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The River: Two glorious summers decking on the AVALON are vivid, compelling memories, even now

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 14th of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Captain Tom Craig came aboard the AVALON somewhere on the lower end of the Illinois River, possibly at Hardin, and the buzz about the boat was no longer of the fight, but about the Missouri River that was but a couple days away. Captain Craig, a sizable man dressed in a blue and white Seersucker suit with the britches held up by suspenders, wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses and a bow tie. He looked more like a country preacher or a county judge than a steamboat pilot. Though Tom Craig was licensed “everywhere”, he held a fierce reputation as a specialist in handling boats and barges on the cantankerous river that lay ahead.

Boldly printed on his business card was his motto. “Wherever Water Flows, Tom Craig Goes.” He intentionally came aboard the AVALON several days early so he could post-up on the ever-changing Missouri, and spent this time reading channel reports and going over his river charts from the last time he was on the wild river. Captain Craig favored sitting at a small table placed in the breezeway at the top of the stairs coming from concession stands where I questioned him about what lay ahead.

Perhaps my jaw dropped when Cap’n Tom recalled the time the lead barge on a tow dove beneath the Missouri River where the current of the legendary stream grabbed the ill-fated barge in such a way that it suddenly rose up and flipped end-over-end. “… and that’s the might of the Missouri River, young man,” Captain Craig concluded with a smile.

The Missouri took on a mystery entirely different than the rivers we had already sailed on that summer, and the enigma of it all stirred visions of a wilderness waterway untamed and unchanged since time began.

Before the AVALON entered the Missouri, all the pallets were holding the various mooring lines, kept on the bow, were removed and carried inside the boat. Orders came from the Captain that the heavy sliding doors, separating the bow from the interior of the Main Deck, were to be kept closed, and absolutely no one was to be beyond the entries whenever the boat was underway. Leroy Batteau, one of Captain Wagner’s most-trusted veterans, and the only unlicensed white boy he later took with him to the DELTA QUEEN in 1962, explained that the reasoning behind removing the line-pallets was due to strange swells that arose in the river and swept over the bow, tsunami-like, as the boat plowed deep into the wave; sweeping away everything in its path.

The Missouri took on a mystery entirely different than the rivers we had already sailed on that summer, and the enigma of it all stirred visions of a wilderness waterway untamed and
unchanged since time began. On all the other rivers, I enjoyed rowing the wooden jonboat, but on the Missouri, even that pastime was forbidden, and of course, swimming, another
leisure-time activity, was taboo. The Missouri was a river to contend with, and all preparations to prevent a calamity were embraced. As the AVALON shoved its bow into the feral stream, the boat became firmly gripped within the river’s grasp. Jackie, Joe, Bobbie, Harry, and I watched and marveled at the river disgorging the runoff from half a million square miles of land that is the Missouri River drainage system.

‘You ain’t gonna let that little dog stop you, are you?’

Further up the Missouri, the AVALON slowed and shoved into the bank. Hearing the heavy doors slide open on their brass tracks, I hurried to the bow and joined the Mate and my crew
assembled there. “What going on,” I wondered aloud. “Cap’n Wagner wants a Channel Report,” someone answered. I hung back in the crowd of eager deckhands ready to jump ashore and run up the steep, dirt bank to a nearby mailbox that held individualized reports of the river’s ever-changing conditions.

The bow was nosed-in about three feet from the bank that rose high above until the top of the embankment was level with the windows of the concession stands. As one of the boys was about to leap the chasm between the boat and bow, the deep, booming voice of Captain Wagner, standing inside the bridge-box on the next deck above where he could see all of us below, commanded, “No! Get Don over there…” So, as fast as I could snake my way through the crowd, I leaped ashore at a run as the ground beneath me collapsed into multiple avalanches as my legs rapidly churned seeking the traction to fight my way up the crumbling escarpment.

