A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Plodding upsteam on Mississippi, seeing waste inferno, sights to dazzle the senses and more

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

Slowly, the AVALON plodded upstream against the surging might of the Mississippi River. Returning to Baton Rouge, we stayed long enough so that I was able to tour the old Louisiana State Capitol Building which both Twain and Huey Long despised. At a cafeteria in the new Capitol, I learned the difference between “pure” or “chicory” when I asked for a cup of joe.

The refinery, the fourth largest in the country, looked like a version of Dante’s Inferno stretching out for miles

Continuing on after departing the Port Allen ferry landing after the last Moonlite charter, the steamboat went but a short distance before landing alongside a steel and concrete pier at the Standard Oil refinery below the upper Huey P. Long Bridge, also known as the Airline Highway Bridge.

The front office in Cincinnati had arranged with the refinery for a load of thick Number Six Oil to be loaded aboard the AVALON, but once we were tied off and getting ready to refuel, a supervisor arrived pedaling a bicycle and informed Captain Wagner that he would not refuel the boat. The refinery, the fourth largest in the country, looked like a version of Dante’s Inferno stretching out for miles with nightmarish flames roaring from tall stacks flaring off waste vapors from the oil distillation processes going on all about us.

The arrangements between the offices failed to note that our boat was made of wood with open flames within the furnace which produced the steam that was the soul of the steamboat. The refinery overseer feared he argued, heavy stray gasses from the oil refinery might find the AVALON’s open flames and ignite, causing all sorts of catastrophe for both the Standard Oil facility and us.

In the interim, while discussions were going on between Cap’n Wagner and the refinery boss, I found a spare bicycle leaning against the dock railing and rode up and down by our boat until I heard the Mate call all hands to get ready to refuel. Whatever persuasion Big Cap used to get

Immense mounds of golden sand arose as islands and bars. The harshness of the southern sun reflecting off river and sand dazzled the senses of any witness, and the silence, devoid of human sounds other than our own, was otherwise unbroken but by the wind and the occasional cry of a waterfowl.


the refinery guy to change his mind, it worked. After our fuel tanks were topped off without further incidents, we let loose of the oil dock and set off into the darkness. The boat was past Ben Burman Light and rounding Free Negro Point by the time all was secure on the bow, and Captain Doc Hawley retired his crew for the rest of the night.

Again, the AVALON bumped softly ashore at the foot of Silver Street under the loess bluffs at Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Pressed up against the steep bank, between the Spanish Trail and the highway bridge, an orange-colored bottom of an ancient wooden steamboat hull was the only reminder of Natchez as a significant river port alive with the comings and goings of countless steamboats, flatboats, and keelboats with all their associated human and physical cargoes. As I stared at the mute hull, it asked more questions than it offered answers: “What boat was I? Where was I built? What happened that I should be here, upside-down, and wrecked? How long have I been here?”
 
Plodding headlong against the flow of the Mississippi River as the steamboat retraced the path it had traveled just a few weeks before, gave me plenteous occasions to survey the scenery more adequately than I did on the hurried downbound route. Immense mounds of golden sand arose as islands and bars. Forests of cottonwoods and oaks came so close to the water’s edge that they often fell into the stream and became snags and impediments whenever their footings were undercut by the scything flow of the river. Surprisingly, an acre, or more, of the riverbank might suddenly collapse as we passed close by carrying with it a community of trees, plant life, and creatures that called that stretch of the shoreline, “home.” The harshness of the southern sun reflecting off river and sand dazzled the senses of any witness, and the silence, devoid of human sounds other than our own, was otherwise unbroken but by the wind and the occasional cry of a waterfowl.
 
Vicksburg and Greenville were again welcomed stops on the long, slow journey back up the Mississippi, but neither seemed as exciting the second time around. Arkansas City, once a storied city in the heyday of steamboating history passed unseen in the distance. Three palatial cotton packets named KATE ADAMS were built specifically to cater to the town as best remembered in the words of an old rouster tune – “Cap’n Jim Rees sed when da Katie wuz made – Arkn’sa’ City gwon’ to be her trade.” Surprisingly, a survey of a map of the town showed several streets named for steamboats. Among those so honored were the steamboats KATE ADAMS, GEORGIE LEE, SPRAGUE, MORNING STAR, SADIE LEE, CAPITOL, and even the more recent, DELTA QUEEN.

Arkansas City, once a storied city in the heyday of steamboating history, passed unseen in the distance. Three palatial cotton packets named KATE ADAMS were built specifically to cater to the town as best remembered in the words of an old rouster tune – “Cap’n Jim Rees sed when da Katie wuz made – Arkn’sa’ City gwon’ to be her trade.”

My last authentic steamboat thrill remaining on the Lower Mississippi River, other than our own AVALON, awaited at Helena, Arkansas where the steam, sidewheel railroad transfer ferry, PELICAN, moved train cars across the river several times a week. The AVALON shoved into Porter Slough very near the PELICAN. One of the great thrills of that entire summer was standing ashore next to the transfer steamboat and watching as it prepared to raise steam and get underway. It was like being transported back into the Nineteenth Century when those great sidewheels started turning. The roar of the exhaust from the engines ‘scaping onto the roof was deafening! At the same time, burned-out remains of what must have been a lovely steam automobile ferry moldered at the Helena city front. The blackened steam engines looked much like the AVALON’s Rees steam engines but were much smaller. The Helena Highway Bridge, under construction, while we were there, would soon replace the sister boat to the charred ferry.
 
As the AVALON departed the slough on its last excursion before continuing up the river, a hard, on-shore wind shoved the steamboat against a string of pleasure boats moored against wooden floats alongside the shore. As the pilot had no choice but to continue backing hard against the wind and toward the river channel, the entire marina was hauled ashore and placed high and dry onto the riverbank. Fortunately, the boats were unoccupied, and no one was injured. But seeing the accident happen was almost as exciting as watching the PELICAN get steamed up and underway… almost, but not quite.

(To be continued…)

The AVALON shoved into Porter Slough very near the PELICAN. One of the great thrills of that entire summer was standing ashore next to the transfer steamboat and watching as it prepared to raise steam and get underway. It was like being transported back into the Nineteenth Century when those great sidewheels started turning.
(Pelican, by Allan Hammons)

Helena, AK Steam Ferry – Burned-out remains of what must have been a lovely steam automobile ferry moldered at the Helena city front. The blackened steam engines looked much like the AVALON’s Rees steam engines but were much smaller. The Helena Highway Bridge, under construction, while we were there, would soon replace the sister boat to the charred ferry.

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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