A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Taking the AVALON up-river and enjoying the towns and a lot of history along the way

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

Middleport and Pomeroy, Ohio, not far from Point Pleasant at the Mouth of the Great Kanawha, the river we recently left behind, was “played” as one mutual city as the AVALON picked up passengers in Middleport and then proceeded up-river to take on citizens from Pomeroy.

At the end of the ride, those who came aboard in Middleport left the boat first. Then the boat steamed to Pomeroy and released the remaining folks, who by then, were weary after a long afternoon in the sun aboard a hot steamboat without air-conditioning.

Brochures advertising the AVALON proudly announced that the steamer was “Glass Enclosed, Air Cooled, and Steam Heated.” It didn’t take long for me to discover that the AVALON was “glass-enclosed” when the windows were up, “air cooled” when they were down, and “steam heated” all the time.

Brochures advertising the AVALON proudly announced that the steamer was “Glass Enclosed, Air Cooled, and Steam Heated.” It didn’t take long for me to discover that the AVALON was “glass-enclosed” when the windows were up, “air cooled” when they were down, and “steam heated” all the time. (Photos provided)

Several of the crewmen aboard the boat were from Pomeroy, an unusually situated town of, perhaps, less than a mile-and-a-half long along the Ohio shore, but only one city block deep. Jackie Armstrong, my former adversary on deck, and Joe, the skinny, blond kid who rolled his pack of Camels into the left sleeve of his t-shirt and wore the bottoms of his blue jeans with wide, rolled-up cuffs, were both excited to go ashore when the boat laid over for the night. But I heard Joe and Jackie slipping back into their bunks before dawn. Apparently, they rediscovered why they left Pomeroy in the first place.

The bends on the Upper Ohio River were sharper and closer together than those where I grew up on the middle section of the river. Such was the case of the horseshoe bend at Letart Falls where, once, the river tumbled over exposed rocks and was a favorite ambush site for warriors of the Shawnee Nation to attack stalled flatboats awaiting flood waters to provide a safe passage over the whitewater rapids on their quests into aboriginal lands they believed was theirs for the taking.

Above Ravenswood, West Virginia, Buffington Island showed no reminder of the Civil War battle between Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s Raiders and Union fighting men, one of whom may have been my Great-great grandfather, Private Jeptha Tandy Mitchell. Jep was the same age at Buffington Island as I as the AVALON steamed by the now-serene island covered in trees beginning to show their autumn colors.

Several of the crewmen aboard the boat were from Pomeroy, an unusually situated town of, perhaps, less than a mile-and-a-half long along the Ohio shore, but only one city block deep.

The next large isle we passed was Blennerhassett Island below Parkersburg on the West Virginia side of the river. Earlier, I read about the intrigue fomented there by Aaron Burr, the treasonous former third Vice-President of the United States in conjunction with Mr. Harman Blennerhassett. After the unfortunate episode was over, Mr. B. lost his island home, his fortune and his good name conspiring with the treacherous Burr.

Aaron Burr, it was said, also swindled an ancestral cousin of mine out of an immense sum of money, though without spoiling my cousin’s sterling reputation in pioneer Kentucky. The Blennerhassett mansion burned in 1811, and as carefully as I scanned the grounds as the AVALON skimmed the island shore, not a trace remained.

But, at this writing, nearly six decades later, the imposing manor is once more standing as proudly as it was the day Burr first stepped foot on the island, now a West Virginia state park reached by small, diesel-powered sternwheel boats boarded at the Parkersburg riverfront.

Marietta, Ohio was settled in 1788, the same year my Sanders family ancestors left plantation life in “Old Virginny” and found a new home beyond the Cumberland Gap in the wilderness of Kentucky.

The Blennerhassett mansion burned in 1811, and as carefully as I scanned the grounds as the AVALON skimmed the island shore, not a trace remained. But, at this writing, nearly six decades later, the imposing manor is once more standing as proudly as it was the day Burr first stepped foot on the island, now a West Virginia state park…

Marietta, known among the AVALON’s older pilots as the home of the river history group that met there every September, the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, or, “S & D.” Captain Red Schletker, my friend and the pilot on the back watch, wore a small lapel pin signifying he was a bonafide member of S & D which had much to do with my joining the group as soon as I could afford the modest dues. Half a century later, I am still a member of the Sons & Daughters, but I have, yet, to receive a coveted lapel pin.

