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The River: Steamboatin’ on the excursion boat AVALON, a tradition dating back to the 1800s

(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 ninth of a long and continuing story.)

By Capt. Don Sanders

Special to NKyTribune

As the head of the Traffic Division for Covington, our hometown, my father, Jess Sanders, Jr., made sure the excursion boat, the Steamer AVALON, had ample automobile parking along the riverfront each time the steamboat came to visit to haul a boatload of locals to the Coney Island Amusement Park, above Cincinnati on the Ohio River, for “Covington Day”. For those eager to go to “Coney” by steamboat, this was a tradition going back to the late 1800’s; long before the AVALON was built. In consideration for his services, Dad received several thick yellow pads of complimentary passes good for free admissions to ride the AVALON. Though he was always given more passes than we ever used in a year’s time, our family took advantage of the tickets and made several cruises annually.

LaCrosse, 1950’s. The Steamer AVALON as it looked in the 1950s

Whenever the AVALON was playing Cincinnati, its home port, the skipper was Captain Arthur J. “Red” Schletker. Cap’n Red, as he was better known, relieved the regular master, Captain Ernest E. Wagner, who took off whenever the AVALON was home. My dad quickly became friends with Captain Schletker who invited my father and me to ride in the pilothouse while Mother enjoyed the riverboat ride astride a comfortable couch on the starboard side of the Texas Deck, by the chimney, while my two younger brothers explored the rest of the boat. Dad occasionally steered the AVALON, but he preferred sitting on the “Lazy Bench,” and that allowed me some steering time. But mostly, we just listened to Captain Red tell of his many years on the river as both the Chief Engineer and the Master of the U. S. Lighthouse Service steamboat, the U. S. GREENBRIAR, while pilots John Emory Edgington or Lawrence “Bo” Allen kept the AVALON in the marks.

We owned our own sternwheeler, the MARJESS, a forty-footer built in 1947 on the Great Miami River, that my parents bought in 1955 and had hauled to the Ohio River on a flatbed trailer. But, actually, we started on the river three years, before, on the PAL-O-MINE, a 52-foot, wooden houseboat owned by Dad’s friend, Walter Hoffmeier, who was born on a shanty boat on the Licking River in the early 1900’s. Seeing what joy the family gained from the PAL, my parents made what was a major financial investment, and borrowing a thousand dollars, they bought the sternwheeler SHANGRI – LA and renamed it for themselves – Marge and Jess.

The biggest buyer of Burger Beer was the AVALON

About a couple of years after the MARJESS was introduced to the Ohio River, Walter started a boat harbor he also named for himself, Walt’s Boat Club, in West Covington. My folks, being strongly over-protective, kept me on a short leash and the only source of amusement and entertainment I was allowed after school hours away from the house, was earning my supper at the boat harbor under Walter’s stern supervision which suited a river-hungry lad just fine.

Eventually graduating in the lower half of the Class of 1959, and free of that burden, my sights were set on working on the river, but in those days, decent-paying jobs on towboats shoving barges were cherished and it took connections to land one. Captain Red, my only river contact, disappointingly revealed he had no pull within the towing industry that would help me land a job, but he promised inroads to employment on the AVALON, something I had not considered, but working on the steamboat would, at least, be a beginning. So I agreed to meet him at the AVALON which lay tied below the Greene Line wharfboat on the Cincinnati Public Landing.

Amol Warner, the Chief Steward of the AVALON, was finishing the last dregs of his breakfast coffee seated at a wooden picnic table in the deck room, a broad open space forward of the Engine Room. Captain Red introduced us and added, “He’s a good boy… sober…his father is Jess Sanders who got us the parking when we landed in Covington…” and so forth.

Mr. Warner appeared interested-enough in me but seemed the type who would not have been so cordial without Captain Red’s presence. Near the end of the interview, the Steward asked again for my name which he wrote inside a pack of half-empty matches.

Crew Early 1950. Such a jolly crew. I reveled in anticipation of becoming one of them.

“Be back here in the morning before eight o’clock,” he said before turning back to his coffee. Captain Red had fled elsewhere during the interview, and I stood a few feet away from Mr. Warner to take in the excitement happening in the deck room that had transformed it into a circus-like arena of sorts.

