A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: On Steamer AVALON, amid pleasing clacking and clatter, were colorful characters aplenty

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 12th of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

In the Summer of 1959, the Steamer AVALON had been built 45 years earlier by James Rees and Sons in Pittsburgh, but the Rees engines were older by any number of years. They came off another steamboat before being re-installed on the IDLEWILD, the AVALON’s original name. These engines were designed with a feature that saved steam, and consequently, fuel.

By capitalizing on the expansive character of steam and the momentum of the massive moving paddlewheel and associated parts, once the steamboat had gained its cruising speed, an overhead operating rod was adjusted to reduce the amount of steam entering the cast iron cylinders while maintaining the speed of the vessel and the efficiency of the engines.

The Rees engines were older by any number of years. They came off another steamboat before being re-installed on the IDLEWILD, the AVALON’s original name.

Initially, this feature was patented by the builders as the “Rees Variable Cut-Off Steam Engine.” In the full cut-off position, metal dogs, parts of the mechanical linkage, made a pleasant clacking sound as the engines went about their business of propelling the boat. This pleasing clatter of the dogs and the rumble of the long, wooden pitman arms, connected by crossheads to the piston rods, made a relaxing white noise that was conducive to both introspective daydreaming and somnolence.

Room 12, by its proximity to the sounds and vibrations of the port engine, was restful as a baby’s cradle after an eighteen-hour day. My bed was the top bunk nearest the engine, and with a narrow window, I enjoyed both cooler air and the lullaby the machinery played. The song the engines sang went something like this: Clack, Clack, Clack… Shooooooo.” Clack, Clack, Clack… Shooooooo…throughout the night.

Rock Island, Muscatine, Burlington, Ft. Madison, Keokuk, Quincy, Clinton and of course, Hannibal, became familiar towns. The older crewmen knew them more intimately for the locations of the best ties for the AVALON’s heavy ropes, or “lines,” how far the closest bars were from the river, and which towns had the friendliest girls. But, being 17, with girlfriends and alcohol yet to become a significant issue in my persona, my spare time was spent doing odd-jobs or helping the Captain or the Chief with special projects.

In the full cut-off position, metal dogs, parts of the mechanical linkage, made a pleasant clacking sound as the engines went about their business of propelling the boat.

I especially enjoyed making the wind vanes Captain Wagner requested for the roof so the Pilots could tell the direction of the summer breezes that toyed with the sternwheeler; especially during landings and departures. While other crewmen guzzled away their $19 weekly pay, ashore, my money lay securely in E. P. Hall’s safe inside the Purser’s Office. Personally, I spent as much free time between rides, as possible, rowing the wooden jonboat that was stowed against the open windows back on the port engine room bulkhead where the heat of the engines dried-out the boat and caused it to leak fiercely whenever it was launched to recover another drunken jumper.

So the Skipper was always agreeable whenever I asked to take the boat for a row, which helped keep the wood swelled so it would not sink before the next jumper took the plunge off the side of the steamboat. Cap’s only warning was, “Get the boat back before boarding time… I can’t sail if I don’t have a rescue boat.”

One time in Hannibal, that July, I had the rescue boat up Bear Creek, the same crick a young Sam Clemens nearly drowned in, according to his autobiography, which would have opened careers for future river writers without having to carry the scourge of being branded, “The New Mark Twain.”

It was getting close to departure time for the afternoon ride, and I figured there was plenty of time to get the wooden boat back, when it suddenly ran upon a submerged stump and was hard-aground. As strenuously as I could row, and I was an exceptional oarsman, the boat would do nothing but pivot around on the submerged stump. The mighty three-chimed steamboat whistle blew the 15-minute call for departure, but the jonboat was no closer to freedom than it had been immediately after the stump captured it.

BoL Cylinder Head. James Rees and Sons Engine Cylinder Head.

Only those who knew the wrath of the great Captain could understand the agony I was feeling knowing that I was about to be the cause of the cancellation of a cruise with the associated loss of revenue, and all. Finally, as I was about to jump overboard and attempt to dislodge the boat, some unexplainable miracle happened, and as soon as the boat and stump separated, I sped toward the AVALON as fast as I could row. Waiting on the fantail was Harry Ricco, Jackie Armstrong, and Dirty Shirt Harold; sent there by the Captain to help stow the little boat so that he could get the big one underway. As we secured the rescue boat, Jackie wore a broad grin, and he was delighted to assure me, “Cap’n Wagner, he really mad at you.”

