A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: More adventures; loving the captain for making a stalwart steamboatman of a young boy

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

Captain Hawley, the AVALON’s First Mate and Relief Captain, also played the steam calliope mounted on the roof making an infernal musical racket heard for great distances that summoned the rubes from miles around to let them know the steamboat was in town. Huntington, West Virginia was no exception. The riverbank between the cement floodwall, clear to the water’s edge, was crowded with those eager to hear the thirty-two brass whistles on the Thomas J. Nichol steam-powered musical instrument screeching and hooting as Cap’n Doc shoved against the brass keys hard-enough to overcome the pressure of the hot vapor that powered the odd contraption.

Captain Hawley, the AVALON’s First Mate and Relief Captain, also played the steam calliope mounted on the roof making an infernal musical racket heard for great distances that summoned the rubes from miles around to let them know the steamboat was in town.

Doc allowed me a certain concession of standing on the roof next to him as he played and obliged my requests for certain tunes well-suited to the steam calliope. After a time, I no longer had to ask for those songs by name. They became my “signature tunes” performed for me without my asking whenever I was around while “L’il Doc” played the “Cally-O,” as my Grandmother Edith called it, remembering her younger days on the Ohio River hearing the songs played on the steamboats of her youth.  Of course, “Avalon” was my most beloved calliope tune, and “Alice Blue Gown” was a close second. The autumn nights had grown chilly, but I found I could stay warm standing downwind of the whistles in the steam erupting from them as Doc delighted all who enjoyed the mesmerizing music of the AVALON’s steam calliope.

A haunting memory of Huntington was that of the sunken wreck of what must have once been an attractive steamboat not far from where we moored.  It was buried up to its Boiler Deck in the river, and the stacks and pilothouse were missing, but, still, it was unusual to see such a sight, although everyone seems to think the rivers lay littered with such picturesque wrecks.

The old Gallipolis Locks were made late at night. My station during lockages was by myself manning the sternline on the opposite end of the boat from where the Mate and the rest of the hands were tending the forward lines. There were no radios, of course, to communicate between the mate and myself, so I had to be familiar with the way the steamboat normally behaved in a locking situation.

The old Gallipolis Locks were made late at night. My station during lockages was by myself manning the sternline on the opposite end of the boat from where the Mate and the rest of the hands were tending the forward lines. There were no radios, of course, to communicate between the mate and myself, so I had to be familiar with the way the steamboat normally behaved in a locking situation. As I was next to the engineroom, I learned to tell by the bells of the Engine Order Telegraph and the way the engines handled what I thought the Pilot and the Captain, far up on the roof, were intending. As having no one else working with me, or supervising, I quickly learned to be resourceful, alert, and especially careful as tending the sternline, alone, could be a precarious place to be as I experienced several times when my guesses failed to comply with the actions of those above.

But that lonely outpost taught me how to think for myself and the experience proved incalculable when I was the one on the bridge guiding a steamboat into similar situations.

After a day, or two, spent playing Gallipolis, Henderson, and Point Pleasant, the AVALON nosed its bow into the mouth of the Great Kanawha River bound for territories entirely unknown to me but were eventually to become like a second home.

After a day, or two, spent playing Gallipolis, Henderson, and Point Pleasant, the AVALON nosed its bow into the mouth of the Great Kanawha River bound for territories entirely unknown to me but were eventually to become like a second home.

Heading up the scenic river, the AVALON blew salutes to the folks watching and waving at Grimms Landing, Buffalo, and Eleanor before the first lock below Winfield, West Virginia. Red House, a tiny hamlet above Winfield, was where Captain Clifford Dean operated a small hand-rowed ferryboat when he was a youngster. Actually, it was only a double-end jonboat, but in those days, he did a brisk business during those summers of long ago, he once told me. Captain Dean, watching one time as I rowed a skiff on the Kanawha laughingly teased, “You don’t know how to row!” As I prided myself on my oarsmanship, I flushed with vexation, but instead of reacting angrily, I replied, “If you know so much, why don’t you get in the boat and show me the right way to row.”

He did and changed my life as far as small boat handling under-oar went. Cappy Dean taught me how to handle the oars the way he rowed when he pulled his tiny ark ferrying paying passengers from Red House to Winfield. I named Cap’n Dean’s method of rowing “The Kanawha Crawl” I used, some years later, when I broke two 1941 speed records on the Great Kanawha River. My times still stand, at this writing, for over 40 years, now.

Close to the landing, I spied a half-sunken wooden barge, a relic of times gone by, with one end afloat, and the other buried in the mud deep beneath the river. On the floating rake end, an inviting deck looked perfect to curl up on until I heard the whistle calling for a landing.

St. Albans, a city of modest size, not far from Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, hosted a charter trip after dark, the kind we called a “Moonlite Ride.” Again, I volunteered to stay ashore to catch the lines when the Avalon returned from the excursion. Typically, this was a choice assignment that allowed the lucky deckhand to get some free time ashore to find a tavern for a few beers, or if the town was large-enough, look for the Greyhound Bus Station in hopes of finding a stray gal of easy means.

