A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: In the beginning, the river was a terrifying place for a little boy; in time, it was a way of life

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

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Where do I start?

The river was a terrifying place for a little boy. Dark, wet, foreboding; full of terrible sights and sounds.

Why did we always sit on those hard wooden benches behind the pilothouse of the ISLAND QUEEN where, inside, strange old men were rustling about? The darkness alone was terrorizing, but when that dreadful whistle blasted, I was petrified.

My Dreamtime Houseboat is the shantyboat of the story. The Incinerator was between the boat and the bridge. (Photos provided)

And the time Aunt Mary hung her long legs over the stern of a ferryboat and dangled her feet in the river. That made me sick with fear she would fall overboard and perish. Only when she swung back around as a young boatmen swarmed about her with clean, dry towels did my anxiety subsist.

What could have been worse than the day, sometime during the Second World War at the Sears & Roebuck Store on Reading Road in Cincinnati, when my mom and dad were angry after I begged Grandma Edith to buy me that toy Springfield Rifle. It had the brightly-painted wooden bullet wedded onto the end of the sliding bolt. They forbade me to have it.

Proudly, I marched with the rifle slung on my shoulder to our “machine,” as we called automobilesthen. And when I spied an Oriental-looking couple loading their purchases into the trunk of their machine, I yelled, “Look, Japs!” and took aim.

As the slack was taken-up on the trigger spring, the hapless couple stared in terror and disbelief at the toy gun pointed at them. At the same time, Mother, dropped the bag she was carrying and came charging toward me to wrench the gun from my grasp, but not before the trigger released with a loud metallic click as I yelled, “POW”!

The Covington Incinerator as seen from Cincinnati.

The packages of my intended targets flew into the air and onto the asphalt. Quickly, the gun was taken and tossed into the trunk as my embarrassed family and I quickly piled into our seats and the machine sped off.

Instead of heading home, Dad drove around downtown Cincinnati to release the tension I had created. A “ride” usually meant a trip where we could park and “watch the river.”

It was cheap family entertainment.

A ride on our Kentucky side of the Ohio River was, most often, a drive to Front Street, now Riverside Drive, where I chucked rocks over the riverbank, trying, but never hitting the water.

This time, however, we were on the opposite side of the river, and soon we ended up in the “Bottoms” where the Public Landing bordered the ominous waters of the Ohio.

The agitation inside our automobile hung heavy like a dense fog on a chilly November morning. Only the presence of Grandma kept the my parent’s anger from escalating into a “good spanking” — if there ever was such a thing. In that deadly silence, Dad crested the top of the cobblestone grade of the old steamboat landing, and our machine suddenly began to move at a steep downhill angle on the granite paving stones.

Walter Questa, my father, Jess Sanders, Jr. Grandpa Jesse, Sr., and Grandmother Edith in their side yard at 110 West. 38th Street in Latonia. About 1936.

All I could see before me was the terrifying sight of the Ohio River where a long, gray floating structure, bigger than a building, was linked to the shore by ponderous, black chains. Beyond the structure, that served as a wharf, the pilothouse top and smokestacks of a steamboat tied to the far side could be seen above the wharfboat roof.

As loud as I could muster, an ear-splitting scream erupted from deep within me with such force Dad instinctively slammed the brake pedal to the floor. The machine instantly froze and rocked back and forth on its chassis. Mother’s golden blond hair flew forward toward the windscreen. Outside, beyond our vehicle, a negro boat hand was walking towards the wharfboat, but he immediately stopped and jerked his head around at the sound of the commotion above him. In his arms he carried a paper sack. He stared at us and must have wondered what the ruckus was all about, but he soon turned and continued on toward the steamboat tied to the other side of the wharf where other boatmen awaited his arrival and the contents of the paper sack he was carrying. Dad turned the machine around and headed for the Suspension Bridge, and I was spared the agony of riding closer to those angry waters.

At the foot of Main Street, in Covington, where the street ended at the riverbank, stood the Incinerator, a solidly-built structure which rested on impressive limestone blocks high enough above the ground that it was above most flood waters. Two concrete ramps led up to either end of the building where tall roll-up doors allowed the passage of the garbage trucks to come and go; hauling the refuse of the town where it was burned beneath the building in a vast chamber within the limestone foundation.

Those hard wooden benches on the ISLAND QUEEN.

A single, tall brick chimney was the Incinerator’s most distinguishing feature. Inside the brick building was a drive-on scale where the trucks were weighed by a small, skinny man who recorded the figures in a narrow ledger book. His name was Walter Questa and he was my grandparent’s most loyal and trusted friend who boarded with them and was regarded as a member of the family.

The Incinerator, due to its remote location, was a gathering place where the employees of various departments of the city met and hung out when they were in the neighborhood. Police, public works, and an occasional representative of the fire department might be found “jawing” around the property. Just a few paces east, and upstream, of the tall brick structure was the loveliest of shantyboats that sat elevated on steel oil drums on the shore where only the highest of floods could reach it.

The owners were friends of “Chalk Coon,” a foreman in the Public Works Department and a close friend of the family. Three wooden jonboats, with awnings overhead for shade, bobbed in the river below the shantyboat. They were used to to tend the “trotlines” the boatmen set in the river to catch catfish and carp which they cleaned and sold somewhere ashore.

Captain Don Sanders

Both the shantyboat and the smaller jonboats attracted my attention, but when I was invited to ride one of the small boats, the old fears of the river returned and filled me with dread and I retreated, instead, to the safety of Walter Questa’s tiny office.

Even to this day, many decades later, I dream of the shantyboat high on the hill with the awning-shaded jonboats bobbing in the water, below, and imagine myself floating fearlessly on the river.

It would be several years later, when I was ten, that I would rediscover a new, different world waiting my return to the river.

Greene Line Wharfboat seen from top of the Public Landing.

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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  1. Bela K. Berty says:

    My thanks to NKyTribune for publishing Captain Don Sanders’ stories. He played a major rôle in my getting my first job on a steamboat. Then he piloted a flatboat to New Orleans. Hearing his stories about the flatboat Adventure Galley II inspired me to get my own flatboat adventures to the first two Tall Stacks.

  2. Judy Gee says:

    Good writing. Glad to know your mama thought a “pistol was the devil’s right hand”

  3. Connie Bays says:

    Thank you so much for bringing Don Sanders on as a columnist! Those of us who know him crave to see his story in print! Those who don’t know him will not be able to keep from knowing him as his words take hold of them. He brings stories to life! As I read his words, I can see the events unfold in my mind. He is a truly gifted storyteller, a knowledgeable historian and all around good guy!!!

  4. Frank Jones says:

    Capt. Don is the man for the job .and I can’t wait to read all the stories that he told me while we spent countless hrs.on watch together. He played a majority role in my life. Not only as my Skipper but as my friend.
    Steamboat Willie. You got this!!!!!!

  5. Brewster rhoads says:

    Thanks Judy for running Captain Don’s stories of river life. My 1955 steel Kelly houseboat was docked on the KY side of the Ohio at both Crockett’s and the Mike Fink from 1999 till 2008. I have been at the Ohio River Launch Club, founded in 1898, for the past 10 years. The river has played such a critical role in the history and development of our region. Captain Don’s articles will help us better understand It’s impact! Excuse my typos… I am in Northern Italy with spotty WiFi service!

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