Before Larry cooked on the AVALON, he was a racehorse jockey. Neatly decked out in his cook’s uniform wearing a white t-shirt and matching pants with a black belt and matching shoes, Larry cut a handsome figure in the cookhouse. Not only did he shove three tasty meals through the small opening in the sliding screen that kept the flies at bay from around the stove, but he also washed his dishes, pots, and pans although a paid positions existed on the books for a scullery lackey.

Instead, Larry convinced the Captain he could do both jobs if paid for both. This arrangement worked to the satisfaction of both the cook and the steamboat company until the harsh chemicals, used without the protection of rubber gloves, ate into his skin and he had to quit the steamboat and spend his time commuting between a dermatologist and his lawyer’s office.

The memory lingers of waking on a crisp morning, on the Upper Mississippi River, where the aromas of Larry’s strong coffee brewing and bacon frying blended with those of engine oil and musky, river air as the AVALON plowed her way up, or down, the waterway. Looking out the deck room windows across a river miles-wide, but only a few feet deep outside the channel buoys, the clatter of the engines running on full cut-off gave a lad the feeling that life could get no better. The passing years have not tarnished, nor diminished, those visions.

Avalon at Clinton, Iowa. Rock Island, Muscatine, Burlington, Ft. Madison, Keokuk, Quincy, Clinton and of course, Hannibal, became familiar towns

When Larry left, Blackie’s wife filled-in and the quality of the culinary arts badly declined, much to the unabashed complaints of the crew who remembered the tasty meals the little jockey served. Everyone wished that Larry would be waiting at the next landing to resume his station in the galley. What I still consider as “real steamboat cooking” is a tasty serving, or two, of fried chicken, white beans, and turnip greens.

After many years, I asked Captain Hawley why this memorable combination of tastes was so frequently on the cookhouse menu, Doc answered with just one word…“Cheap.”

Guarding the mouth of the Illinois River is the town of Grafton. Although Grafton was a stop anticipated by the crew each year, no excursion trips took place from there. Instead, the AVALON shoved in at a park, above town, and an annual ritual holiday for the crew was hosted by Walter Wilson, a Grafton garage owner and friend of the boat and the Captain.

Walt furnished large quantities of fresh Illinois River catfish while the AVALON supplied the rest of the picnic trimmings; including the deep-fat fryer, sodas, cases of Burger Beer, and all the labor to make the frolic happen. A softball game followed the meal; also a tradition, with the crew choosing amongst themselves to form two teams. After the holiday ended, everyone cleaned up the remains of the picnic and wearily trudged back to the boat. Soon the AVALON backed-out as her great whistle blew a rumbling salute to Mr. Wilson who stood waving from the bank as the steamboat turned its nose northward and began her summer run up the Illinois.

Steamboat Fare. What I still consider as “real steamboat cooking” is a tasty serving, or two, of fried chicken, white beans, and turnip greens.

Hardin, Illinois, with its green, highway lift-bridge, was our first stop after we left Grafton. Then upriver we steamed past mile-after-mile of farmland, under the railroad lift-bridge near the tiny village of Pearl, and past Meredosia to Beardstown where the Sangamon River, Lincoln’s river, meets the Illinois. At Pekin, the AVALON landed below a row of fat, bulging grain elevators. But after the headline and springs were run out and made fast, no one wanted to go down-river toward the high grass to catch the stern line.

Captain Wagner was calling for a deckhand, but no one moved. “Ain’t gonna catch me out there with them rats,” Jackie mumbled with a determined look. “What rats?” I asked. “Whole dang’ river bank’s full of them dam’ rats…bigger’n dogs,” he answered. And sure enough, huge, brown rats as big as small dogs were bending the high-grass as they scurried about in the excitement and noise of the steamboat that so-unexpectedly disrupted their contented lives residing in the shadow of the endless bounty of the grain elevators.