Cincinnati was called “the beer capital of the country” before Prohibition killed off most of the breweries in that beer-guzzling city of Germanic origin. One of the few surviving brew houses was the Burger Brewing Company, and the biggest buyer of their product, Burger Beer, was the AVALON.

Thousands of cases of Burger, “bottled” in steel cans, were stored in the hold below the Main Deck; directly-aft of the AVALON’s boilers. On this particular morning, Burger trucks were off-loading case-after-case of canned beer onto a long metal ramp equipped with steel rollers that stretched from the cobblestones, ashore, to the side of the steamboat where everyone able was assembled to lend a hand with the precious cargo. Deckhands, cabin boys, off-duty strikers, and even a few “band boys,” union musicians in the AVALON’s house band, The Rhythm Masters, worked with a sense of anticipation fueled by the understanding that once the cases of brew were snugly tucked into the holds, cold cans of Burger, presently chilling in large steel tubs of ice, would be generously lavished onto all participants who shared in the work.

Capt. Arthur J.’Red’ Schletker

As usually was the way, as I later learned, several cases were secretly broken open and cans of warm beer were guzzled out of sight of what lax supervision may have been present. All-in-all, it was a joyous exhibition of labor gladly shared, and in the excitement of witnessing such a jolly crew, I reveled in my own anticipation of becoming one of them.

Without warning, the intense activity suddenly stopped and the area exploded with thunderous cheers and shouts as a giant of a man came unannounced into the room. He stood six-feet and several more inches above the deck and looked to weigh at least some 250 pounds, but, overall, he was fit and well-proportioned for his size. The colossus wore tan slacks and a flowered, Hawaiian-print shirt, and judging by the excitement and the widespread commotion that filled the room, the man was endeared to all. Even the glum Mr. Warner seemed excited to see him.

A broad smile stretched across the face of the big fellow who went directly to the table where Mr. Warner was seated and took two large spoons; put them together in one great paw and began beating and clicking them together, up and down, between his free hand and the broad side of his body in such a rhythmic way that music suddenly filled the air to the joyful shouts and applause of all assembled there. A deep tone arose from within the man as he began singing in tune to the tapping of the spoons, and I could hear the words … “Katie went to the well…”

“Who’s that big guy,” I asked the closest person standing nearby.

Looking puzzled, he turned and answered, “Man…don’t you know?… That’s Captain Wagner!”

Captain Ernest E. Wagner was not only the charismatic musical master of the AVALON, the demonstration witnessed in the deckroom also proved that he was the one person in full command of the forty-five-year-old steamboat. Soon after all the excitement cooled down and the murmur of industry replaced the revelry and the loading of the Burger resumed to the pitch it had been before the unexpected arrival of the Captain, I crossed the swinging gangway, or Stage, to shore and walked the ancient cobblestones to the top of the landing and glanced back at the AVALON.

The crew worked more harmoniously, now, in a cadence that hummed to the rhythm of their Captain’s presence.

The route to the bus station was along the sidewalks traveled by lost generations who once trod between these same buildings whose images had been photographed in the Cincinnati daguerreotype of 1848. The musky smells wafting from open cellar doors and broken windows were similar scents familiar to steamboat travelers before the Civil War and into the 20t h Century until trains and, eventually, busses and cars replaced the steamboats and travelers to distant cities no longer crowded these banquettes. After a short bus ride across the Suspension Bridge and into downtown Covington, I stopped at the EFKO Army Surplus Store where a stout, large footlocker was procured. Another bus ride took me closer to home.

Lugging the heavy locker, I found the front door open and my parents in the living room talking, but seeing my large parcel, they stopped in mid-conversation and inquired if I was “going somewhere”. When told that I was set on reaching Omaha, they asked how I intended to get there. “On the AVALON,” I cheerfully answered. At that, they both began loudly refuting the intentions that I had so carefully formulated earlier.

Mother, I remember, was shouting, “OH, NO YOU’RE NOT!” But in spite of their combined efforts to dissuade me, I made my way to my room and packed the huge footlocker with all that I figured would be necessary on my steamboat adventure scheduled to begin early the next morning.

The locker was filled with more things than would be needed for a rough life on the steamboat; even the beautiful Elgin watch Grandmother Edith had given me for graduation was packed. Downstairs, by early morning, both my parents were waiting and primed for another battle over my intended departure, but after tears from Mother and hard scowls from Dad, I was surprised when he told me to put the bulky chest into the car; for he was giving me a lift to the landing where the AVALON lay waiting for a new day and the beginning of my steamboating adventures. The ride from the house to the steamboat was solemn, for this was the first time I had gone against my parent’s wishes, and apparently, I had somehow, won!

