A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: End of the line for the Avalon as she is lovingly transformed into the Belle of Louisville

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 Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Iron and steel manufacturing made Pittsburgh the “Iron City,” but the resulting smoke, smells, and grit caused one writer to describe the dystopian city as “hell with the lid off.” By the time the AVALON tied-off at the Mon Wharf, Pittsburgh movers and shakers had already put into motion the beginnings of a renaissance of the downtown.

The bright October days were unspoiled, but a shout from one of the cabin boys fishing on the bow was my first introduction to the damage of years of water pollution had upon the fish population of the rivers surrounding the Point.  
“What tha’ hell… would’ja look at this,” he shouted as he stared transfixed at the wiggling, writhing, ghastly, pale blob of flesh snagged on his hook. “I ain’t never seed nuttin’ like this, b’fore…”

Iron and steel manufacturing made Pittsburgh the “Iron City,” but the resulting smoke, smells, and grit caused one writer to describe the dystopian city as “hell with the lid off.”

I had to agree, never before had I seen such a deformed living creature as the nondescript fish, of some sort, dangling from the end of the line several feet in front of my face. The sharp barb penetrated the side of the fish and had snagged it rather than hooking its jaw. Another fisherman shouted as he, too, snagged another misshapen, sickening-looking creature swimming beneath the bow. Someone standing close by surmised that the fish were so hungry for something decent to eat, they were crowding the baited hooks so tightly the barbs were gigging them in their sides before one could take a bite of the bait. Whatever was going on below the surface of the river was enough to cause the anglers to stow their poles for the remainder of the time the AVALON was in Pittsburgh.  

October 1960 was an unforgettable month in Pittsburgh history. We arrived the first week,  just in time to be swallowed up in the World Series fever gripping the city as their beloved Bucs were dueling the powerhouse New York Yankees for the crown as World Champions of major league baseball. In those days, the World Series stopped everything else going on in the country as every ear and eye focused on the games by either listening to the radio or watching black and white television broadcasts, or both.  As no TV’s were aboard the AVALON, many of the crew tuned-in on a variety of radios as the Pirates and the Yankees battled it out for the championship. Still, the boat boasted reasonably-large crowds in spite of the distraction of the Series.

October 1960 was an unforgettable month in Pittsburgh history. We arrived the first week,  just in time to be swallowed up in the World Series fever gripping the city as their beloved Bucs were dueling the powerhouse New York Yankees for the crown as World Champions of major league baseball.

Two of the Watchmen, Pittsburgher, Harry Ricco, and New Yorker, “Big Bill” Willis, were constantly bickering over every game and made the Series into a personal vendetta. Cap had to get between the two in the Crew’s Mess when Ricco overheard Big Bill telling someone at the table the Bucs “played like a bunch of pansies.” Bill was strutting around like a tin soldier after the Yankees slammed the Pirates 12 – 0 in Game Six, tying the series with three wins apiece on October 12, the day after my nineteenth birthday.

“Wait until tomorrow, Dago Boy,” Willis taunted Ricco.

The AVALON was underway on an afternoon school ride as Game Seven of the 1960 World Series started at a packed Forbes Field, just a few miles from where we departed the Mon Landing at the Foot of Wood Street. So many blaring radios were turned to the game, aboard the boat, that all anyone had to do was close their eyes and imagine they were inside Forbes Field with some 36,000 other rabid baseball fans. In what some say was “the greatest game ever played,” that every Pittsburgh school kid, to this day, can recount in minute detail, the underdog Pirates beat the Yanks 10 – 9 in the bottom of the ninth inning on a “walk-off” home run by the second baseman, Bill Mazeroski. By the time the AVALON return to the landing, Pittsburg was in an uproar.  

That evening, as the Iron City was ecstatically celebrating the Bucs defeat of the Yankees, the AVALON was enjoying the relative quiet paddling downriver below the chaos of the city. But, on our way back to the dock as night settled in, an enthralling-brilliant spectacle of the brightly-lit buildings greeting our return.

