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The River: Steamboating on the AVALON, the last tramp excursion boat, with excitement in St. Paul

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 eleventh of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Lambert’s Landing, in St. Paul, Minnesota, was the AVALON’s northernmost home for two hot summer weeks. Afternoon rides were generally filled with mothers taking the kids for a boat ride while the dads worked.

1906 Lambert’s Landing, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Evening Moonlite trips were for the young adult crowd. Without a liquor license, the steamboat allowed bottles of alcohol to be brought aboard, but non-alcoholic mixes, ice, and beer were turned away. The AVALON made a tidy profit selling mixes in the infamous glass bottles, and ice was peddled by the paper bucket-full; all for over-inflated prices. Burger was the only beer sold onboard.

The trips had all been orderly, for the most part, and the Watchmen only incarcerated but a few over-exuberant revelers in the gorilla cage jail behind the steam engines where the searing heat was certain to render the most inebriated guest the sobriety sought by the most ardent supporter of the temperance movement.

On a particular evening, Red Wilke, the First Mate in charge of the deck, that year, replacing Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley while Doc was on the bigger DELTA QUEEN getting service time experience for an Unlimited Master’s License exam he was taking after the end of the season, ordered me to stay ashore during the Moonlite trip to be handy to catch, and tie-off, the lines when the AVALON came back from the ride; a normal procedure relished by the deckhand assigned the duty.

1937 Steamboat CAPITOL. “Lambert Landing, at that time, had a broad, flat, concrete esplanade between the river and the highway built not very high above the pool stage of the water.”

Lambert Landing, at that time, had a broad, flat, concrete esplanade between the river and the highway built not very high above the pool stage of the water. After catching the lines from ashore as the last turn was taken on the sternline, I stepped down onto the fantail of
the boat. As I did, the esplanade immediately turned green with shards of broken glass as countless Wagner soda bottles crashed onto the cement promenade where I was securing the lines only minutes before. Blackey-the-Watchman, his white shirt stained red with blood,
came dragging a battered man down the back steps toward the jail, yelled, as he passed, “Get up to the post office and call the police!”

The landing was full, by then, with people driven off the boat – some were fighting, but many others were struggling to get away from
the brawlers as fast as they could. Without a cap or uniform to identify me with the boat, it was easy to pass through the crowd and up the steep hill on Jackson Street to a coin-operated telephone inside the post office lobby.

Sirens quickly announced the arrival of the police, and following them were fire trucks, paddy wagons, and soon, ambulances appeared to haul off the wounded. Returning to the landing, I easily slipped back aboard by way of the fantail and onto the boat. By then, all combatants were off the boat and landward. The crew was found on the roof, watching, as the battle raged on a safe distance away. For the first time, I witnessed police dogs in action as firemen manning hoses were blasting streams of water against the battling crowd.

“Lake Pepin, a naturally-occurring lake, is the widest part of the Mississippi River undammed by the hand of man.”

The next night, a report of the violent struggle that started on the AVALON was broadcast on the Huntley-Brinkley Report, the NBC television network’s flagship evening news program. Everyone in America, including my parents, watched as they sat down to their evening meal. As soon as the AVALON office opened the next morning, my father phoned and demanded my return home, but after assurances that I had survived unhurt, and with the confidence of getting Captain Wagner to promise he would “look out for my safety,” my folks let the issue drop.

A few days later, the AVALON departed St. Paul, much to the relief of the officers, crew, and the St. Paul community. The boat received the blame for the riot that was later found to have been an opportunity for rival gangs to rumble, but whatever was said about the origin of the commotion, plunging tickets sales spoke the loudest. So, early of a morning, the AVALON slipped the bonds that bound it to Lambert’s Landing and headed down the Mississippi toward the St. Croix River.

Wearing a circular Detex watchclock hanging from a leather strap slung around his neck, Harold Donelson, the Night Watchman, patrolled the AVALON from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. He doubled on the dance floor when rides overlapped the hours he was on the lookout for fires and other abnormal occurrences that presented a danger to the boat and crew during those late hours when most of the company was sleeping.

AVALON at Cape – “The AVALON was the last tramp excursion boat”

Harold’s room was one of the steel boxes alongside the boilers where soaring interior temperatures could boil a kettle of fish. So he slept underneath the pilothouse in a cramped space close to the spinning pilot wheel that came through a slot in the deck, overhead, close to his head, as he slumbered while the rest of us worked in the sunshine. Harold’s uniform, like the other watchmen, Harry Ricco, Big Bill Willis, Blacky, and Whitey, was a white shirt, black trousers, and a high-pressure boat cap. But, because his shirts had been worn for many years, and though they were sent off to the cleaners every time a laundry truck hauled off the linen and the officers’ cleaning, his shirts had, over the years, turned a dingy yellow; the color of old ivory piano keys. At one time, my mother, Anna Margaret, seeing the condition of his uniform shirt, and thinking it unclean, called Harold, “Dirty Shirt Harold”, and the name stuck.

Even in those days, long before the Clean Water Act came into law to regulate the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States, the St. Croix River was already a National Scenic Waterway, and as such, presented a problem to the AVALON for the disposal of garbage, sewage, and other wastes while cruising the beautiful, protected river. The standard practice for all commercial and pleasure boats was to toss, pump, or otherwise dispose of all forms of feculence into the water. Therefore, we continued in the traditional manner of waste disposal on the lovely St. Croix, only we had to be craftier than we did on unprotected and unpatrolled waters. All the Burger Beer cans, not thrown overboard by high-spirited passengers, were carefully collected during clean-up for Dirty Shirt Harold who, between patrols, punched additional holes into each steel can that quickly went to the bottom of the river as soon as they were dumped over the side after dark and out of sight and sound of prying eyes.

