A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Downbound, entering Mark Twain’s Lower Mississippi and falling in love with ‘Father of Waters’

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

Passing Cairo Point, downbound, the AVALON entered a different river – the Lower Mississippi – an incompatible beast of a stream than what the boat and crew had been experiencing all summer. Whereas the Upper Mississippi was a system of lake-like pools created by a series of dams, the river, from St. Louis, down, ran unfettered and free.

But once past the Cairo Point, the combined forces of the Upper, the Missouri, the Illinois, plus all their tributaries, united with the Ohio River and the “Mighty Mississippi” of legend was formed. Or as a grizzled shantyboat man described the stream best, “A great mass of water rushing madly to the sea.”

The river, from St. Louis, down, ran unfettered and free…a broad expanse of water, sand, and endless trees.

The Lower Mississippi was a fluvial fantasy created by Mark Twain’s writings that stirred the imaginations of millions anticipating a river wonderland for whatever escapades their minds conceived. But the exhilaration soon wore thin after several days of staring at a broad expanse of water, sand and endless trees. To others witnessing a river at its most majestic, the Lower Mississippi was truly the “Father of Waters.”  As soon as the AVALON was firmly within its grip, instantly, I fell in love with that awesome river.

The Lower Mississippi remains a favorite river along with my beloved Licking River, back home, and the lovely Tennessee.

Accompanying me on my first trip down the Lower Mississippi River, was a ragged, dog-eared copy of Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” scrounged from a cache of paperbacks and well-worn girlie magazines found stashed under the bunks in Room 12, the quarters I shared with three other pilgrims of the deck.

“Life…” became my guidebook throughout my first trip on the lower river, especially where it synchronized with the Great Man’s recollections of his last steamboat ride over the same course, some eighty years before. This arrangement, when it worked, helped guide my introductory excursion on the river made famous by Twain, and was, too, my first incursion into his writings.

In the stifling delta summer heat. Interspersed among the rows of cotton, negro men and women dressed in heavy clothing: long sleeved shirts and blouses, hats and scarves, were picking the fluffy cotton balls and stuffing them into long sacks dragging behind them.

Somewhere near New Madrid, Missouri, the AVALON pushed her nozzle against the bank and tied off for a “Moonlite” ride later that evening. With free time on my hands, I decided to take my first steps onto the soil of the “Deep South.” Hopping off the landing stage, I climbed to the top of the earthen levee, a section of an immense system of dikes encasing the Mississippi in an attempt to protect lives and property from the river whenever it becomes enraged. This defensive structure is generally successful unless “Ole Man River” decides otherwise. 

As my feet crested the summit of the embankment, I froze in amazement at the scene transpiring on the landward side of the levee. From the base of the earthen barrier, stretching to the horizon, cotton plants in full ripeness made the fluvial plain appear shrouded in a thick blanket of snow in the stifling delta summer heat. Interspersed among the rows of cotton, negro men and women dressed in heavy clothing: long sleeved shirts and blouses, hats and scarves, were picking the fluffy cotton balls and stuffing them into long sacks dragging behind them.

It was like a scene from “Gone With the Wind” or a Currier & Ives print. Even for the time, hand-picking cotton was a rare sight as giant mechanical pickers, operated by a single person, were doing the labor of many.

Memphis, sitting high on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff, one of a series of wind-blown loess soil formations deposited on the left bank of the Mississippi River during the Ice Age, was the AVALON’s first sizeable southern city on its 1960 itinerary.

Memphis, sitting high on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff, one of a series of wind-blown loess soil formations deposited on the left bank of the Mississippi River during the Ice Age, was the AVALON’s first sizeable southern city on its 1960 itinerary. The steamboat landed at the mouth of Wolf River, by the foot of Beale Street, alongside Waterways Marine, a floating store catering to commercial riverboats. The Wolf River, in those days, was a foul, choked, repository of the city’s sewage and waste. The water was so unfit for the AVALON’s boilers that a firehose was run across the grocery boat from a fireplug, ashore, to feed the boiler’s hungry appetites. Falling into the foul stream meant a trip to the hospital for a tetanus shot. Maggots crawled on the driftwood. Still, crowds flocked to the boat.

Captain Clarke Campbell Hawley, better known as “Doc,” and sometimes, “Little Doc,” was the AVALON’s First Mate, and with his newly-minted Master’s License, he was the “Alternate Master” serving as Captain Wagner’s relief when the occasion arose. To give the young captain a free hand at commanding the steamboat, Wagner, whenever possible, left Hawley in charge and took some free time off the boat. One day no trips were scheduled until later that evening when the elite of Memphis was expected aboard for a “white linen” charter.

Doc AVALON. Captain Clarke Campbell Hawley, better known as “Doc,” and sometimes, “Little Doc,” was the AVALON’s First Mate, and with his newly-minted Master’s License, he was the “Alternate Master” serving as Captain Wagner’s relief when the occasion arose.

Captain Wagner joined those not necessary to operate the boat for an afternoon of personal time, ashore, and left his young alternate in charge. Wagner was watching from the store boat until the AVALON backed out into the Mississippi, turned around, and headed downstream. The destination was an oil terminal on McKellar Lake, behind President’s Island, to fuel the boat and return to WaterWays in ample time to prepare for the evening’s gala.