The underdog Pirates beat the Yanks 10 – 9 in the bottom of the ninth inning on a “walk-off” home run by the second baseman, Bill Mazeroski. By the time the AVALON return to the landing, Pittsburg was in an uproar.

Every light in each building was ablaze. Not a single window pane was dark. According to Ricco, the only other time Pittsburgh had every light turned on downtown, was for a visit by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, just a year earlier. “Krush,” as the newspapers nicknamed him, didn’t enjoy the spectacle from the river vantage as we were, but he was taken high atop Mt. Washington to enjoy the city lit up for him.
 
Not long after the AVALON landed and all the passengers were ashore, Captain Hawley gave his crew the rest of the night off. Several of us hurried uptown to witness the feverish celebrants packing the painfully-narrow streets. Suddenly, a roar went up from the crowd as a line of luxury, convertible automobiles approaching with their tops down, hurriedly bore through the masses bearing the heroic victors of the 1960 World Series. The snazzy vehicles tore by at an incredibly fast pace to be moving through so many tightly-packed people. It was as though the drivers feared their fancy cars would be surrounded and mobbed by the adoring fans if they slackened the pace.

As the last convertible passed, the mob swarmed behind the line of vehicles and followed them out of sight. I’d seen all I wanted to see of the aftermath of the historic athletics events of the day, and as my shipmates set off to find a cold beer, I picked my way to the edge of the crowd and was soon back to the peacefulness of the steamboat slumbering at the foot of Wood Street.

Captain Red Schletker, Fred Way, & Jim Swartzwelder – Captain Jim Schwartzwelder hurried over from the Gateways Clippers dock when he heard that Captain Way was aboard.

Captain Fred Way came aboard as the AVALON’s days were growing short in Pittsburgh. Tucked beneath his arm, were a book and a folder full of steamboat photos he brought to show off some project he was working on. Captain Hawley greeted the sage steamboatman on the landing and escorted him across the stage and onto the boat. There, Cap’n Fred and I met for the first time. Over the years, our friendship was to grow, especially after I became a licensed man and he saw I that I was seriously pursuing a steamboat career. At the time, though, I was just another young face on deck, and I was, undoubtedly, more impressed meeting him than he was of me.  
 
Captain Jim Schwartzwelder hurried over from the Gateways Clippers dock when he heard that Captain Way was aboard. Jim and I got to know each other since the AVALON first came to town. My favorite boat in the Gateway fleet was the tiny ark, the GOOD SHIP LOLLIPOP.  Captain Wagner was especially fond of Cap’n Jim. The following year, Cap invited Jim to join the AVALON as his guest when a thousand Senior Girl Scouts chartered the boat from Memphis to New Orleans, and back. A trip, and an entire season, I missed when my folks finally wore me down, and I reluctantly stayed ashore away from the AVALON, absent during the final year of operation for the old steamboat.
 
That afternoon, shortly after Captain Way departed, Captain Wagner called me aside and assigned an unusual project by way of informing me:  “Don, you’re the only one I got on the deck crew who can weave them ‘possums. Startin’ right away, that’s all you hafta’ do – nothin’ else but makin’ bumpers.”
“ Day after tomorrow,” Cap continued, “ the AVALON will be leavin’ Pittsburgh and deadheadin’ all tha’ way back to Cincinnati without stoppin’. We’ll be a’runnin’ day and night, and needin’ all them bumpers you can make.”

The AVALON’s days were growing short in Pittsburgh.

The year before, when Captain Doc Hawley was working on the larger DELTA QUEEN acquiring time for his Unlimited Master’s License, the fill-in Mate, Red Wilke, taught me how to weave bumpers, often called “possums,” out of scrap line. Possums are what is placed between the knuckle of the hull and a cement lockwall to cushion the blow when steel and concrete meet. Without the bumper, the shock of hitting a lockwall, or another solid obstacle, can cause the boat to shudder and “ring like a bell,” as it did on occasions when the bumper man failed to get his possum into the right place at the appointed time as the AVALON and a cement lockwall allided. 

