A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Time to head back to school, but the river beckoned and college would have to wait

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The Fall Semester at Eastern Kentucky State College was within a week of beginning while the AVALON was still playing Cincinnati, across the Ohio River from Covington, my hometown, so my parents, naturally, thought I would quit the crew and head back to college.

The furthest up the Ohio River I had ever been was just above Lock & Dam 36, across from the Cincinnati Coney Island Amusement Park. A few years earlier, Walter Hoffmeier locked the PAL-O-MINE through Lock 36 to the delight of his guests; including my family and I. But shortly, as the AVALON floated in the upper the pool above the dam, I was in an untrodden territory and eager to savor every moment.

But to their bitter surprise, I decided to miss the first semester and stay aboard the AVALON when it departed for the remainder of the 1960 season.

The furthest up the Ohio River I had ever been was just above Lock & Dam 36, across from the Cincinnati Coney Island Amusement Park. A few years earlier, Walter Hoffmeier locked the PAL-O-MINE through Lock 36 to the delight of his guests; including my family and me.

But shortly, as the AVALON floated in the upper the pool above the dam, I was in untrodden territory and eager to savor every moment. Without stopping, the AVALON passed New Richmond, Ohio where Captain Wagner’s family were waiting on the riverbank in front of the Wagner home on Front Street.

Mrs. Rosa Lee Wagner, little Ernie Lee, and their attractive, teenage daughter Sandy were waving and yelling as Captain Wagner blew an elaborate salute on the celebrated steam whistle atop the roof of the pilothouse. Only a month earlier, I had helped the family lug their bags to the Baton Rouge train station overlooking the Mississippi River following a short stay on the boat.

Small towns passed with names familiar to me from the stories my Grandmother Edith told of her days growing up along the Ohio River – Point Pleasant, Moscow, Chilo, and Utopia, Ohio. Grandma’s father, Charles Rice, an itinerant barber, moved his family from place to place before finally settling in Covington where Edith met and married Jesse, a recent arrival from Sanders, Kentucky and established a family dynasty that thrives a century later.

Historic Maysville, remembered from my Kentucky History book as “Limestone,” a home of frontiersmen Dan’l Boone and Simon Kenton, was the AVALON’s first stop before continuing, up the Ohio River.

Historic Maysville, remembered from my Kentucky History book as “Limestone,” a home of frontiersmen Dan’l Boone and Simon Kenton, was the AVALON’s first stop before continuing, up the Ohio River.

After several more stops along the river, Ashland, Kentucky was a major destination with a “Fall Foliage” cruise and a several private charter trips awaiting our arrival. With the passage of Labor Day on the 5th of September, 1960, kids were back in school, and in everyone’s minds, summer was over. Consequently, the AVALON could not get the public to ride even if the tickets, popcorn, and the sodas were free of charge.

Foliage tours, company picnics, and other gimmicky trips were the only rides that sold after Labor Day. Much to my delight, the steamboat had enough excursions booked at Ashland to keep the boat there for a few days.

A recent addition to the Ashland riverfront was an old friend I remembered from my Walt’s Boat Club days – the recently-retired steam, paddlewheel towboat, the WEBER W. SEBALD, a gift to the Ashland Boat Club from ARCO Steel, the owners of the SEBALD.

A recent addition to the Ashland riverfront was an old friend I remembered from my Walt’s Boat Club days – the recently-retired steam, paddlewheel towboat, the WEBER W. SEBALD, a gift to the Ashland Boat Club from ARCO Steel, the owners of the SEBALD. Everything on the boat was as it was on the final day the boilers were cooled down and the last crewman stepped ashore.

Everything on the boat was as it was on the final day the boilers were cooled down and the last crewman stepped ashore. In my spare time, between steamboat chores, I rowed the AVALON’s rescue boat over to the boat club and bummed my way aboard their new steamboat acquisition. The fact was, I was given the run of the WEBER W. SEBALD as though it was a member of its crew.

Amazingly, the boat seemed ready to raise steam and get underway. The kitchen dishes filled the galley cupboard, and every bed had fresh linen and clean covers. Engine lube oil cans stood filled and waiting for the Striker to make his rounds.

Of all the attractions on the boat, the cozy Guest Room quickly became my favorite spot on the SEBALD. There, between two twin beds, a wooden nightstand held an old-fashioned, pull-chain lamp. Beneath the light, a thick, leather-bound book opened onto once blank pages filled with the signatures and commentaries of the who’s who of the river world – former guests aboard the vessel who ate at the table of the steamboat’s captain and slept beneath the covers on the beds I was standing between reading the words they left behind.

“Lovely boat. Wonderful crew. Thanks for inviting me to experience the hospitality of the WEBER W. SEBALD,” I imagined myself writing in the guest ledger.

After repeated visits, I finally left the SEBALD as it was nearing time for the AVALON to continue up the Ohio River.

The steam sternwheeler, WEBER W. SEBALD, today, nearly sixty years later, lies as a rusty, moldering wreck on the Great Kanawha River near St. Albans, West Virginia.

Sometimes, over the many years that passed between then and this writing, I wished more larceny had been lurking in the heart of a policeman’s son, and I had “liberated” the precious guestbook…or better, asked my hosts if I could have it. The steam sternwheeler, WEBER W. SEBALD, today, nearly sixty years later, lies as a rusty, moldering wreck on the Great Kanawha River near St. Albans, West Virginia.

The precious book, filled with the words composed by the elite of the inland marine world, has disappeared and, most-likely exists no longer. But had I gained possession of the priceless relic; it would be here with me, now, next to my desk.

On the last Ashland Moonlite Cruise, as I was standing idly in the deckroom near the cookhouse in front of the starboard steam engine waiting for the AVALON to lessen the gap to the shore before retiring to my station on the fantail to catch the sternline, the sounds of breaking glass and bending steel caused me to rush to the opposite side of the room.

While we were cruising on the river, a small fleet of empty hopper barges was dropped below our landing causing the pilot, ninety-year-old Captain John Emory Edgington, to have to get above the barges before making a sudden, hard-down turn into where the AVALON usually landed.

While we were cruising on the river, a small fleet of empty hopper barges was dropped below our landing causing the pilot, ninety-year-old Captain John Emory Edgington, to have to get above the barges before making a sudden, hard-down turn into where the AVALON usually landed. After the Pilot rang a stopping bell, the current shoved the steamboat onto the sharp corner of the rake-end of the outside barge.

As the hard steel barge ripped into the side of the superstructure, overtop the main deck, hundreds of wooden cases loaded with empty Wagner Cola bottles, stored alongside the outer bulkhead, cascaded onto the top of the steamboat hull as wood, glass, and mangled steel made a terrible mess of the boat we worked so hard to maintain.

Fortunately, no one was injured, and within a few days, repairs made to the satisfaction of the prying eyes of the U. S. Coast Guard, the government agency charged to monitor the fortunes and misfortunes of all passenger-carrying vessels within the navigable waters of the country, allowed us to continue along our route.

By then, the AVALON was hosting steamboat trips at Huntington, West Virginia, only a few miles further up the Ohio River where the crispy chill of autumn made the night air cold enough for jackets and sweaters. (To be Continued.)

Captain D on 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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