My plight must have been peculiar to watch as I scrambled up the hill. Soon I heard laughter from the crew, but not, it seemed, in a mocking sort of way… I was just fun to watch, struggling as I was. Big Cap, meanwhile, was urging me on and shouting: “Hurry up… Can’t hold this boat all day..” Even I sensed the humor in it all as I fumbled through the stack of Channel Reports inside the country-style mailbox; the kind with the red flag on top. “Take anyone!,” bellowed Wagner, “Get on back.. an’ hurry up!” So I did, but by the time I scrambled back down to the boat, the ferocious current of the river had ripped away the ground that, minutes before, I had valiantly fought so hard to conquer.

A long aluminum extension ladder was stretched across the ever-increasing distance from the boat to the shore, and I carefully crossed on all-fours as the Captain, above me, continued proclaiming the urgency of the situation. Inside the pilothouse, minutes later, as I handed the Skipper the envelope from the Corps of Engineers, he gave me that hard look, as only he could do, and asked, “What took you so long?” … and, pausing, laughed so hard the window sash rattled. Heading below, I felt aglow with the satisfaction that Big Cap had singled me out from all the eager crowd to fetch the Channel Report. It was an honor to be selected.

Following the warnings of Ed Smith, from St. Louis, himself, I stayed inside the bus station, there, instead of wandering outside in the rough neighborhood while I impatiently waited for the Cincinnati bus

The mysterious swells that arose from the Missouri occasionally washed over the front deck, as predicted, and did no damage, but left samples of alluvium from distant reaches of the far-ranging river. The astonishing speed of the current was such, that on a two-hour ride, the AVALON fought its way upstream for an hour and a half, but flew back to the departure site in a fraction of the time where there was no guarantee the boat could tie at the same place it had earlier boarded passengers. In a couple of hours, the landing-place, on occasion, silted-over and became too shallow for the AVALON to get close enough for the stage to reach dry ground. The steamboat was then forced to find another site, close by, where the impatient pilgrims could get ashore.

Though an estimated 17,200 dams are in the Missouri River Basin, most of which are small, local irrigation structures on side-streams, the first barrier to regulate the depth of the river is above Sioux City, some 760 miles upstream from the mouth of the river. But without locks, it marks the head of navigation. The Missouri’s channel, “guaranteed by the government” to a depth of nine-feet from the Mississippi River, upward, is maintained with wing dams, dikes, and weirs; man-made structures that direct the powerful current of the “Mighty Mo” in such ways that the Army Engineers see fit to keep the river open to navigation. But, in 1959, steam-powered sidewheel dredges were still assisting the wooded dikes and wing dams to keep the channel open. Like graceful, oversized white swans floating serenely upon the muddy stream with plumes of steam seeping from all the right places, the MERIWETHER LEWIS, the WILLIAM CLARK, and the WILLIAM S. MITCHELL were like ghosts from the lost Golden Age of steam.

One evening, as the AVALON passed close-enough to the LEWIS that the shouts of dredge men came across the water over the hissing of steam and the clamor and banging of machinery associated with such a large scale operation, I watched and stared intently in wonder at a sight I would never see again. The summer was fast coming to a close, soon I would be leaving the steamboat in Jefferson City and heading home to start the fall college semester. But, until then, I still had a few more days to live the life of a steamboatman and savor the marvels of the amazing Missouri River, and so I delighted in each remaining moment.

Where, exactly, the AVALON landed, somewhere on the left-descending shore, I cannot recall. It was just a bank-landing at the end of a country road that meandered inland to Missouri Route 94, which paralleled the shore and connected Mokane and Tebbetts or Portland and Bluffton to the state capital at Jeff City.

Standing alone on that desolate beach was one Cottonwood tree stout enough to hold the steamboat in the powerful Missouri River current. It was my turn to hold the eye of the headline with Jackie and Bobbie, close behind, as we leaped ashore dragging the heavy line with us. But when we got close to the Cottonwood tree, an angry junkyard dog sprang from within the cool shade beneath the tree. Only the stout log chain that bound it there prevented the canine from mauling the three of us. The links of the chain were so tightly secured together that only welding them would have bonded them more firmly than did the weight of that snarling animal.