The oil burned beneath the boilers to create life-giving steam for the AVALON was Number 6 grade, or Bunker C, the heaviest weight fuel oil that must be heated before it can flow. It was more like tar than oil. Captain Wagner recalled standing on top of the solid oil during cold winter months when he was working inside a fuel tank on the Steamer ISLAND QUEEN. But, it was this same grade oil that exploded and burned the ISLAND QUEEN after it was heated and a spark from a welder’s torch penetrated the tank and ignited a thunderous fireball that killed 19 of Wagner’s crewmates and injuring 18 others; himself included.

McKellar Lake, behind President’s Island, was a startling contrast to the nasty Wolf River. As the AVALON plowed through the cleaner water, I was surprised to hear a steam whistle in the distance that was soon answered by our own sonorous, thundering three-chimed signaling device on the roof of the pilothouse. Looking up from the bow, where I was getting the lines ready to tie-off at the fuel dock, the steam sternwheeler U. S. MISSISSIPPI, belonging to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, passed us on the two-whistle, or starboard-side-to. The government boat then blew another set of whistle signals: One very long blow following by two short melodic pulls on the whistle cord – a greeting, or “hello” that sent chills down the spine bones of anyone within earshot.

US MISSISSIPPI. The steam sternwheeler U. S. MISSISSIPPI, belonging to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, passed us on the two-whistle, or starboard-side-to.

I waited in anticipation for what I knew what was to follow. Moments, that seemed to take forever passed, but then our whistle returned the greeting in kind. As the U. S. MISSISSIPPI passed on and the echoes of the steam whistles faded, they left indelibly engraved in my mind the memory of these two riverboat relics meeting and exchanging steam whistle salutes on that long-ago summer day.

Shortly after the MISSISSIPPI was well away, the AVALON arrived at the oil terminal, made fast, and began taking on several thousand gallons of hot, Number Six, Bunker C, fuel oil. Though taking on fuel bunkers was the responsibility of the Chief Engineer, Captain Hawley was close by. The level of the oil in the tanks was monitored by an engineer watching the markings on a brass dipstick inserted into a short pipe on the deck that opened into the fuel compartment for that purpose. As the height of the hot, thick liquid reached a specific mark, the cry rang out, “That’s it – we’re full! Shut it off!”  An employee of the oil company was standing on the dock waiting for the word to cease operations. But to everyone’s surprise, instead of turning a valve handle until the discharge line was closed and the bunkering stopped, he trudged to a nearby booth, picked up a telephone, and called someone ashore to cease the oil flow.

Within minutes, the engineer gave a terrified shout, screaming, “Get back! Here comes more oil!” At that, the tall gooseneck vents atop the fuel tanks let loose a tempest of hot, black oil that covered the front deck until the deluge ran over the side and into McKellar Lake. Luckily, no one was hurt or burned, as everyone scampered like rats following the engineer’s warning. The smoking oil flowed until all that remained in the pipe between the shut-off valve, ashore, and the boat, drained through the vent pipes. We stood numbly staring at the devastation until Captain Hawley’s voice rang out, “Ok, let’s get this mess cleaned up!”

AVALON 1960. When the AVALON was alongside the grocery boat, Captain Wagner and the crew, lucky enough to get a day off, were waiting. The rest of us were putting the finishing touches on the cleanup.

Oil spills were not unknown occurrences on the steamboat nor at the dock where, because of the placement of the fuel control valve was far from the discharge end of the line. And, too, no one from the fueling facility cared to inform our engineers of the odd arrangement, so a preventable pollution incident happened that would be considered quite serious these days. The situation was more of a concern to the crew of the AVALON than to the men on the dock. By law, a steamboat was required to carry at least one barrel of sand to absorb spilled oil. Several full drums were brought to the bow where the yellow sand, collected from a sandbar sometime before, was scattered about. The pools of oil that lay in depressions on the deck were scooped overboard at the direction of the dockman. The sand, now thick with the tarry residue, followed.

When the worst was overboard, the boys and I began wiping-down the black film clinging to the deck and the sides of the bulkheads with rags and kerosene. As quickly as he could, Captain Doc ordered us to turn loose and get underway and back to the mouth of the even more-foul Wolf River where catering trucks, floral lorries, and vans of while linen were soon to arrive for the spectacular pageant that evening.  When the AVALON was alongside the grocery boat, Captain Wagner and the crew, lucky enough to get a day off, were waiting. The rest of us were putting the finishing touches on the cleanup.

From the dock, the bow actually looked better than it had earlier before we departed for the fuel terminal. The paint on the steel bulkhead and deck glistened in its new, shiny coat of oil. Captain Wagner was pleased with the actions of his relief captain and the crew. The fancy ball went well that night, and all was right within our steamboat world.

(Note: The way the oil spill was addressed was not uncommon, and actually routine, nearly sixty years ago. Today, such an event would be immediately reported to the U. S. Coast Guard who would send a response team to the scene to make sure the clean-up was done correctly. A professional spill recovery company might be called to provide personnel, materials, and containers to collect and haul away the refuse to an approved hazardous waste facility. Today, this situation would take many hours, even days, to resolve. The costs would be astronomical, but now all boats, thankfully, must carry insurance for such an event. The regs say that even “a sheen on the water” must be reported. Theoretically, a greasy peanut dropped onto the navigable waters of the United States, if it makes a sheen, is a reason for informing the Coast Guard. In reality, I once reported a small paint brush a deckhand dropped into the river while touching up the paddlewheel. As the iridescent luster radiated from the brush and onto the surface of the water, a violation was committed, and I, as Captain, was required to inform the regulatory authorities.)
   
(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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