Once again I found Mr. Warner seated at the breakfast table where he was the morning before, but this time his attitude was hostile and belligerent when I informed him I was reporting for duty as a Cabin Boy as he had promised. “I don’t know you…. we’re filled up… no jobs…”

“But, I was here yesterday… you wrote my name on your match pack… Captain Red brought me… Captain Red, Captain Red…,” I pleaded.

Ed Smith, steamboat fireman.

The repetitious mention of Captain Red Schletker’s name apparently jogged the Chief Steward’s foggy memory though he had used the remaining matches in the pack he wrote my name on and, surely, several more match packs had been consumed to light the long chain of cigarettes he smoked in the past twenty-four hours. Instead of inviting me to grab a plate and eat my first meal with the crew, he grumbled: “Go up front and I’ll be with you when I’m done.”

So I followed Mr. Warner’s orders and went to the forward end of the Main Deck and sat on the wooden bench on the starboard side facing away from the river. Glancing up, I looked toward shore, and still parked on the cobblestones, was my father. Dad sat in the car glaring back with cold, hard stares. I vowed that whatever happened, whether or not Mr. Warner was going to hire me, I was not going back across the Stage lugging that heavy army locker to return, defeated, to my father’s car.

Instead, I would wait until he left and then go back home on the bus.

Making matters worse at that very same time, two black men, obviously veterans of the steamboat, came walking around the corner on the port side of the Boiler Room, and I could overhear what they were saying: “Who’s that white boy,” one asked. “Dunno,” the other answered, “but he won’t last long.” They were Ed Smith and Bubba Chinn, AVALON Firemen who soon became two of my most beloved friends, ever, on the river. Many years later when I was Captain of the DELTA QUEEN and they were the QUEEN’s firemen, I asked if they remembered their conversation about my steamboat career possibilities that first day on the AVALON; they did, both confessed.

Several more agonizing minutes passed before the Chief Steward appeared and told me to grab my belongings and follow him to my newly-assigned room, and after stowing my gear, I made my way to the grand staircase to head up-top to the concession stand. Looking toward shore, I was relieved to discover my father had departed.

Capt. Ernest E. Wagner on the AVALON

The most exciting summer of my youth had finally begun! The AVALON steamed to Coney that afternoon with a boat full of Ludlow, Kentucky passengers; mostly mothers and their children. And with a Moonlight charter ride that night when the boat returned to the Public Landing after dropping off the Ludlow folks, it was well into the early next morning before the concession stands closed and the cabin crew was free to retire. After all the revelers were ashore, the AVALON pointed its bow downstream for Louisville.

Captain Red was piloting on the back watch, the six-hour hitch between midnight and six-am, and instead of getting some sleep, I sat with him within the black silhouette of the pilothouse and listened to the creaking of the great wooden steering wheel as it spun to the pilot’s commands until he warned me, “Better get some rest.”

Outside, on the starboard side of the wheelhouse, a comfortable-looking couch with soft cushions was more inviting than the top bunk in a tiny, sweltering, metal cubicle alongside the boilers shared with three other sweating men, so I laid there where the sounds of the pilot wheel, heard through the open sash, quickly lulled me to sleep… until shouts in the night startled me back into reality: “What’re you doing down there, boy? I almost peed on you!” It was the pilot about to relieve himself through the open window, and where I lay had obviously been the target of past micturations.

Returning below decks, my face felt greasy and looking into a mirror, a face masked with black soot from the smokestacks that had been blown-down during the night, stared back. My rudimentary steamboat education had already taught me two invaluable lessons: 1. Rest after a long, hard day’s work, and, 2. Never sleep under a smokestack below an open pilothouse window on a dark night.

End of Part 1 – 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.

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See #8 of Capt. Don’s River series here.

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  1. Bob Sanders says:

    Great story, Don. You fill in some details that I missed in real time. Years later, when I did relief trips as a crewman on the Delta Queen, I learned very quickly to go to bed and get all the sleep I could while working 6-hours on, 6-hours off, around the clock.

  2. JoAnne Harmon says:

    Another good story!

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