However, I chose to find a haven to curl up for a nap to await the return of the boat as I had done in East St. Louis, Prairie du Chien, St. Paul, Plaquemine, before, now, at St. Albans. Close to the landing, I spied a half-sunken wooden barge, a relic of times gone by, with one end afloat, and the other buried in the mud deep beneath the river. On the floating rake end, an inviting deck looked perfect to curl up on until I heard the whistle calling for a landing.

The only access to reach the space was along a very narrow, slanted, slippery gunnel of but one six-inch-timber wide. Getting onto it was easy in the daylight. Soon I took advantage of a rare opportunity to grab some rest, and I was fast asleep until I was dreaming I heard the whistle blowing nearly over my head. Startled, I leaped up to find the AVALON was almost abreast of my half-submerged hidey-hole and I had to quickly get ashore and be waiting to catch the first line as soon as it came ashore from the bow.
 

Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, was the hometown of Captain Clarke Campbell “Doc” Hawley. As the AVALON pulled into Charleston, after leaving St. Albans in its wake, this would be my first visit to the town, but definitely, not my last.

The steamboat was ablaze as every side light was burning. The brilliant carbon-arc spotlight blinded me as the pilot found me feebly trying to walk the slick, wooden timber to get close enough that I could step ashore. My world started spinning, and I realized I was started to fall off the wet gunnel of the barge. But, I still had a choice: would I fall into the sunken barge and have a terrible time getting out, or would I attempt to leap the wide gap to the shore? With all my might, I summoned my entire strength and threw one leg forward toward the muddy shore… and splashed waist-deep into the chilly water of the Great Kanawha River.

Desperately, I crawled out of the river, up the muddy embankment, and was barely on time, but I caught the handy-line Jackie threw, pulled the headline ashore, snubbed it around a cottonwood, and dogged it off. I was muddy, wet, and cold, but when I asked the mate for his blessing to change into dry gear, he refused to allow me to leave the bow until all the passengers were off, the headline back aboard, the lines on-deck in order, and the steamboat underway for Charleston. I’ll say this: Cap’n Hawley did his best to make me into a stalwart, seasoned steamboatman, and I have always loved him for it.

Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, was the hometown of Captain Clarke Campbell “Doc” Hawley. As the AVALON pulled into Charleston, after leaving St. Albans in its wake, this would be my first visit to the town, but definitely, not my last. Just a few years earlier, the steamboat had been in town, but the steam calliope was silent for lack of a player. A friend of Captain Wagner’s recommended a teenage boy in the city who played the organ at his church after Wagner mentioned that organists generally make better calliope players than do pianists. Cap agreed to give the youngster a try, and very soon the friend departed and returned to the boat with the lad and his parents.

The Captain called for steam on the roof, and the boy took naturally to playing the infernal contraption as though he was born to it. He did so well, and attracted to many rubes to the steamboat, that Cap asked Mr. and Mrs. Homer Hawley to allow their son to spend the rest of the summer traveling with the boat playing the calliope and helping sell popcorn between concerts. The Hawleys agreed, and their son became a striker steamboatman at the age of fifteen. By the time he was nineteen, Clarke was a duly-certified Mate.

After we locked through the last dam at London, Montgomery, the head of navigation on the Kanawha as far as the AVALON was concerned, lay ahead. Above there, within a few miles, was the falls, and further on, the source of the Kanawha River at the juncture of the Gauley and the New Rivers. The terrain had changed, too, from low hills to the “mountains” that most people associate with West Virginia.

Soon after his twenty-first birthday, he was a United States Coast Guard licensed “Master and First-Class Pilot of Steam and Motor Vessels of Any Gross Tons Upon Rivers,” as his official document read. He earned the nickname, “Doc,” as a premedical major in college, but he soon realized he “couldn’t stand the sight of blood,” as he once explained the origin of his unusual moniker. After graduating with honors in a field other than medicine, Doc Hawley devoted his life to steamboating and will go down in river history as the most celebrated steamboatman of his generation. A hundred years from now, whenever the history of steamboats in the Twentieth Century is studied, his name will be celebrated.

After several days, the AVALON continued her tour of the Kanawha and headed upriver toward Montgomery. Little did I know, as we steamed by the impressive West Virginia State Capitol that I would return to Charleston sixteen years later, America’s Bicentennial Year, as the first Captain of the, then, newly-constructed excursion paddlewheeler, the P. A. DENNY. But that is another story.

With each turn of the AVALON’s wheel, I was seeing new towns and places with names that would, one day, be as familiar to me as any on the Western Rivers System: Campbell’s Creek, Port Amherst, Malden, Marmet Lock, and Belle, to name but a few. After we locked through the last dam at London, Montgomery, the head of navigation on the Kanawha as far as the AVALON was concerned, lay ahead. Above there, within a few miles, was the falls, and further on, the source of the Kanawha River at the juncture of the Gauley and the New Rivers. The terrain had changed, too, from low hills to the “mountains” that most people associate with West Virginia.

After several school rides and a charter for the local community college, the AVALON departed Montgomery less a couple of benches tossed into the paddlewheel by unknown vandals during the Moonlite Cruise. Fortunately for them, they missed a visit as guests of the sweltering “gorilla cage” jail behind the engine room where such miscreants languished until they were in the custody of the “law” after the boat arrived back at the point of departure.

Within the week, the AVALON’s three-chime whistle was thundering a long blast as the steamboat entered the Ohio River leaving the Great Kanawha River in its wake.

(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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