaquemine and get into all sorts of backwaters best known to the Cajun boatmen who were native to the region. Again, that night, I “volunteered” to stay ashore to catch the lines when the AVALON returned from a chartered trip. Following a short survey of the lock, I returned to the pitch-black riverbank to await the arrival of the steamboat where I looked for a safe place to take a nap. Again the dread of the snakes that called the Coast their home kept me from curling up in a comfortable nook along the river shore. To my delight, a dump truck with a bed high off the ground caught my attention, and after kicking around and satisfied it was reptile-free, I curled inside the spacious dump bed until the throaty steam whistle announced the welcome return of my floating home.
 
As quickly as all our passengers were safely ashore, Captain Wagner ordered all the lines let loose and the AVALON backed out and turned her nose South toward the Crescent City. As there were no pressing duties for the deck gang, Cap allowed us to have the rest of the night to ourselves. I drifted up to the pilothouse, where at the invitation of the pilot, I climbed onto the “lazy bench” and peered into the darkness at the lights ashore until I started dozing, so I returned below and spent the rest of the night sleeping soundly in my comfortable bunk in Room 12.  But all too soon, the tantalizing aromas wafting from the nearby cookhouse, better than even the shouts of Dirty-Shirt-Harold, the Night Watchman, awakened me and I was up, again, and ready for the excitement of the AVALON’s entry into New Orleans harbor. The day couldn’t have been more flawless. Fluff balls of white, radiant clouds floated against an azure empyreal firmament.

Aways down the river, the AVALON rounded Avondale Bend at Twelve Mile Point and lined up on a most astonishing engineering leviathan, the Huey P. Long Bridge.

The steamboat was making at least ten miles an hour downbound on a moderate current for the Mississippi River. Earlier, while I was preoccupied between the sheets of my bunk, the AVALON had covered some eighty miles before breakfast.  After the morning repast, we deck apes were up-top cleaning the boat after last night’s ride. Though I had stayed up long enough the night before to perceive the ghostly outline of Bayou Goula Towhead in the darkness, I missed seeing Bayou Lafourche, that once in ages past, was the main channel of the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Donaldsonville, the one-hundred-eighty-degree turn at Point Houmas, and lovely-sounding Willow Bend at Forty-eight Mile Point all went by unbeknownst to me. But there was more than enough scenery yet to come, even for an eighteen-year-old with his mind set on taking in all the sights he’d heard or read about. At least three more hours of steaming remained before our arrival at the wharf at the foot of Harmony Street; some three miles above the legendary Canal Street.
 
Aways down the river, the AVALON rounded Avondale Bend at Twelve Mile Point and lined up on a most astonishing engineering leviathan, the Huey P. Long Bridge. But just as impressive was the frantic beehive of activity at the Avondale Shipyard abreast our starboard beam. The shipyard, founded in 1938 and a builder of large tugs and small cargo ships for the U. S. Navy during the Second World War, was, as we gawked in amazement, “the largest employer in the state of Louisiana with some 26,000 employees,” as I overheard Chief Gill tell someone.

The aging pier at the foot of Harmony Street stood on tall wooden telephone-pole-like legs and smelled of tar and creosote. A vast warehouse, surpassing the bounds of a football field, was planted dead-center on the pier.

Suddenly the spell was broken by the blast of a whistle on a floating steam-powered stevedore gantry-barge greeting us with the traditional New Orleans Harbor Salute: three long whistles blasts, which we returned before the steam crane followed with another long blow. Again, we replied in kind. Those whistles sounded better than rock n’ roll music, I thought. Then another small steam crane barge began saluting. Soon, one after another blasted the Harbor Salute as we paddled alongside the endless line of ships and barges being loaded or unloaded.

Not long after our boat passed beneath the center span of the Huey P. Long Bridge and rounded the corner at Nine Mile Point, Captain Wagner ceased returning the greetings of the small steam stevedores. Either he feared using too much of the steamboat’s valuable vapor, or else Captain Tommy Dunn, the pilot on watch with Cap, wore himself out keeping up with all the toots.
 
The last bend lay ahead at Audubon Point before the AVALON rounded-to and tied off at the Harmony Street Wharf across from the entrance to the locks of the Harvey Canal on the west bank of the river. After we landed against the tarred, wooden wharf towering above the first two decks of the boat, no longer was there a refreshing breeze like that on the open river. Straightaway, the heat, the humidity, and the mosquitoes became a constant reminder we had arrived in New Orleans in the heart of summer.
 
 

Small oceangoing British ships came and went, unloading and reloading, on either end of our even smaller riverboat. Their ports of call, London, Bristol, and Liverpool written on their stern plates, proudly announced from whence they came.

The aging pier at the foot of Harmony Street stood on tall wooden telephone-pole-like legs and smelled of tar and creosote. A vast warehouse, surpassing the bounds of a football field, was planted dead-center on the pier. Metal roll-up doors, spaced along intervals of the building, when open, allowed the exotic scents from stored sacks piled high on wooden pallets, which when combined with those of the pier, suggested images of wooden sailing ships with their bilges stuffed with fragrant cargoes from exotic lands. Fat grey rats scurrying beneath the wharf where waves from passing riverboats smashed loudly against revetment stones scrutinized the low-lying AVALON but must have concluded the pickings were easier in the warehouse above.

To everyone’s delight, they stayed off our steamboat.  
 
Small oceangoing British ships came and went, unloading and reloading, on either end of our even smaller riverboat. Their ports of call, London, Bristol, and Liverpool written on their stern plates, proudly announced from whence they came. Wee brown men scurried about the vessels doing the tasks at hand. But at appointed times, all the activity stopped as prayer rugs unrolled and the Muslim seamen knelt, faced toward the east, and prayed. Englishmen, the type my Uncle Ray, a Navy veteran of the Second World War, called “Limeys,” crewed the ships, too. Though not much older than I, they seemed rougher and more course than were my mates. Most of the young Brits were stripped bare to the waist and wore nothing more than khaki shorts, boots, or leather strapped sandals. They wore their hair long, and each carried a sinister straight knife strapped to their belt.

But in the evenings, after work, these fellows cleaned up nicely and went ashore headed for, most likely, the French Quarter some three miles downtown. Many of the other crewmen squatted in groups on deck, drank tea and smoked from a mutually-shared hookah, or water pipe. New Orleans was indeed a strange and exotic city, I thought; far unlike any other I had known before.

(To be Continued…)

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

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