We hesitated just outside the safe boundary the chain provided, and I looked back at the Captain standing inside the bridge wing where he was assessing our situation. With a shrug, I made a gesture asking for his guidance, and he immediately shot back: “You ain’t gonna let that little dog stop you, are you?” Without a second’s hesitation I turned, and like the Civil War soldiers I’d read about who waded into hailstorms of lead and iron with their heads down and shoulders cocked, I turned and went unhesitatingly into the dog’s circle of fire and made the headline fast.

. . . at Sterrett – My folks were in the backyard looking at Mother’s flowers when I casually came upon them lugging the huge locker.

By the time my partners dislodged the determined beast off me with several heavy blows from a nearby fallen limb, I was soundly dog-bit. But never for a moment did I hesitate once the Captain roused me onward by speculating, loudly, if I was allowing some “little dog” to stand between me and my objective. Somehow, the skin was unbroken, but though the pain of the dog bites made my eyes water, I remained stoic about the whole affair. Consequently, among the deck crew, I gained another red feather in my symbolic cap.

The summer came to an end for me a couple of days later when the AVALON tied up at Jefferson City and my first steamboat days were over. The heavy footlocker was packed with all my booty except for the beautiful, engraved Elgin watch Grandmother had so lovingly given me for graduation. Someone had pilfered my property and kept the watch. I was stupid for taking it with me, as it should have been a lifetime companion.

Sadly I made my way around the boat and said my goodbyes before I stopped to see Mr. Hall at the Purser’s Office to collect my summer’s worth of wages he kept in the safe. Inside the paper envelope was two-hundred dollars and so many cents for ten weeks of work at nineteen dollars and change a week. I thanked him and started toward the stairs leading down to the bow when Captain Wagner came around from above to meet me. Cap and I stood there pumping hands, and as I turned to leave, he handed me two twenty-dollar bills. “Here… I’m paying your way home.”

The next thing I knew, I was on the Greyhound bus crossing the bridge over the Missouri River; heading for St. Louis. A couple of girls, about my age, or slightly older, were flirting with a boy in the seat across from them as I turned and looked out the window and saw the AVALON tied at the bank where I left her. She seemed quiet and deserted and so tiny seen f rom my lofty perch high on the bridge. Desperately, I wanted to tell someone all about the dozing steamboat, if only they would look and wonder aloud about what they were seeing. But no one noticed. Following the warnings of Ed Smith, from St. Louis, himself, I stayed inside the bus station, there, instead of wandering outside in the rough neighborhood while I impatiently waited for the Cincinnati bus.

My folks were in the backyard looking at Mother’s flowers when I casually came upon them lugging the huge locker. Mom was but a few days from birthing my only sister, and she and Dad were more than surprised to see me arriving unannounced, but looking tan and fit after my first steamboat summer.

The next summer we would go through the same battle to keep me off the AVALON. Dad even found me a job on a third-rate construction gang, but I took my first, and only, paycheck and invested in a ticket for a 24-hour bus ride to La Crosse, Wisconsin where the AVALON waited. Captain Wagner did not know I was coming, but as soon as he saw me walking across the dance floor, and I asked for my job back, announced, “You’ll always have a job with me.”

I stayed with him the entire 1960 season and saw a steamy New Orleans for the first time, and we were in Pittsburgh the night the Pirates won the World series in a historic game that any Pittsburg fan, no matter the age, knows about in explicit detail.

Regrettably, I finally caved-in to parental pressures the third year, the last year the AVALON would run, and so I missed, perhaps the most talked-about year in AVALON history. But nothing could have been more exciting than my first summer on the steamboat. Over half-a-century later, the glorious Summer of 1959 I spent decking aboard the Steamer AVALON remains as vivid and compelling as I recall living it.

(The End, but Just the Beginning.)

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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