A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Heading toward the Gulf, the AVALON offers experiences to prepare a fellow for Captaincy

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

Again, I was fascinated with the sights and names along the river as the AVALON paddled southward through the turbid water bearing the soils from every tributary above. Particles of mud and sand from Ohio and Kentucky mixed with those from Iowa and Minnesota. Representatives from the Great Plains carried to the Mississippi upon the back of the awesome Missouri River were indistinguishable from those flushed from the Illinois or the Arkansas Rivers. Suspended within the formidable mass of water beneath the AVALON’s hull on a journey toward the Gulf of Mexico, the fluvial dregs would eventually precipitate and be reborn as an extension of the Mississippi River Delta as the current, impacting the Gulf, slowed.
 
Waterloo, Fancy Point, Point Menoir, False River, Solitude, and Profit Island, one of the largest intact islands on the Mississippi invoked images of steamboats, flatboats, keelboats, riverboat gamblers, perfumed redheaded ladies of a bygone era I had missed by birth, but still longed for. Devil’s Swamp seemed foreboding. As the AVALON swung around Thomas Point, where the stern of the boat seemed to catch up with the bow, a flock of black river ducks cloaked the water like a blanket. But as we approached, the ducks took to the air at a forty-five-degree angle to the horizon and filled the view of the atmosphere with their mass.

As the AVALON swung around Thomas Point, where the stern of the boat seemed to catch up with the bow, a flock of black river ducks cloaked the water like a blanket. But as we approached, the ducks took to the air at a forty-five-degree angle to the horizon and filled the view of the atmosphere with their mass.

Instinctively, I compensated for the loss of my visual references by tilting my head in such a way to make the line of egress of the ducks my artificial horizon until I became so affected by vertigo, grew dizzy and nearly fell onto the steel deck.  All the while, I was hoping the Pilot wasn’t experiencing the same sensation as the steamboat rounded the seemingly impossible turn at Mulatto Bend. Straight ahead, the AVALON came to the infamous bend at Free Negro Point, since renamed Wilkinson Point.

Once the one-hundred-degree-plus turn was safely negotiated, the boat was abreast Ben Burman Light, named for a renowned river writer from my hometown, Ben Lucien Burman. Mr. Burman’s most celebrated work, “Steamboat Round the Bend,” was made into a 1935 film starring Will Rogers, Irvin S. Cobb, Stepin Fetchit, and others. Passing Ben Burman Light, ahead lay the bustling port city of Baton Rouge, the capital city of Louisiana.

The AVALON steamed under the Airline Highway Bridge and promenaded proudly through the busy harbor, the head of navigation for the ocean-going ships being loaded, unloaded, or at anchor awaiting their turn for a dock space to open. This was my first time to see tall ships with bows higher than the roof of our pilothouse. Many of the ocean-going vessels were steam-powered. Cold chills shivered my spine whenever they “traded whistles” with our thundering, “baby-waker” that sounded as loud and melodic as any the sea could offer.  Flares burning at the Standard Oil Company Refinery looked bright, even in the daylight.


Once the one-hundred-degree-plus turn was safely negotiated, the boat was abreast Ben Burman Light, named for a renowned river writer from my hometown, Ben Lucien Burman. Mr. Burman’s most celebrated work, “Steamboat Round the Bend,” was made into a 1935 film starring Will Rogers, Irvin S. Cobb, Stepin Fetchit, and others.

The tall spire of the Louisiana State Capitol Building, where Governor Huey P. Long met his fate, reminded me of a rocket in a Buck Rogers comic book. But my eyes brightened as the Old State Capitol Building, looking like an English royal castle came abreast. Mark Twain had few words of praise for it when it was new, and I heard that Mr. Long despised the structure when it was old. With all his power, it’s a wonder Governor Long hadn’t ordered its destruction, but, perhaps he hadn’t gotten around to it before his assassination inside the Old Capitol’s replacement.  

Directly ahead, in our path, a relic of earlier times, a single-stacked steam ferry was crossing from shore to shore.  Much to my delight, the AVALON rounded-to and blew for a landing below the ferry ramp on the Port Allen side, opposite the Capital. No sooner had we gotten the AVALON secure on the mud bank, the ferry, CITY of BATON ROUGE, bumped against her mooring barge and disgorged a load of rush hour commuters eagerly fleeing, mostly, government offices on the Baton Rouge side of the Mississippi River.