From Prescott to Stillwater, the bed of the lovely St. Croix River was lined with metal cans imported from the Cincinnati brewery. For perspective, it would be another eleven years before the more-elegant DELTA QUEEN no longer disposed of her waste in this same manner. Otherwise, the St. Croix River was stunningly pristine, and though it was our duty to elude the protective eyes of the Wisconsin and Minnesota conservation officers, I remember that resplendent river having some of the loveliest scenery, anywhere, on any rivers the AVALON traveled that summer.

Port Main Deck – Room Twelve, my room shared with three other deckhands, was on the Main Deck.

Passing Prescott, Wisconsin and turning south, the AVALON departed the scenic St. Croix River and visited towns along the Mississippi, again. Red Wing, Minnesota, named for Hupahuduta, the Sioux chief, “The Wing of the Swan Dyed Red,” but to most people, Red Wing was better known for its Red Wing Shoes. Downstream, the AVALON passed Lake City and into my favorite stretch of water on the Upper Mississippi River, Lake Pepin. Pepin, a naturally-occurring lake, is the widest part of the Mississippi River undammed by the hand of man.

By this time, the AVALON was some sixty miles below St. Paul. Impressive Maiden Rock, on the Wisconsin side, was where the Indian maiden, Winona, leaped to her death rather than marry a suitor she did not love. On a windy day, Lake Pepin was the closest I had been in what I imagined to be ocean-like conditions. The bow of the steamboat was built low to the water with little freeboard, so plywood splash-boards fitted around the nosing to thwart small waves from washing over the head of the boat compensated for the flaw. But, the vast swells on Lake Pepin buried the bow, crashed against the sliding doors, and threw sheets of water onto the structure of the steamboat as far up as the concession stand windows on the Boiler Deck. What a sensation it was to stand behind the protective glass of the hefty doors as the full force and fury of the lake crashed against the bow while the spray broke over the superstructure of the AVALON as it plowed its way through the whitecapping waves.

Below Lake Pepin, enchanting Alma, Wisconsin, “Best town on the river…by a dam site,” refers to Lock and Dam # 4 straddling the center of the two-mile-wide by two blocks deep town that emptied-out to fill the AVALON with fun-seekers from within and from villages and farms all around Buffalo County. More than fifty years later, I became closely-associated with friendly Alma when I found the sternwheeler CLYDE, a faithful representation of the type of raft boats that brought enormous rafts of virgin Wisconsin pine down the river to sawmills as far south as St. Louis. Alma, in its heyday, boomed with the lumber industry when thousands of men were there assembling the great rafts of logs. Those timber racks were guided down the Mississippi River by steam-powered “rafters” like the original 1870 CLYDE, the first iron-hulled steamboat on the Upper Mississippi and the namesake of my paddlewheeler CLYDE. Alma was, and remains, my favorite town on the upper river.

Entering lock_ “Sleep was interrupted by the recurring locks that demanded the quick turnout of the deck crew.” Photo by Ben Sandmel

The AVALON was the last tramp excursion boat. “Tramping” meant going from town to town, and not staying in one place as most excursion boats do. As the AVALON steamed between towns without passengers aboard, the crew had the boat all to themselves. After all the work was caught-up, for work on a steamboat is never done, deadheading to the next town was a private, crew-only cruise. This was a time for catching up on lost sleep, to find a cozy place to watch the river, or to wash clothes in a five-gallon bucket. Deadheading was also a time to hang out with the guys and jaw, or listen to someone play the “harp,” as a harmonica was known to the boatmen. In the days before cell phones, a pay telephone, ashore, and handwritten letters were the only ways to communicate with loved ones back home or with that new girlfriend met on a cruise at one of the towns we played earlier that season.

Room Twelve, my room shared with three other deckhands, was far enough away from the heat of the boilers that it was comfortable enough to sleep in, but with limitations. The two sets of bunks were so close together that a man could be standing between them talking to another on the bottom bed while resting an arm on each upper berth. A single, four-drawer, wooden dresser gave each occupant a drawer apiece, but there was space underneath the bottom bunks large enough for suitcases. Even my clumsy army footlocker found room to fit. An oscillating desk fan sat on the dresser top, and though the room was the coolest of any other on the Main Deck, Room Twelve was still hot by reasonable standards of summertime comfort. As the electric fan rotated, the refreshing breeze was delightful as it passed, but as soon as the gust journeyed on to the next guy, beads of sweat broke out on my forehead… then, “Aaahhh…,” I would say, silently, as the cool air returned. Sleep was interrupted by the recurring locks that demanded the quick turnout of the deck crew. Depending on the schedule, working fifteen, twenty, or even thirty hours without sleep was not unusual, and then as sleep finally came, Dirty Shirt Harold would appear at the doorway and yell inside, “LOCK TIME! HAUL OUT!”

There was a time, or two, coming into a lock when I was alone on the fantail standing with the heavy sternline in my hands while waiting for the boat to stop, that I suddenly jolted myself awake and realized I had been standing there sound asleep. A bump against the cement lock wall, while I dozed, could have easily tumbled and pulverized me between the boat and the wall. After writing about a similar experience to my folks back home, I received a letter back saying I “should come home,” and other dispiriting remarks about my steamboating adventures… so, I just quit writing.

(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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One Comment

  1. Ronald Sutton says:

    Description of Deckhands’ Room reminded me of the Str. Wyandotte, Built 1908, on the Great Lakes. 4 Men, slightly different layout, but two sets of double decker bunks. Interesting time when the brave USCG found the maze of extension cords.

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