A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: The trip upriver to Louisville and the harrowing saga of ‘head man’ Shorty Robinson

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Once more the AVALON landed at Paducah but stayed just long enough to fill the potable water tanks on the roof, take on a few stores from the Henry A. Petter Supply Company warehouse at the top of the hill, and for my old friend and mentor, Captain Arthur J. “Red” Schletker, to relieve Captain Blankenship as a pilot.

Up the Ohio River, the AVALON continued, though stopping along the way for a charter ride or an occasional public affair. Evansville for a couple of days and then Tell City, Indiana, booked for an open trip, slowly came abreast in a cold, hard rain, but as the AVALON slowed before swinging ashore, not a soul was waiting.

Up the Ohio River, the AVALON continued, though stopping along the way for a charter ride or an occasional public affair. Evansville for a couple of days and then Tell City, Indiana, booked for an open trip, slowly came abreast in a cold, hard rain, but as the AVALON slowed before swinging ashore, not a soul was waiting.

Much to the crew’s relief, Captain Wagner rang the engine indicator for “full ahead” and Tell City, with an upside-down steamboat hull decorating its riverbank, passed astern; lost in the mist and fog of the driving early Autumn shower.

Passing Derby, Magnet, Alton, Bull’s Point at Wolf Creek Bend, and Fredonia, the AVALON pushed through the Oxbow Bends of the Ohio River until Lock and Dam 44 near Leavenworth, Indiana signaled the end of the oxbow country. Ahead lay Mockport, Indiana, and Brandenburg, Kentucky where the famed Southern Raider, General John Hunt Morgan, seized the steamboat ALICE DEAN passing on her maiden voyage and used the newly-launched steamer to cross the river in July of 1863 on his daring incursion into Yankee territory.

But our goal was to reach Louisville, not too far ahead, where several charter trips awaited and some of the boys were anticipating revisiting the saloons and sleazy dives along the city waterfront. Captain Wagner had been talking about Jack Salmon sandwiches and cold Falls City Beer for several days, now. Was it my imagination, or was the AVALON actually picking up speed the closer Louisville loomed?

Soon we were below McAlpine Lock and Dam as the throaty whistle sounded to fulfill the letter of the law, as arrangements had already been made between the lock and the pilothouse by the marine radio.

Captain Doc was excited when he told his deck crew the boat was using a tiny, ancient lock chamber barely big enough to squeeze inside. The combined system of McAlpine Lock and Dam and the Portland Canal was constructed to allow river traffic a safe passage around the Falls of the Ohio River.

AVALON Sketch – Some of the boys were anticipating revisiting the saloons and sleazy dives along the city waterfront. Captain Wagner had been talking about Jack Salmon sandwiches and cold Falls City Beer for several days, now. Was it my imagination, or was the AVALON actually picking up speed the closer Louisville loomed? AVALON Sketch_Daniel H. McCay_2

All went without a hitch, and the AVALON was soon leaving the upper end of the Portland Canal. Again the whistle blew for a landing as the deck crew did what they knew best and quickly and efficiently snubbed the steamboat to the cobblestone landing at the foot of Fourth Street. Without an excursion until late that evening, the crew deserted the boat like bilge rats and disappeared into the maze of saloons at the top of the levee.

With a significant turnover in the crew of the AVALON, crewmembers came and went. Often when the boat played a large city like Louisville and stayed for usually a week, or more, a veteran might return aboard and work for the duration of the stay and then quit when it was time to move on to the next port of call.

Chuck, about forty, slim, always wearing black jeans and a black tee-shirt with a pack of Camel cigarettes rolled into one of the sleeves was one of those types. He wore his long blond hair slicked back against his head with a generous application of fragrant gel to keep it plastered in place. As deck skills went, Chuck was as good as any I worked with during my two seasons on the AVALON, but a blatant, lingering animosity simmered between he and Shorty Robinson, the capstan man.

We’d been running an odd schedule since arriving in Louisville. After a day, sometimes more, following the last trip of the day, the AVALON left town and deadheaded upriver to Madison, Indiana, some forty miles, and played there for a day before reversing the procedure and returning back to the Falls City for a day of excursions and again repeating the process.

