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The River: The MARJESS was a 38-foot wooden paddlewheel houseboat, lovely, snug, and fun

(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 the fourth of a long and continuing story.)

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Paddlewheel houseboats, extinct in the Cincinnati harbor on the Ohio River by the 1950’s, were much in favor on the shallow Great Miami River at the Hamilton Boat Club, close to Hamilton, Ohio.

Somehow, Dad got wind of a sternwheeler for sale there, so several weekends found our family at the remote river hideaway populated by other families with a common interest besides boating. All had one, or more, family members employed at the nearby paper mill.

Dad said he had ‘an awful’ time getting the heavy boat launched off the flatbed trailer.

Noisy, fat, rambunctious geese, standing a head-taller than my two younger brothers, had the run of the place. As the Great Miami was too “thin” for propeller-driven houseboats, stern paddlewheels were the standard choice of propulsion. Our eyes were set on an all-steel boat, and my folks were about to set pen-to-paper when another purveyor slyly revealed his wooden paddlewheeler would sell cheaper. That evening, after the sun had set and the geese were hushed in the darkness, we gathered aboard a cozy, wooden sternwheel houseboat set up on empty oil drums. There by the soft light of kerosene lamps, the artful owner expounded on the virtues of his wooden boat, the SHANGRI LA, over those of the metal boat we previously admired. By the time we climbed down from the boat for the drive home, Mom and Dad were its new owners.

The SHANGRI LA was a 38-foot wooden paddlewheel houseboat hand-built in 1947 following plans made popular in the 1930’s. The chain-driven sternwheel was powered by a 35-horsepower, four-cylinder, flat head, gasoline engine from a Durant automobile. A Model T Ford rear-end was mounted outboard on the stern transom where small sprocket wheels attached to the axle drove chains connected to larger sprockets mounted on either side of the paddlewheel. One lone steering rudder was attached past the wheel on a steel pipe fastened athwartships through the heavy, oak cylinder timbers which supported the weight of the wheel. Both the scow-bowed hull and the graceful cabin were wooden and painted as white as any steamboat. Red window and molding trim matched the wheel.

Mom on the boat

What the SHANGRI LA had most in its favor was it was the loveliest of any little paddlewheeler on the river, and it would be many years later until I found the CLYDE., a small sternwheeler similar to the MARJESS I have owned since 2012. Would I find another of equal grace.

Immediately a search began for a new name for the boat, and soon, pages from a yellow legal pad were filled with ideas. Eventually, MARJESS DON-BO-DICK, which included Bob and Dick and I was favored, but it was a mouthful to say and a nightmare for any future sign painter. Prudently, the name was shortened to MARJESS, for the new owners, Marge and Jess. MARJESS it was and would forever remain.

The interior cabin, paneled in vertically arranged boards of knotty pine, was entered by ducking through a short front door and stepping down three steps. Immediately to the right were a brass steering wheel and the clutch and throttle controls for the engine. A tall, round, bar stool was the pilot’s chair.

Against the port bulkhead, a long linoleum-covered countertop protected a handsome pine cabinet filled with sliding drawers and ample cupboard space. Set into the after-end of the countertop, a sink with an ornate brass hand-cranked pump provided potable water from a converted hot water tank stowed under the front deck. Beneath the sink, an authentic icebox was cooled by a 25 pound block of ice which required regular trips to the City Ice & Fuel Co. icehouse on the opposite side of the concrete floodwall – a long and treacherous trip for two boys carrying a stout wooden pole on their shoulders packing a heavy block of ice suspended in the middle from a pair of ice tongs.

Meal time in the interior cabin. Cookstove was an electric hot plate but Mom’s meals were as sumptuous as any she made at home

On the opposite side of the forward cabin stool a built-in couch with blanket drawers beneath. The back of the couch, attached to the wall by a pivoting socket arrangement, could be pulled up from the bottom and chained to a hook near the overhead, or ceiling; thus forming two bunks. Another couch-bunk combination was just after the icebox. A wooden bench, kept against the starboard bulkhead aft the first couch, was pulled out as a seat for meals served on a table normally stowed alongside the bench. Hooks attached the table to a decorative knotty pine box that formed a cover for the front of the gasoline engine occupying the center, stern-most, space between a tiny starboard side galley and the “head,” the only enclosure inside the cabin on the port side of the MARJESS where a Perko-brand hand-pumped toilet discharged its contents into the river. The box was removable to allow access to the engine. On the bulkhead above the engine cover, a handsome oval mirror was set within a spoked “captain’s wheel” of about the same size as the brass wheel that steered the boat. On either side of the mirror hung kerosene nautical lamps. All three are now aboard the CLYDE.

By the time school was out that spring afternoon, the MARJESS was bobbing merrily alongside the dock at the Covington Boat Club within the shadow, literally, of the Roebling Suspension Bridge. Dad revealed he had “an awful time” getting the heavy boat launched off the flatbed trailer that brought it overland from the Hamilton Boat Club to the Cincinnati Public Landing, within sight of where it was now moored. It seemed, he related, the long, sloping, granite-paved steamboat landing did not gradually taper-off at the end beneath the waters of the river, as expected, but an unforeseen, sudden three-foot vertical drop-off caught the rear wheels of the trailer and the boat was at a terribly-steep angle before it was finally launched.

Bob, Dick and Don . . .and the poor fish

The heavy, oak beams that supported the paddlewheel apparently hit the river bottom, and once the MARJESS began cruising, it had a tendency to “throw a chain,” stopping the motion of the paddlewheel until the engine was shut down and Dad could laboriously guide the greasy chain back onto the sprocket. Consequently, during the remaining life of the boat, it sat at the dock more than it was underway. But, we didn’t mind so much… just having the MARJESS was enjoyment enough.

Mother immediately began making the MARJESS as comfortably snug as possible. Her “cookstove” was an electric, two-burner, hot plate, but the meals that came off that primitive stove were as sumptuous as any she fixed at home. In those days before air-conditioning was common, we slept beneath wool blankets on nights when folks, ashore, were sweltering.

All sorts of fun was available on the river. Swimming became safer that year after a nationwide inoculation of Dr. Salk’s polio began. We tried our hands at fishing, but it was more fun to shoot bottles floating by with BB-gun borrowed from the boat next door.

Again, as with Walt Hoffmeier, I found an opportunity to make myself useful helping someone and their boat chores…and that opportunity came courtesy of the “harbormaster” of the boat club, a former steamboatman who lived with his small family in an authentic shantyboat, resplendent with all sorts of river plunder and paraphernalia, that lay tied at the end of the harbor next to our paddlewheeler. To everyone on the fleet, the harbormaster was simply called “Tex,” the first professional riverman in my life who began teaching me the rudiments of boats and the river that began a metamorphosis from a casual pastime toward what became a lifelong career.

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.

See Part 3 here.

On the river with the MARJESS

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  1. Connie Bays says:

    Interesting reading as always. Enjoying this series of stories immensely. Talented writer, and a legend on the river!

  2. Mike Russon says:

    Very nice!

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