Once again, Cap’n Doc put me ashore to catch the headline during an afternoon school ride, but instead of looking for a cozy hole to curl up in and sleep, I toured the Ohio River Museum several blocks back from the riverfront. There, I became so engrossed marveling at the most remarkably-preserved relics from earlier steamboats days on the Ohio; I forgot it was nearly time for the AVALON to land.

From the Campus Martius Museum, site of the Ohio River Museum, to the Marietta waterfront, was a very-long six city blocks. Running all the way, I arrived just as the stage was swinging out, but I was standing by the water’s edge as Jackie tossed the handy line with the weighted “Monkey’s Fist” on the bitter end that fell at my feet.

As I pulled it to shore, the attached headline followed. With help from Jackie and Joe, who both leaped ashore as soon as the stage was close enough, we quickly had the steamboat tied off. Screaming with delight, as soon as the okay to disembark was given, the school kids ran helter-skelter across the stage to a long line of yellow buses waiting at the top of the landing.

Marietta, Ohio was settled in 1788, the same year my Sanders family ancestors left plantation life in “Old Virginny” and found a new home beyond the Cumberland Gap in the wilderness of Kentucky. Marietta, known among the AVALON’s older pilots as the home of the river history group that met there every September, the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen.

That night, close to midnight, as the AVALON was deadheading upriver from Marietta with only the crew aboard, an early autumn fog was building. I was standing on the Main Deck alongside the crew’s rooms on the port side when I noticed the boat was running closer to the Ohio shore than it usually did. Out of the mist, a private boat dock suddenly appeared off our port bow with a small pleasure boat moored by its side. Just as I was about to say to one of the fellows, “We sure are close to the bank,” the AVALON hit something solid and bounced toward starboard, away from the shore.

The little boat and its dock flew into the air, passed astern, and sank beneath the water. A great cloud of steam suddenly erupted from within the boiler room close to where I was watching amazed that everything going on around me was in such a state of excitement until Ed Smith, the veteran fireman of many years of tending fires beneath steamboat boilers, nearly ran overtop me…

“Run,” Ed yelled, “or get da hell outta ma’ way!”

I ran… and beat Ed to the head of the boat. Soon all was quiet again as the AVALON continued up the river. Nothing more was ever said about what happened that night… until now.

Sistersville, West Virginia, always had a healthy appetite for steamboats visitors, and it seemed like the whole town was standing on the shore to welcome the AVALON … Walter McCoy, a friend of many steamboatmen, including Captain Wagner and Doc Hawley, was the first aboard to represent his townsfolk.

Newport, Ohio, the ancestral home of the Greene Family, founders and owners of the fabled Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, passed in the darkness. Of the twenty-six steamboats, the family once owned and operated, the overnight passenger packet, the DELTA QUEEN, was their only steamboat still running on the river in 1960. However, the names of other boats that flew the Greene Line house flag remained topics of river conversations: the TOM GREENE, GORDON C. GREENE, and the CHRIS GREENE seemed to be the ones remembered most.

Sistersville, West Virginia always had a healthy appetite for steamboats visitors, and it seemed like the whole town was standing on the shore to welcome the AVALON as the deck crew went through their paces at an exaggerated rate showing off “their stuff” for an appreciative audience. Walter McCoy, a friend of many steamboatmen, including Captain Wagner and Doc Hawley, was the first aboard to represent his townsfolk. Walt was also pals with Captain Fred Way, the oft-called, “Dean of Ohio Rivermen.” Of all the praises heaped upon the celebrated steamboat pilot, author, lecturer, and the founder of the S&D, Captain Way deserved them all… and more.

Fred Way and Walter McCoy used to bum about, together, on Captain Way’s small sternwheeler, the LADY GRACE VII, one of the few small paddlewheelers then plying the Ohio River other than my family’s MARJESS. Walt rode with Captain Wagner in the pilothouse while his townsmen enjoyed the crisp autumn cruise from below.

At the conclusion of a fun steamboat day, Walter McCoy was the last to cross the stage to the Sistersville shore where he stood and waved until the AVALON steamed out of sight.

(To be continued…)

Fred Way and Walter McCoy used to bum about, together, on Captain Way’s small sternwheeler, the LADY GRACE VII, one of the few small paddlewheelers then plying the Ohio River other than my family’s MARJESS.

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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