A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: The last whistle as the Delta Queen and Capt. Wagner bid farewell to Cincinnati as its home

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

Today is the first anniversary of operations for the casino boat, GRAND VICTORIA, on the Fox River, in Elgin, Illinois; about 35 miles northwest of Chicago, where the prized Elgin watches once made the city famous. The watch factory is now long-lost in the past, but the casino boat seems to be as important in this age as the watch factory was in earlier days. The GRAND VICTORIA is a 400-foot leviathan, fashioned in the mold of an old-time sidewheel Mississippi River steamboat.  Floating on a meager stream usually better suited for tiny fishing boats and jet skis, a 1500-foot channel dredged into the Fox allows the GRAND VICTORIA to make regularly scheduled trips.

The GRAND VICTORIA is a 400-foot leviathan, fashioned in the mold of an old-time sidewheel Mississippi River steamboat.  Floating on a meager stream usually better suited for tiny fishing boats and jet skis, a 1500-foot channel dredged into the Fox allows the GRAND VICTORIA to make regularly scheduled trips.

The weather is cold and blustery, so we are dockside and not sailing as the gaming laws allow us to do when the winds are raising whitecaps on the water. In the dark pilothouse, under the glare of my desk light, I am thinking about where I was 25 years ago on the DELTA QUEEN, which was, in those days, the last overnight steamboat operating on the inland rivers. Now the DELTA QUEEN has two sister ships that never could have been imagined: the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN and the AMERICAN QUEEN, which is even more significant in size than the GRAND VICTORIA.

An October night like tonight, in 1970, must have been around the time of the DELTA QUEEN’s “Last Trip” from Cincinnati to St. Paul, Minnesota and then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The QUEEN was operating on a waiver from the so-called Safety-at-Sea Law, or SOLAS, and if an extension was not forthcoming, that steamboat with the marvelous wooden superstructure was doomed to be tied-up forever when she reached the Crescent City.
 
The DELTA QUEEN left Cincinnati in a cold rain. Only a few people stood on the cobblestones of the Public Landing to see her off, most likely, for the last time. It was surprising to see so few well-wishers considering that Cincinnati was the homeport of the QUEEN, and the odds were the steamboat would never, again, return to its hometown as an overnight passenger-carrying steamboat.

An October night like tonight, in 1970, must have been around the time of the DELTA QUEEN’s “Last Trip” from Cincinnati to St. Paul, Minnesota and then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The QUEEN was operating on a waiver from the so-called Safety- at-Sea Law, or SOLAS.

We backed out into the current of the Ohio River, and as soon as my deck was in order and the landing stage tied down, I ran up to the pilothouse where Captain Ernest E. Wagner, Master of the DELTA QUEEN, and Captain Harry Louden, the Pilot, were on watch. Gabriel Chengary, presently the DELTA QUEEN’s Master, but then the boat’s Purser was standing to the starboard side of the wheelhouse watching the departure. Capt. Marion Frommelt, a Cincinnati businessman who held a Master Pilot’s license, and who had been a close friend of Capt. Tom Greene, the man who bought the DELTA QUEEN and brought it around the long and perilous journey from California in 1947, was there, too. Captain Frommelt was usually aboard whenever the steamboat left town.

Harry Louden had just gotten the DELTA QUEEN turned around and headed downstream when I bounded up the steps, through the gate at the top, and into the pilothouse. At that precise moment, Cap’n Wagner, a great bear of a man, reached past the pilot and grabbed ahold of the brass whistle handle with those great paws of his and slowly pulled down against the pressure of the steam valve. The four stripes on his coat sleeve showed golden in the dim glow of the lights of the city above the landing.

A low moan arose behind us from the gilded steam whistle atop the smokestack bonnet. The sound deepened and grew bolder as the steady hands of the Captain pulled until the full force of the steam within the boilers, four decks below, surged through the whistle valve, around the cup, and across the three chambers of the celebrated bullet-shaped, brass whistle.
  

As soon as my deck was in order and the landing stage tied down, I ran up to the pilothouse where Captain Ernest E. Wagner, Master of the DELTA QUEEN, and Captain Harry Louden, the Pilot, were on watch.

After blowing a long blast, as smooth as a belt of aged Kentucky bourbon, Captain Wagner waited until the echo of that eruption came back across the water like a lost ghost returning home. Then Wagner blew one short whistle, paused, and then another.  And the echoes that rebounded back to the DELTA QUEEN were mourning wails of farewell for the last of all the steamboats that had been coming and going there for over one-hundred seventy-five years. The final pull aroused all the sleeping spirits along the ancient steamboat landing as specters of lost boats, forgotten captains, pilots, engineers, and roustabouts were duly summoned and assembled on that old cobblestone levee. Gradually, in the midst of it all, came the sobs of crying and wet tears.

Looking around the tiny room, so high above the Ohio River, as whispers of the last steamboat whistle blown there swirled around the hot, sizzling chimney outside, Gradually, I realized that it was us, inside the pilothouse, who were crying and making those soft, sobbing sounds. Gabriel was weeping aloud. His cheeks ran wet with the water that gushed forth unashamed.

Captain Wagner, however, was revealing no outward emotions although he may have been more sincerely concerned for the fate of the DELTA QUEEN and leaving the Cincinnati landing for the last time than did all the rest of us combined. Wagner was, in years before, at this same landing, acting as the Mate on the steamers ISLAND QUEEN and ISLAND MAID. He had been there, too, as the Captain of the excursion steamboat, the AVALON, which he tied up at the lower end of the long-gone Greene Line Wharfboat for the final time when the AVALON ceased running as the last tramp excursion boat in the early 1960’s. Captain Ernest Wagner was more a part of the DELTA QUEEN than anyone else except Captain Tom Greene. The steamboat had many good captains, but Ernie and Tom were the absolute best, and they remain for all times the Masters most closely identified with the DELTA QUEEN.

Captain Wagner and his steamboat were one together as they had always been since he assumed command, some nine years earlier. Wagner’s farewell salute sealed a bond between the two, tied like a lover’s knot, while the rest of us were merely spectators.

As Captain Wagner blew the final farewell salute to the home of the DELTA QUEEN, on that cold, wet October night in 1970, he was, in reality, alone in the pilothouse of his boat. The DELTA QUEEN’s steam whistle never sounded like it had that night; never before, or since. Captain Wagner and his steamboat were one together as they had always been since he assumed command, some nine years earlier. Wagner’s farewell salute sealed a bond between the two, tied like a lover’s knot, while the rest of us were merely spectators, observing. Cap held onto the whistle handle until the last echo bounced across the river and back, again and again, until the thunder became a faint whisper before joining the phantom echoes of all the steamboat whistles ever blown along those ancient cobblestones.

When I finally turned and peered into the Captain’s face, I saw a look of deep concentration and intense meditation. Though I was staring at him, he saw only his own personal visions. Without a word to anyone, the Captain turned and walked outside onto the starboard wing bridge until he stood at the far railing.

Captain Wagner, clad in his black uniform jacket with the gold-braided sleeves, raised his arms high over his head and waved a two-handed “river salute” to the loyal friends of the DELTA QUEEN gathered in the rain. Their shouts of farewell came across the dark Ohio River from the Cincinnati shore as Cap waved and waved until the steamboat passed down and away from the Public Landing “for the last time.”

Without a word to anyone, the Captain turned and walked outside onto the starboard wing bridge until he stood at the far railing. Captain Wagner raised his arms high over his head and waved a two-handed “river salute” to the loyal friends of the DELTA QUEEN gathered in the rain.

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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