A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Memphis behind; a brief encounter with young lady and a glimpse of grand Cairo hotel

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

Memphis came and went and was, fortunately, nowhere as exciting as it was on the downbound leg of the trip. Wolf River was as foul as ever at the height of the Southern summer, and after several excursions, the rest of the crew was as happy as I was once the AVALON backed away from the WaterWays wharfboat and continued on against the current of the river. Osceola, Luxora, and Tomato were ignored.

AVALON

Osceola and Luxora were once thriving communities when steamboats reigned and cotton was king, but as the last tramping steamer was passing, they were decaying remnants wallowing in the ashes of the own past. Tomato, a tiny farming community, was known for its unusual name and its location on Island Number 25 in the Mississippi River.

Caruthersville, Arkansas was the AVALON’s next landing. Awaiting yellow school buses disgorged excited kids of assorted ages who ran down the embankment intent on racing across the landing stage until Shorty, Blackie, and Big Bill Willis halted the mob and kept them on the riverbank until their adult supervisors caught up and bestowed some semblance of order. Their wards then boarded at a slower pace until reaching the bottom of the stairs going to the dance floor, where, suddenly, everyone raced up the steps whooping and yelling and entirely out of control once more. The ride was open to all comers. City folks came and farmers wearing clean denim overalls, some so thin after years of wear, the material looked a pale blue, almost white. But all wore a particular look of anticipation and excitement we seasoned crewmen recognized from watching countless thousands come aboard. By the time the lines were let go and brought on-deck, some six-hundred souls, about half the maximum capacity of the AVALON, were enjoying a steamboat ride on a balmy, near-perfect day on the river.

As I was restricted to the Main Deck when the boat was underway with passengers unless summoned above, I took the opportunity to watch the river from one of the large open windows toward the forward end of the steamboat. Though most of the passenger stayed on the upper decks, they were not restricted from coming below where I was confined. Among those guests who chose to explore the lower level where the singing engines and the roaring fires beneath the boilers were always exciting to see, was a girl of about my own age, or perhaps a year younger, who was walking about and stopped where I was standing and began asking me about the boat.

She wore a simple, cotton summer dress. It may have been homemade. She was thin, but not skinny, having an extraordinary, lithe figure with ample breasts for a girl so slender. She revealed she came on the excursion with her parents who were sitting up-top. She graduated, she said, from high school earlier that year and was considering attending the local junior college in the fall and did not want to venture away from home so she could continue helping her folks with their little farm outside of town. But what I noticed most about this uncomplicated, intelligent young woman, was a genuine sincerity that radiated like a glow surrounding her. Before long our hands met and were stood there talking and holding hands like we had known each other for much longer than we had.

Eventually, her mother and father found us and they, too, were as genuine and friendly as the daughter they reared. The four of us prattled on until steam gurgled loudly from the nearby boilers through the line to the whistle high above as the Captain blew for a landing and I had to attend to my deck chores. After the AVALON was made fast with just a headline, my lovely new friend and I stood on the riverbank, again holding hands, but saying our farewells. She was only the third girl I had ever held hands with, but in my terrible shyness, I never asked for her home address so we could write. Again, the whistle summoned the crew to let the single line loose and climb back aboard. And so our hands let loose their affectionate grip and we parted, forever, without even the simplest kiss.

The AVALON passed Tiptonville, Tennessee near where the Mississippi River ran backward for three days during the cataclysmic earthquakes of 1811, and a great section of the river was torn asunder from itself forming Reelfoot Lake. But from the steamboat, all I could do was imagine the lake as it was far inland and there was nothing to see but the earthen levee and endless trees.

AVALON in negative

Ahead lay New Madrid Bend, sometimes called Kentucky Bend, laid out across the map in a north-south direction like a horseshoe with the ends bent toward each other so that they were nearly touching. The bend was almost eighteen miles from beginning to end, but just a single mile separated the neck at its closest juncture. At times, it was rumored, steamboats would put crewmen armed with hunting guns off on the lower end of the bend and pick them up later at the upper end after the hunters had killed a quantity of game while walking across the narrow neck.

By the time the boat traveled the long circuit around New Madrid Bend, the hunters would be waiting. In that way, fresh meat in the form of rabbit, squirrel, turkey, and even deer would freshen the menu after the hunt. Halfway around the bend lay the town of New Madrid, Missouri, the epicenter of the 1811 earthquakes and the namesake of the semicircular hairpin turn of the Mississippi River. The bend is also the extreme southwest corner of Kentucky and includes the lowest point in my home state. By the time the AVALON steamed around the circumference of the bend, and was near Winchester Towhead at the foot of Island 10, I stood atop the Texas Deck and looked across the neck of the peninsula at a smokestack on the Missouri shore we had passed hours before.

Soon, the AVALON was plowing through the point-way of Island Number Eight that lay completely within the borders of the Kentucky commonwealth, the only time Kentucky soil lay on both sides of the Mississippi River. It felt comforting, I thought, to be totally within my home state.  After an afternoon school ride in Hickman, the westernmost city in Kentucky, the boat pushed through the bendway of Wolf Island and passed Columbus where a long iron chain once stretched across the river during the Civil War that prevented the passage of Yankee steamboats until a sailor boy, of about my age, volunteered to row to the chain under the cover of darkness and cleaved it in two with a hacksaw. Wickliffe, Kentucky was passed-by to the comfort of Captain Wagner who witnessed the murder of a fellow crew member of the Steamer ISLAND QUEEN during a riot by locals there, not so many years before.

Ahead, within sight, as Old Quaker Oats Light was abreast our starboard beam, the mouth of the Ohio River disgorged lightly tinted green-colored water that clearly separated the muddy Mississippi into two distinct lanes. What a welcome sight it was to see the river named for its natural beauty. The French called the Ohio “LaBelle Riviere”, the beautiful river. To the Shawnee, it was the “Spaylaywahtheepe”, but the river received its English name from the Iroquois word, “O-Y-O” meaning “the great river.”  Before long, after entering the beautiful river, we deckhands sprang to the commands coming from the Captain shouting down from the wing bridge on the very forward end of the roof as the pilot rang for a slow bell and the AVALON turned toward the Illinois shore and tied-off at Cairo.

As the southernmost city in the Prairie State, the “Land of Lincoln”, Cairo, Illinois had changed little since General Grant commandeered the town during “The War” and made it his staging point for the Union incursion into the South, culminating with the Siege of Vicksburg and the liberation of the Mississippi River into Federal control so that Old Abe could boast, “The father of waters flows unvexed to the sea.”

Between rides, I slipped uptown to look at the ancient, historic structures and found one of particular interest. A bronze plaque on the front of the Hotel Cairo boasting of Grant’s residency caused me to go into the hotel lobby, seemingly, untouched since the General last signed the guest registry. Black marble and brass fixtures, or “brass and ebony,” was the dominant style of the foyer that was as strikingly lovely, still, as it must have been when muddy soldiers’ boots trod where I was standing a century later.

The memory of the exquisite interior of the Cairo Hotel is one that has not dimmed with the passage of the decades. But when I returned to Cairo, five years later aboard the Steamer DELTA QUEEN, the magnificent Hotel Cairo was demolished and gone with all its history and architectural splendor.  After another five years, by the beginning of the next decade, the 1970’s, Cairo would resemble the aftermath of a battlefield after race riots and general anarchy decimated the city; driving out commerce and residents.

(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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