Quite often, whenever the boat is scraping against a concrete wall, the possum jams between the two and the only way the man holding onto the “tail” of the possum can keep from being crushed is to let loose of the tail and let the thing go. Eventually, the bumper will fall into the river and rarely recovered. With so many locks to make between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Captain Wagner understood the AVALON would need as many bumpers as I could manufacture out of the great mass of old, half-rotted line that Harry Ricco pulled out of the “barricades” above the deck in front of our rooms. Without delay, I set to my task, and three new possums were “birthed” by the end of the day.
 
By the time the AVALON blew one long whistle followed by three short blasts, signifying we were backing away from the Wood Street Landing, I was on the bow waving goodbye to Pittsburgh and to Captain Jim standing on the shore bidding us farewell. This day would be my last time in the Iron City until I returned twelve years later as Captain of the DELTA QUEEN and hosting an onboard reception for Pittsburgh’s finest citizens with Henry John Heinz III, U. S. Representative for the Pennsylvania 18th Congressional District and later a U. S. Senator, among the most distinguished. Nine years after John Hines was my guest aboard the palatial overnight steamer, he died in a senseless plane crash. Had he lived, Senator Heinz would have, quite likely, become President of the United States – that I firmly believe, for he had the moxie.

The year before, when Captain Doc Hawley was working on the larger DELTA QUEEN acquiring time for his Unlimited Master’s License, the fill-in Mate, Red Wilke, taught me how to weave bumpers, often called “possums,” out of scrap line. Possums are what is placed between the knuckle of the hull and a cement lockwall to cushion the blow when steel and concrete meet.

By the time the AVALON steamed under the Point Bridge for the last time that year, I was back twisting sisal hemp strands of old-line into new possums for the four-hundred-seventy-one-mile sprint to Cincinnati that lay ahead to tie-up the AVALON on the lower end of the Greene Line Steamers wharfboat for the end of the excursion boat season and the fast-approaching winter.
 
As steadily as I could turn them out, the pile of possums grew smaller as another of my creations floated forlornly in a lock chamber as the AVALON steamed on leaving it bobbing in the paddlewheel wake. But they were expendable, as the Captain explained earlier when giving me the responsibility of ensuring that enough of the fat, rope bumpers were waiting in reserve for the ones lost overboard. As another day passed, my hands were sore, battered, and bloody from tugging and twisting on the reluctant strands of old line, but the production outpaced the fallen.
 
Lock and Dam 36 at Brent, Kentucky, opposite the Coney Island Amusement park, shuttered for the season, was a most welcome sight, as Lock 36 was the last lock the AVALON would traverse before reaching the haven on the lower end of the Greene Line Wharfboat. Much to my delight, not one of my possums was bobbing in the lock chamber as I checked, as I always did to give myself an estimate of the casualty rate of my creations. Besides the possums in-service on-deck, two reserves remained to wait inside the ticket booth, and never saw action.
 
 

The AVALON tied up at the lower end of the Greene Line Wharfboat after the 1961 season ended. Coming home one weekend from college, I was saddened to see her looking so cold and forlorn.

The AVALON slowly passed the Cincinnati wharfboat and dropped below the Suspension Bridge, built in the mid-1860’s by John Augustus Roebling before he turned his attention to New York City and preparations for the construction of the look-alike Brooklyn Bridge.

Twisting the steamboat around, facing upstream, the AVALON was in shape for the final landing as Captain Schletker stepped onto the whistle treadle releasing a cloud of steam causing the whistle to announce we were home. Most of the crew was packed and ready to go ashore as soon as E. P. Hall, the Purser, distributed their pay envelopes stuffed with wages, bonus money, and the equivalency of a bus ticket home.  I, however, remained aboard to help winterize the steamboat.
 