Once more, I had another steamboat to explore, but unlike the SPRAGUE, the CITY of BATON ROUGE (CBR) was alive and snorting with a boiler full of steam. It didn’t take me long to become pals with the Chief Engineer. During my time away from my steamboat, I rode back and forth in the engine room of the CBR enjoying the sights and sounds of the Gillett & Eaton steam engines turning the cranks of the unseen paddlewheel hidden inside an inner enclosure located within the engine room space.  

As a side business, the Chief sold evening newspapers to passengers from a tall stack weighed down with a Civil War cannonball he found mired in the mud along the riverbank near where his boat operated. Though I imagined myself scrounging along the shore for my very own cannon projectile, I never did. But I have often thought of the ancient, rusting relic and wondered what became of it. Perhaps, it may be hidden somewhere within the recesses of the CBR that still serves in the second decade of the 21st Century, in its 102nd year, as the wharfboat for the Motor Vessel TWILIGHT in Le Claire, Iowa. The Gillett & Eaton steam engines I enjoyed watching doing their work, were removed in 1971 and placed in Captain Dennis Trone’s JULIA BELLE SWAIN, a steam-powered excursion boat in LaCrosse whose fate is uncertain at this writing some 58 years into the future.

My eyes brightened as the Old State Capitol Building, looking like an English royal castle came abreast. Mark Twain had few words of praise for it when it was new, and I heard that Mr. Long despised the structure when it was old.

Steamboat trips sold well, though all the Baton Rouge passengers had to pay a quarter each way to take the CITY of BATON ROUGE steam ferry from the Capital over to where the AVALON was waiting on the Port Allen side. The going rate to ride the AVALON was generally a buck-and-a-half for advanced ticket purchases and a dollar-seventy-five at the boat.

On a particularly perfect summer afternoon, the AVALON was filled to near capacity as the pilot blew one long mournful whistle signal followed by three short toots signifying the boat was departing with the engines operating astern. But, on a typical departing slow bell, the steamboat refused to budge, so Captain Wagner called for the pilot to back harder. The AVALON was stuck tight in the mud and no matter what persuasion the Captain requested, his boat refused to cooperate.

Finally, Cap called for the Mate and the Watchmen to move everyone toward the stern of the steamboat, and the next time the engineers opened the throttle and added steam, the boat backed off the bank and into deeper water to the cheers of the paying passengers. I, too, enjoyed the experience and learned a lesson I was to use when I was the one calling the shots on my excursion boats.

Directly ahead, in our path, a relic of earlier times, a single-stacked steam ferry was crossing from shore to shore. No sooner had we gotten the AVALON secure on the mud bank, the ferry, CITY of BATON ROUGE, bumped against her mooring barge and disgorged a load of rush hour commuters.

The last night the AVALON played Baton Rouge, the Chotin Transportation Company and guests held a gala event aboard the steamboat. This time, we left the muddy riverbank at Port Allen and scooted directly across the river to the luxury of the Chotin’s enclosed wharfboat. Crisp, white tablecloths covered all the tables on the AVALON’s dance floor. Vans bringing food, flowers, and decorations came and went on the floating wharf until our old steamboat looked as elegant as the J. M. WHITE, the ROBT. E. LEE, or any of those other floating palaces that once graced the Lower Mississippi River.

After a short ride, we returned to the dock. Most of the revelers stayed aboard for a dockside party as the liquor flowed and the beat of the AVALON’s band, the Rhythm Masters, filled the Chotin wharfboat where I was stationed to assist guests on and off the steamboat. Numerous cats ran about the place. One especially dignified-looking matron, walking alone, ignored my hand when I offered it and, instead, picked up a tiny yellow kitten and spoke to it in a soft voice I was able to understand, “Would you like to go home with me?” As she proceeded on with the kitty, I warned, “Ma’am, I don’t think you ought to be taking that cat  – it doesn’t belong to you.”

The regal woman stopped, turned, and looked me in the face and solemnly replied, “I’m Mrs. Chotin. If I want to take Kitty home, I will!”

That kitty had to be the luckiest cat in Baton Rouge.

(To be continued.)

As a side business, the Chief sold evening newspapers to passengers from a tall stack weighed down with a Civil War cannonball he found mired in the mud along the riverbank near where his boat operated. Though I imagined myself scrounging along the shore for my very own cannon projectile, I never did.

The last night the AVALON played Baton Rouge, the Chotin Transportation Company and guests held a gala event aboard the steamboat. One especially dignified-looking matron, walking alone, ignored my hand when I offered it and, instead, picked up a tiny yellow kitten.

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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