A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: A young man becomes a ‘captain’ and takes the Delta Queen from Cincinnati to New Orleans

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 a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The AVALON rounded-to abreast Natchez-Under-the-Hill and slid into the sand below the cement ramp extending into the river at the foot of Silver Street, the old Spanish trail cut through the soft loess soil from atop the high bluff where the genteel city of Natchez, Mississippi sat like a princess on a velvet cushion. Natchez, in its heyday, “befo’da Wahr,” was really two towns: Natchez — on the Hill and Natchez-Under-the- Hill.

The AVALON rounded-to abreast Natchez-Under-the-Hill and slid into the sand below the cement ramp extending into the river at the foot of Silver Street.

The proper portion, atop the loess bluff, once housed more millionaires than any other city in America, other than New York City, they boasted. But the lower quarter was reserved for the dregs and lowlifes of society – mostly river boatmen and the painted ladies who capitalized off the lusts, carnal desires, and immoral depredations of the flatboatmen, keelboatmen, and steamboatmen who frequented its shores. But, by the time our boat landed, both portions of Natchez were havens for tourists flocking from all directions to visit the “largest collection of antebellum homes in America.”  

The remnants of the lower section remaining after the river rampaged through the quarter were only a single line of ramshackle structures on the uphill side of the Spanish path. Of the two sectors of Natchez, Under-the-Hill with its connections to the river was my favorite. But I was to miss, perhaps, the most interesting interplay between the city and the AVALON, when, during the following year, I stayed at home instead of shipping out on the steamboat while some 400 Senior Girl Scouts were aboard from Memphis to New Orleans.

Myrtle Terrace. Natchez, in its heyday, “befo’da Wahr,” was really two towns: Natchez-on the Hill and Natchez-Under-the- Hill. The proper portion, atop the loess bluff, once housed more millionaires than any other city in America, other than New York City, they boasted.

The City on the Bluff, or “Bluffton,” as I sometimes call Natchez, and I would have many more encounters over the years after my first visit on the AVALON in 1960. A decade later, I would return by steamboat again, but onboard the legendary overnight-passenger-carrying steamboat, the DELTA QUEEN.

By that time I was taking the place of my former boss, Captain Doc Hawley as the Mate, and within less than two years, I was sharing command of the DELTA QUEEN with my long-time mentor, Captain Ernest E. Wagner. Captain Wagner and Cap’n Hawley became the two commanding officers on the QUEEN after the AVALON declared bankruptcy following the 1961 “Girl Scout” Season and was sold to the City of Louisville and renamed the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, where it will continue to run excursions in its upcoming 104th season!  
 
By January 1971, I tested for and received my Unlimited Master’s License from the U. S. Coast Guard authorizing me to command steam and motor vessels without any limitation as to the tonnage. Soon after, I was given the opportunity to “captain” the DELTA QUEEN from Cincinnati to New Orleans, and return.

Natchez. Old UTH. But the lower quarter was reserved for the dregs and lowlifes of society – mostly river boatmen and the painted ladies who capitalized off the lusts, carnal desires, and immoral depredations of the flatboatmen, keelboatmen, and steamboatmen who frequented its shores.

Landing at Natchez during high water stands out in the memory of my first trip in charge of the most famous steamboat on the Mississippi River during the second half of the 20th Century. Natchez, again, became a highlight on a 1994 trip when I was in charge of the ADVENTURE GALLEY II, an authentic reproduction of a 1792 flatboat by that name that journeyed from Pittsburgh to the Crescent City for the Louisiana World Exposition, better remembered as the “New Orleans World’s Fair.”  

While atop the Natchez bluff at the beginning of Silver Street that trip, I surveyed the awesome river below me and reflected on the magnificent antebellum homes behind me, and vowed that I would, one day, return and make my residence in the enchanting city on the Mississippi. So, in the Spring of 1991, my family and I moved from Covington to Natchez to fulfill the promise made seven years earlier.
 
Departing Natchez, the romantic city of so many adventures over some three-hundred years under the flags of four countries, France, Spain, and Great Britain before the Stars and Stripes were hoisted after the American Revolution, the AVALON continued south on the muddy Mississippi River.

Natchez and I would have many more encounters over the years after my first visit on the AVALON in 1960. A decade later, I would return by steamboat again, but onboard the legendary overnight-passenger-carrying steamboat, the DELTA QUEEN.

Passing places along the way with names sounding like music to my teenage ears were: Dead Man’s Bend where the bodies of those murdered at Natchez-Under-the-Hill and dumped into the river where seen by passing flatboats and keelboats, the 180-degree turn at Graham Bend, Artonish, Palmetto Point, and Old River where the Mississippi wants, to this day, to change its channel and make a beeline westward bypassing New Orleans. Angola, the home of the feared Louisiana State Penitentiary where the ferry was piloted by a “trustee,” a prisoner invested with such responsibilities. Pointe Coupee, Tunica, Raccourci, Morganza, and Bayou Sara… among many others.
 
Just beneath the mouth of Bayou Sara, the AVALON found a place to settle-in below the St. Francisville, Louisiana Ferry. Soon hoards of local natives swarmed out of, seemingly, nowhere for a steamboat ride. Bayou Sara was once a busy commercial waterway with a wild, rowdy, riverboat town by the same name at its mouth, but erosion from farming silted up the stream and the Flood of 1927 washed the town away.

All that remained of civilization was the landing where cars, trucks, and a few occasional pedestrians were ferried to Pointe Coupee Parish on the far shore of the river.

 (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.

Natchez, again, became a highlight on a 1994 trip when I was in charge of the ADVENTURE GALLEY II, an authentic reproduction of a 1792 flatboat by that name that journeyed from Pittsburgh to the Crescent City for the Louisiana World Exposition, better remembered as the “New Orleans World’s Fair.”

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One Comment

  1. Pete OConnell says:

    You leave me wanting more as usual Captain Don. I’ve been down to Natchez Miss. once on the Bonnie Belle. It was my first paid gig as a pilot.
    The Mississippi River below Memphis seemed a foreign land almost third world with only vain dikes and silos along most of the stretch below Memphis down to Natchez.
    Would love to make a trip to NewOrleans if only as a working guest.

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