Around midnight, the deck crew was tidying the lines on the boat after securing the splashboards around the curvature of the bow to prevent waves from washing over the head as the steamboat plowed a furrow in the Ohio River.

AVALON Departing LouKY –
We’d been running an odd schedule since arriving in Louisville. After a day, sometimes more, following the last trip of the day, the AVALON left town and deadheaded upriver to Madison, Indiana, some forty miles…

Satisfied the bow was in apparent good order, Mate Hawley was about to turn off the deck lights and dismiss his crew when, suddenly, Chuck sprang forward from within our gathering and lunged at Shorty he caught standing in an awkward position between the capstan and the forward edge of the deck. Over the head of the boat, by then, moving through the water on a full head of steam, the wiry capstan man flew.

Over the splashboards and into the roaring, white bow wake of certain death the small man went as we, his shipmates, watched stupefied witnessing Shorty die.

But to the disappointment of some, especially, Chuck, Shorty had, miraculously, grabbed ahold of the lines hanging from the Belly Blocks beneath the Landing Stage and was hanging on, literally, with a death grip to the hemp ropes while his legs skipped along the surface of the water as the steamboat sped along at a full clip. No one, myself included, made a move to help the terrified boatman as he clung for his life to the guidelines that, fortunately for him, had not been pulled tightly against the belly of the Stage, but had enough slack left in them that enabled Shorty to reach out and grasp the redeeming ropes into his arms.

Within moments, which must have seemed an eternity to the gnarly boatman hanging by hempen threads in front of the roaring, deathful wave, Captain Hawley grabbed the braided cord that hung from the bell, three decks above, and gave three solid taps. Within seconds, the sound of the Engine Order Telegraph, aft in the engineroom, signaled the Engineers to stop the engines. As soon as the AVALON began slowing, Cap’n Doc ordered, “Get him out,” and we promptly sprang to the mate’s command and pulled Shorty onto the safety of the deck.

Another tap on the bell and the AVALON proceeded on its way through the darkness toward Madison. No more was ever said about the incident, but Shorty was on his best behavior, for a time, until Chuck quit the boat in Louisville when the AVALON left town for the last time that season.

Writing earlier about my first year on the AVALON, I had the following to say about Shorty Robinson, the wiry, diminutive capstan man, and I will repeat it as I cannot add further to what has already been written:

The AVALON had no designated head-deckhand although Captain Wagner called Shorty Robinson his head-man.On the bow, Shorty handled the steam-powered capstan, but he had no supervisory authority over the rest of the hands. Shorty had been, some said, a cook on the steam towboat, the SAM CRAIG, when it was owned and operated by the O. F. Shearer & Sons and towed sweet West Virginia coal to Cincinnati.

Shorty was what would be called, now-a-days,”mentally-challenged,” but the descriptive comments, made in 1959, about his affliction were not so kind. Shorty hailed from Point Pleasant, WV, in the heart of the coal country. As he had no living family, he lived in the county home during the AVALON’s off-season.


Shorty had, miraculously, grabbed ahold of the lines hanging from the Belly Blocks beneath the Landing Stage and was hanging on, literally, with a death grip to the hemp ropes while his legs skipped along the surface of the water as the steamboat sped along at a full clip. (DELTA QUEEN Stage for demonstration.)

Cap made sure Shorty’s modest wages were tucked securely away in Mr. Hall’s safe in the Purser’s office— less some walk-around-money for his Camel cigarettes, one of which was constantly hanging from the little capstan-man’s lip, or for an occasional beer sipped at a rivertown dive. At the end of the season, Shorty was given a bus ticket back to West Virginia where a bunk and three meals a day awaited he earned by sweeping floors and doing whatever else he was capable of doing at the poorhouse set aside for the impecunious of Mason County.

Each Spring, about a week before the excursion season began again, a bus ticket and a small sum of cash arrived, by mail, and Shorty was put on the bus to Cincinnati where he rejoined the AVALON and worked and lived aboard the steamboat until the end of the year, and the cycle repeated itself. Shorty guarded the capstan, the powerful machine that tightened the mooring lines, as though he had title to it, and woe be the one who grabbed onto a line wrapped around it.

