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The River: Steamboatin’ on the Steamer AVALON in summer of 1959, and what a glorious summer it was

(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 tenth of a long and continuing story.)

By Captain Don Sanders

Special to NKyTribune

By morning, the AVALON was well on its way toward Louisville, and “Big Cap,” Captain Wagner, was supervising the overall cleaning of the steamboat as it deadheaded down the Ohio River. The concession stands were scrubbed and shined, and the Skipper, personally, led the deck crew in stripping, scrubbing and waxing the dance floor.

My assignment was cleaning the aft steel stairways from the Boiler Deck to the Hurricane Roof, and working as I had been taught at home and at Walt’s Boat Club, the results were such that my boss, the Chief Steward, Mr. Warner, seeing my enterprise, hailed Captain Wagner and brought him over to where I was engaged: “Look what a great job this kid is doing…”, as the outcome of my efforts obviously pleased them both.

The AVALON at Louisville, 1959

Later that day, when I approached the giant captain and requested a transfer to the deck department, he had already seen an example of my work, so he gladly exchanged me for a deckhand who wanted to be in the Steward’s gang.

The heavy footlocker left the hot room on the starboard side, close to the boilers, and was dragged to Room 12 at the after-end of the line of rooms on the port side; away from the boilers where the walk-in reefer box that shared a common wall with the room helped cool the deckhands’ sleeping compartment. Room 12 remains my favorite on the Main Deck, even now that the boat is still operating and renamed the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE. The venerable steamboat will be celebrating its 104th anniversary this coming fall, nearly sixty-years since from that glorious long-ago summer of my youth.

After racially-segregated “colored” charters and open, all-white rides in Louisville, the steamboat made its way down the Ohio playing a few places, but mostly she passed-by the many small towns on her way to the Upper Mississippi River where my first introduction to the Mighty Mississippi was a tremendous roar heard beneath the Landing Stage where I was sleeping, projecting over the water and beyond the front of the bow, as the AVALON rounded the corner at Cairo Point and the blare of the swift current as it rushed past the bow was enough to startle me awake.

Arrival at St. Louis, several years before the Gateway Arch was built.

Turning to Watchman Harry Ricco who was also sleeping on the Stage, I asked, “Is that the Mississippi? ”

“Yep, that’s her,” he answered, and after listening awhile to the thunderous uproar of the powerful stream, I fell back asleep.

The next day was our arrival at St Louis, several years before the Gateway Arch was built.

Here, again, during those times of racial separation, the AVALON catered to all-colored trips as the local excursion boat, the Steamer ADMIRAL, normally excluded negroes as passengers. The all-black trips were generally some of the best organized and most well-behaved rides we had anywhere we went on the river.

Up the mighty Mississippi River, the AVALON traveled all summer; stopping in towns and cities along the way with new and exciting names I had heard only in books, on the television, or in movies. Alton, Illinois, the first town the AVALON played above St. Louis, was where the grand, deep tones of the steam whistle frightened mothers and made their kids howl in terror.

The Skipper personally led the deck crew in stripping, scrubbing and waxing the dance floor.

There, I was delegated to stay ashore to catch the lines when the boat returned from a late-night cruise, and instead of finding a beer joint, uptown, or hanging around the Greyhound bus station looking for available strays like the older deckhands usually did, I found a hidden place on the riverbank and curled up and slept until the thunderous whistle announced the arrival of the returning steamboat.

Hannibal, Missouri was where the boyhood adventures of the author, Mark Twain, played out in the guise of Petersburg . The characters, Tom, Huckleberry, Jim, and Becky Thatcher …were all concocted names Twain contrived to disguise those guilty of the errors recorded in his books that served, forever, to ruin the writing ambitions of future river authors. The kiss of death for an aspiring writer of steamboat and Mississippi River tales is to be tagged, “the new Mark Twain.”

Above Hannibal, on the Illinois side, the AVALON spent a couple of days at Quincy where I scrawled the initials of my own boyhood gang of river boys into the cement pier of the highway bridge: LVA for the “Licking Valley Association”, an imagined band of Licking River roughnecks comprised of myself, two younger brothers, and a cousin. Quincy, in those days, was home to a number of bawdy houses and the matrons of the bagnios enjoyed afternoon breezes cruising aboard the steamboat on the Mississippi whenever their busy work schedules allowed.

Old-time Steamboat Pilots steering the AVALON

At each landing, I learned where the ties, fixtures to secure the heavy lines, were hidden; how to secure the headline to a tree or a ringbolt using toggles and shackles, and when and how to use one or the other. I learned which way the lead of a spring line went and which horn of a kevel the line went to first.

Captain Red showed me, early-on, what the “bight” of a line was, and to be aware of the potential for death or destruction by standing in one. He and others taught me how to keep on the “dry side” of the line and not go past the middle of the Landing Stage unless someone was standing on its heel. The further up the river the AVALON went, the more I became comfortable and at ease with my deck duties. Before and after each ride, we deckhands ran up-top to clean the boat of Burger Beer cans, Wagner Cola bottles, cigarettes, paper cups, napkins, and every other sort of debris that party-goers could leave behind in two and a half hours.

The boat had to be sparkling before the next group of rubes crowding the riverbank hurried aboard filled with expectations of drinking, dancing, or cooling off in the river breezes. Some came with the anticipation of finding a stray playmate… others arrived spoiling for a fight.