For three days I was working underwater, outside the hull in a tiny, cramped “sponson.” Access to which was through a small hatchway. Once inside the pitch-black space, with the aid of a dustpan and an unshielded light bulb on the end of an extension cord, I scooped seepage water into a # 10 tin can. When it was full, I emptied the contents into one of two five-gallon buckets outside the hatch. After the buckets filled, I slithered out the hole and carried the buckets on-deck and poured the contents into the river – and repeated the process for what seemed an eternity. After a day of such tiresome labor, I returned the next morning to find as much water in the sponson as had been there before I started scooping. So another day was spent inside the sponson. By the third morning, when more water again nullified my previous efforts, the Mate canceled the job and sent me aft to help the Chief Engineer replace the packing in the steam pumps. To this day, though, I am quite comfortable working in cramped, dark spaces inside a boat hull; surely a trait I acquired deep beneath the river inside the sponson, outside the epidermis of the AVALON.
 
 

A newspaper advertisement announced an upcoming auction for the sale of the venerable, old steamboat, the scene of so many of my boyhood adventures.

Instead of staying in my old room on the boat, I caught the intercity bus at the end of the day and went home for the night which gave my parents an ample opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with my employment on the steamboat after the season was over. They pressed for my return to college the upcoming Spring semester, and to do that, they argued, I would have to find another job paying more than the thirty-one dollars I was making doing what I loved most.
 
Being an obedient son, and relenting to their unceasing arguments, I finally quit steamboating and found work as a stock boy at the Rollman’s Department Store, in downtown Cincinnati, making $40 a week, or a dollar an hour. The most outstanding memory of Rollman’s, besides finding a hidey-hole between the partitions of a false wall where I could sleep, was during lunch on January 20, 1961, watching the break room television as the poet, Robert Frost, had difficulty reading his poem written especially for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. By the end of the month, I was enrolled in college.
 
The 1961 Season of the AVALON was to be its last. The highlight of that final year was a Girl Scouts of America charter that boarded a thousand, excited senior scouts at Memphis, Full of anticipation; the girls experience many adventures all the way to New Orleans where they departed, and another thousand girls swapped places for the return trip to Memphis. My Pittsburg friend, Captain Jim Schwartzwelder, was Captain Wagner’s guest aboard the AVALON for the Girl Scout ride. Jim carefully documented the historic excursion in a story written for Cap’n Fred Way’s S&D REFLECTOR.
 
That last excursion boat season, I was miserably herding rambunctious children on a city park back-home, wishing that I could escape, as I had done before, and catch the AVALON somewhere on the river. But, I didn’t.
 
Five years would pass before I graduated from college, but as soon as I did, I joined Captain Wagner and Captain Hawley on the DELTA QUEEN, where they had been in charge since the AVALON ceased operating. After only a short stay, I left the QUEEN and enlisted in the United States Air Force where I was commissioned and rose to the rank of Captain before separating after four years and three months of active duty. Within a month of my discharge, I was back aboard the DELTA QUEEN, but that is another tale.  
 
The AVALON tied up at the lower end of the Greene Line Wharfboat after the 1961 season ended. Coming home one weekend from college, I was saddened to see her looking so cold and forlorn. A newspaper advertisement announced an upcoming auction for the sale of the venerable, old steamboat, the scene of so many of my boyhood adventures. Admittedly, a scrap dealer would win her, I imagined, and cut her up for the metal. Amazingly, however, the AVALON was bought by the City of Louisville, Kentucky and lovingly restored and maintained to this day, and lives on as the steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE, nearly 105 years after she slid into the Allegheny River at the James Rees & Son’s Pittsburgh shipyard.

Decades have passed since those halcyon steamboat adventures days of my youth on the Steamer AVALON. Generations of youngsters have followed my path on those same decks creating their own memories and stories. But now, this is where my Steamer AVALON tale ends.

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.

The AVALON was bought by the City of Louisville, Kentucky and lovingly restored and maintained to this day, and lives on as the steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE, nearly one-hundred five years after she slid into the Allegheny River at the James Rees & Son’s Pittsburgh shipyard.

Decades have passed since those halcyon steamboat adventures days of my youth on the Steamer AVALON. Generations of youngsters have followed my path on those same decks creating their own memories and stories.

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One Comment

  1. Pete OConnell says:

    What an adventure, and the task of making possums is a subject close to my heart. The most I’ve made was four in one day. The fingers tend to let you know they’ve had enough.
    I’m hoping the river stories continue with the Delta Queen days.
    Looking forward to the read.

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