Shorty was the butt of many mean pranks committed out of sight of the Captain. A favorite was to encourage a new man to get astride the capstan and take-hold a line. The next thing the newbie was conscience of, was, finding himself face down on the steel deck where Shorty had put him using, either, his fist or a handy, oak toggle bar. I was spared that initiation, thanks to Ricco, who warned me about Shorty and the capstan soon after I joined the deck gang.

At the Madison, Indiana waterfront, my parents were waiting as the AVALON made a landing and they watched as I went through the normal routine of helping my mates get the lines out, the stage lowered, and the boat secured to take on a charter rider later that day.

Captain Wagner allowed me to enjoy a couple days off, so I left the boat at Madison riding in the back seat of the family car. As we rode the Indiana backroads along the Ohio River at speeds I had not experienced in months, I asked my mother what she thought of seeing me “deck” while the AVALON docked. Expecting to hear a complimentary assessment concerning my steamboat prowess, all she could muster was a feeble, “I was so embarrassed to watch you throwing those ropes.”

The AVALON had no designated head-deckhand although Captain Wagner called Shorty Robinson his head-man. On the bow, Shorty handled the steam-powered capstan, but he had no supervisory authority over the rest of the hands. Shorty had been, some said, a cook on the steam towboat, the SAM CRAIG.

That night I slept at home devoid of the sounds of steam engines hissing and clacking, whistles thundering, crewmen tramping a steel deck outside a hot, smelly room crammed with three other sweating bodies, the expectations of the Watchman pounding on the steel bulkhead for all to roll out for a lock, and the anxiety of the possibility of Shorty stealing into the room and getting hit in the head, as he was rumored to have done on occasions when a grudge demanded revenge.

Early the next morning, I was still asleep when Mother slipped as quietly as she could into the large bedroom on the second floor, but just her presence caused me to rouse suddenly out of my slumber as I shouted, “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT?” As quickly as my startled mother and I regained our composures, I apologized and added, “Sorry, Mom – I thought you were Shorty.” Completely puzzled, the most my little mother could add was, “Who’s Shorty.”

In the most ironic of circumstances, merely two years after Captain Hawley saved Shorty Robinson from certain death beneath the foaming bow wake of the AVALON, the venerable steamboat had ceased operations and was sold to become the BELLE of LOUISVILLE.

Captain Wagner, Captain Hawley, and a few chosen crewmen were then staffing the palatial overnight steamer, the DELTA QUEEN. Shorty was not among the chosen, but he was invited to visit the Captains aboard the QUEEN one hot summer day when the boat landed at Point Pleasant, Shorty’s hometown.

Mate Hawley, was on the starboard wing bridge as the DELTA QUEEN slowly slipped alongside the West Virginia shore while Captain Wagner, off-watch, was resting in his stateroom a deck below where Cap’n Doc was guiding the Pilot into the landing. Looking at the mass of curious well-wisher crowding the riverbank, Captain Doc spied Shorty standing on the edge of the crowd, where, oddly, a strange drama was unfolding.

Just several feet away from the former AVALON capstan man, a mean poisonous copperhead snake was embraced in a struggle with a scruffy brown wharf rat. For whatever reason, Shorty ran to where the snake and rat were battling and kicked the copperhead so hard it turned its victim loose. Angered at the loss of its meal, the snake immediately buried its fangs into Shorty’s leg.

Terrified, the little man did the worst thing he could have done after getting snake-bit… he started running toward the top of the landing. By the time Shorty reached the cement floodwall that protected the town from floodwaters when the Ohio River was angry, the deadly venom circulated throughout his blood system and he dropped to the ground and lay motionless.

Captain Wagner, by that time awake in his room immediately below the wing bridge where Doc was standing, opened his window and shouted up to his Mate to inquire why the DELTA QUEEN hadn’t completed its landing.

“Cap, you better get dressed,” Captain Hawley replied, “I think Shorty’s just been killed.”

(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.

Related Posts

One Comment

  1. Jeff Parrott says:

    Very interesting story! My uncle, Bob Ward, at one time worked aboard the Belle of Louisville, but I can’t remember when that was. I look forward to reading more.

Leave a Comment