Cap was growling down for someone to “catch the sternline before the stern drifted out,” and weighing Wagner’s displeasure against a riverbank full of slow, fat rats… I chose the rats and waded among them and pulled the sternline through the grass toward a tree to make it fast. The rats, I figured, were too well-nourished to be of serious concern. With their gleaming coats of shiny brown fur, they looked more like housepets than wild creatures of the riverbank, and once I got a hold of the line, it lighten as Jackie and Bobby were behind me pulling on the heavy manila rope.

Still, once it got dark, I had to handle the line, alone, as the grumbling returned, “… ain’t gonna catch me out there in the dark with them rats …”

Dirty Shirt Harold was from Pekin, and several Donelson family visitors rode the afternoon trip. Harold was proud to show off the AVALON to the home folks, and he especially enjoyed introducing them to Captain Wagner who shook everyone’s hand and extended a home-like invitation to all to eat supper with the crew. The Donelson’s enjoyed the fried chicken, white beans, greens, and cornbread, and after several helpings, they left the table satisfied and full.

Huck. One time in Hannibal, that July, I had the rescue boat up Bear Creek, the same crick a young Sam Clemens nearly drowned in.

Mate Red Wilke, finagled some time ashore during the last ride at Pekin and was not at the landing when the boat returned. After all the passengers were ashore, and the lines pulled aboard, Red was still nowhere around. The whistle blew for departure as the AVALON backed out without him aboard and headed north for Peoria. “The steamboat waits for no one,” was the steadfast law; for the AVALON had a schedule to keep, and the boat came first before anyone, or anything, that might prevent it from sticking to the timetable made at the beginning of the season, months before, in Cincinnati.

Red Wilke was a good steamboat mate. I liked working for him, and he appreciated my enthusiasm for the deck. But Red had a mean streak, especially after he found a passenger who was liberal about secretly sharing a bottle. Captain Wagner had a strict rule about alcohol on his boat other than what he, himself, occasionally doled-out after a long, hard day’s work. That was when Cap opened the beer box for no more than two Burgers apiece, and the crew had all the free hot dogs they could eat. The more Red drank, the redder his face became until it went from a rosy glow to a sullen, mean glare that signaled the crew to tread lightly around him. A favorite trick of his was to carry a roll of dimes in his right pants pocket.

During the rides, Mate Wilke joined the other watchmen patrolling the passenger decks, and nothing delighted him more than dealing with a belligerent rider. Pretending to become friendly with the trouble-maker, Red’s heavy, right hand slipped into his trouser-pocket and wrapped tightly around the roll of dimes while his left arm slipped around the culprit’s shoulders in a fallacious gesture of friendship. But, just as soon as the trouble-maker relaxed, Red’s fist flew out of his pocket, and reinforced with the metal roll of coins, he cold-cocked the belligerent, who, when he woke, was roasting in the tiny gorilla-cage jail in the sweltering space behind the engines.

Mate Wilke was waiting at the landing when the AVALON landed at Peoria. He apparently met someone in a bar and decided to take the night off. That was to be expected on an excursion boat that promised no time off from the beginning to the end of the long season.

Peoria was an excursion boat’s town. The afternoon trips were filled with the usual crowds of mothers talking to other moms while their kids chased around the deck, and the moonlight rides were those where memories were made that would be recalled well into the future. Between trips, after the cleanup was done, most of the crew slipped ashore to the closest bar or to the Greyhound bus station in search of love. As usual, my free time was spent rowing the wooden jonboat while enjoying the broad waters of Peoria Lake.

Sometimes Harry Ricco would ride, and we would practice, as a team, with me at the oars while he steered. Mostly, the rescue boat was all mine, and that suited me fine. Though we played Peoria for several days, I was excited to get further up the Illinois and imagined seeing Chicago, or at least the outskirts of the Windy City off on the horizon. So when the last line was aboard, and the stage centered on the bow with the boat pointed north, I anticipated more steamboat adventures ahead.

(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


  1. Bob Sanders says:

    Well done, Cap! You writing is excellent. If this was a book instead of a series, it would be a page-burner.

  2. Connie Bays says:

    We need to bind all these up in book form and create the next best seller! Excellent writing as I’ve ever seen!!

Leave a Comment