The Rescue Boat stowed on the stern by the paddlewheel.

The historic Lock and Dam Number 19, at Keokuk, and the ruins of the Mormon settlement at Nauvoo were held in wonder by myself and a couple other newcomers to the Upper River. We listened in awe to yarns told by old river pilots like Captains Ray Fugina and Roy Weathern, and further inflated by veteran AVALON deckhands, former Golden Gloves boxer Jackie Armstrong and Joe-from-Pomroy on the Upper Ohio River who always stayed to the end of the season to collect the year-end bonus, or Watchman, William “Big Bill” Willis who looked much like the popular television comedian, Jackie Gleason, and claimed he was a graduate of New York University.

Big Bill enjoyed flaunting his higher learning over the rest of the crew which was received with mixed feelings… mostly he was referred to as an “educated fool” by his lesser-schooled crewmen.

Harry Ricco, who signed-on at Pittsburgh several seasons earlier, especially enjoyed fetching and running errands for the Captain. A year later, one of Ricco’s stunts would land him in memorable trouble with Captain Wagner, but for now, his experience as a seasoned boatman made him invaluable to the steamboat. My association with Harry, a Night Watchman, was as the oarsman on the rescue boat, a wooden jonboat that served to find and act as a platform to pull jumpers out of the river. Ricco was the man-in-charge of the little wooden jonboat who sat on the stern thwart manning a steering oar while guiding me toward the victim as I rowed with my face looking aft and, consequently, could not see where the boat was heading.

The kiss of death for an aspiring writer of steamboat and Mississippi River tales is to be tagged, “the new Mark Twain.:

Above Cassville, Wisconsin, that summer, Ricco and I were in the rescue boat on a dark, swift, river looking for a jumper. I wore a round, navy-style Bosun’s “high-pressure” cap I had found in an Army/Navy outlet in Louisville not long after I first started on the deck.

We were about a half-mile downstream from where the AVALON was shoved into the bank loading a group onto the boat from Cassville. The steamboat was already half-filled with sodden citizens from Guttenberg, Iowa, an upriver, neighboring, rival town, and the two groups did not mix well together – especially after alcohol was added. The intake of a nearby power plant caused a strong draw towards it that I could feel as I rowed in the darkness lit only by distant lights ashore and Ricco’s flashlight powered by two half-spent batteries.

“Don’t hear nothin’…” , I whispered to Ricco, “Wanna’ go back?” Ricco intently studied the waters ahead… “I think I hear something…get in closer.” Carefully, the jonboat pulled nearer to the sucking water intake. While searching the river ahead, Ricco’s dim flashlight caught the faint sight of a man being drawn closer to the inflow of the power plant. A feeble voice cried for help, but soon we were alongside and brought aboard a frightened, foolish, young man who would live another day. A friendly yacht saw our lack of progress stemming the Mississippi’s current and towed us close to the AVALON where, after turning loose, I rowed the boat and the three of us alongside and into the glaring light of a thousand electric light bulbs where the cacophony of a thousand yelling, shrieking, and cursing revelers were carrying-on over the throbbing music of the Rhythm Masters Band playing enthusiastically to an appreciative audience.

On the wet bottom of the jonboat, a half-empty glass, quart-bottle of Wagner Cola was spinning around and round.

Suddenly….the hot, summer evening was filled with a thundering explosion and a brilliant flash of searing, white-hot light! The Bos’n’s cap flew into the darkness and was never seen again. My left shoulder hurt worse than I had ever felt such pain, before, or since.

Above us, sweating faces peered over the side of the steamboat laughing and spitting at us… and on the wet bottom of the jonboat, a half-empty, glass, quart-bottle of Wagner Cola was spinning around and round.

The man whose life we had just saved, chortled and proudly proclaimed, “Them’s my buddies…” In spite of the searing pain, I slammed the ungrateful fellow onto the bottom of the boat and held the steely point of the pike pole, the tool that minutes before had plucked him from the unforgiving jowls of the water-intake, against his throat and kept it firmly in place until the jonboat reached the shore and he was in the custody of a local policeman stationed on the landing to deal with such miscreants.

My wounded shoulder ached for a week, or so, but fortunately, the bottle found my shoulder…had it smashed into my neck or head, my future would have been concluded on that far away summer evening – half a century ago. (End of Part II…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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  1. Jim Flynn says:

    As a child living along the Mississippi river Clinton Iowa, in the 1950s, I recall hearing the sound of the calliope coming from the river. Our family would load up the car and drive to the riverfront ( 4 blocks). I remember seeing many formally dressed people on the decks with an orchestra playing in the background. Shortly they would be heading north to Minnesota.

    I was always told it was the Avalon. However I don’t seem to be able to find anyone to confirm this.

    The events are clear in my mind. Although I am old. Can anyone on this site add anything to my old memory bank?

    Thank you in advance.

  2. John Taft says:

    Yes,I remember the Avalon.My family took a day cruise on it I’m thinking in the early sixties.We went south,don’t remember how far,as I was only ten or eleven and I spent most of the time in the engine room.simply fascinated.
    I scampered up to the top deck for an ear splitting concert on thecaliope.The steam went up,and some hot droplets rained down.
    God what I would have given foracamcorder

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