A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: An incident at Natchez-Under-the-Hill and the demise of a quiet deckhand who kept to himself

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

Captain Clarke “Little Doc” Hawley told of a certain deckhand on the DELTA QUEEN, in the late ’50’s, who did his work well, but kept to himself and rarely associated with anyone else beyond the limits of his duties aboard the boat. This fellow had no personal friends among the crew, but because he “pulled his own weight” when it came to his many steamboat chores, he was generally respected but left alone, No one attempted to penetrate the invisible wall he built around himself. So secretive was he that his surname was known only to the Mate who kept track of the days he worked, and the Purser who handed him his pay envelope every Friday at noon.

Captain Clarke “Little Doc” Hawley told of a certain deckhand on the DELTA QUEEN, in the late ’50’s, who did his work well, but kept to himself and rarely associated with anyone else beyond the limits of his duties aboard the boat. This fellow had no personal friends among the crew, but because he “pulled his own weight” when it came to his many steamboat chores, he was generally respected but left alone.

In those days, Natchez-Under-the-Hill was not the tourist attraction it is today. All that remained of the once turbulent and exciting quarter beneath the steep loess bluffs upon which the respectable and beautiful city of Natchez was built were but a few crumbling brick and wooden buildings on the only remaining road, Silver Street, that centuries before Spaniards had carved into the face of the yellow-clay cliffs. From within those few relics, now saloons and bawdy houses catering to the lees of Natchez society, the perfume of old cypress and the pungent aromas of sour beer, sweat, and the accumulated grunge of two centuries often assailed the unwary in sudden cold blasts in harsh contrast to the heat of Mississippi Delta afternoons.

One of these bars was a favorite among many of the crew of the DELTA QUEEN. On a blazing summer afternoon, as the steamboat lay shackled to the iron rings set into the sides of the Spanish trail, this enigmatic member of the deck department, his work completed before those less industrious than he, found himself in the bar alone except for the barkeeper and a young girl of about ten years of age who was the proprietor’s daughter.

The deckhand sat silently on a high, ragged stool at the crude bar and sipped upon a warm draft beer. He noticed that his image, reflecting in the bar room mirror, peered from within the gloom of the encrusted glass like a phantom face gazing from a foreboding and dreadful place. To anyone else, this would have been disturbing, but the deckhand savored the moroseness, and only the scratchy tune playing on the jukebox in the room beyond, stood in sharp contrast to the gloom wherein he had sought solace. He didn’t notice that the jukebox had stopped playing as he finished the last warm dregs from the bottom of his mug.

In those days, Natchez-Under-the-Hill was not the tourist attraction it is today. All that remained of the once turbulent and exciting quarter beneath the steep loess bluffs upon which the respectable and beautiful city of Natchez was built were but a few crumbling brick and wooden buildings…

When he stood up to leave, the girl was standing next to him, and she reached up and tugged at his shirttail and begged, “Gim’me a quarter, Mis’ta. Ya hear me? Gim’me’a quarter fo’ da music box.”

The deckhand was at once taken aback, not only by the girl’s unexpected presence but also because he was unaccustomed to such demands being made upon him. In his eagerness to get away from the annoying child, he roughly refused her request by scolding, “Get ta hell ‘way from me, girl,” as he turned toward the door and walked outside and into the blast of the Southern summer sun.

As the solitary boatman sauntered toward the DELTA QUEEN, just several hundred feet further down the slope of the sandy riverbank, he enjoyed the slight intoxication of the warm beer. Unknown to him, however, was that immediately after he refused to give the bar-keeper’s daughter a quarter for the jukebox, she ran to her father and told him that the man, then stepping out the front door, had said vile and terrible things to her when she asked him for a quarter. A terrible rage overcame the father when he heard his daughter’s tale, and he resolved to avenge the honor of his child.

One of these bars was a favorite among many of the crew of the DELTA QUEEN. On a blazing summer afternoon, as the steamboat lay shackled to the iron rings set into the sides of the Spanish trail, this enigmatic member of the deck department, his work completed before those less industrious than he, found himself in the bar alone except for the barkeeper and a young girl of about ten years of age who was the proprietor’s daughter.

The DELTA QUEEN, lay only a hundred feet ahead when the deckhand heard a horrendous commotion behind him. As he looked around, he saw the bartender running toward him waiving a huge pistol and screaming at the very steamboat man who, just minutes before, had been seated at the bar sipping on the warm beer served in the ramshackle establishment. The deckhand had no idea what was happening, but the only thing he understood was that he had to reach the safety of the steamboat that lay just a few more steps away. So he began running toward the long landing stage that bridged the gap between the boat and the shore.

Two explosive reports from the forty-four caliber revolver swept down Silver Street and stunned the crew standing on the head of the DELTA QUEEN. As they looked toward the source of the deafening racket, they saw the deckhand tumbling through the air as though he had been fired from the very gun now killing him. His arms and legs wildly thrashed as he was propelled toward the stage by the impact of the bullets slamming into his back, and the horror that twisted his face into a mask of terror was that of a man looking into his own grave.

Captain Doc Carr

By the time the deckhand crashed onto the brown sand where the head of the four-ton stage was imprinted, he was dying. Several well-meaning members of the crew who witness the drama rushed out to help their fallen comrade. A couple stout fellows were lifting him from the sand and were about to bring him aboard the boat when Captain Howard “Old Doc” Carr came running out to the end of the stage; ordering them to stop and lay the dying man back onto the ground by admonishing, “Don’t bring that man aboard the boat! He’s liable to die, and if he does, it’s gonna take forever to get the DELTA QUEEN out of here!”

The deckhand who preferred to stay to himself, without making friends among his fellows, died on the warm sand at the foot of Silver Street. As the DELTA QUEEN, pulled away and headed upstream, the deckhand’s lifeless body lay where it had fallen, although now covered in a brown wool blanket– a gift from the crew he chose not to know.

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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5 Comments

  1. Connie Bays says:

    One of the best stories I have read! Gives a true glimpse into life from not all that far in the past. This writer has a way of writing that makes you feel you are right there in the room as events unfold. Over the top!!!

  2. I’m not sure how I expected this story to end but it sure had me on the edge of my seat. I felt like I was reliving my own memory of a time and place I’ve not only never been but decades before even living! I normally don’t like reading much as I prefer to listen to stories instead but I think I just realized why I never liked to read, other authors haven’t been so captivating to get my thoughts going! This author really had me going! Thanks for sharing!!!!!! I look forward to more

  3. Wes Barthwick says:

    This story reminds me of stories I have heard or read of the glory coal mining days in the New River gorge and the many towns along it.
    I enjoyed your colorful story and look forward to hearing of your rough tumble life working our river highways.

  4. Mike Shaffer says:

    Nice story Don. A few of my relatives worked on the river boats back in the 1930’s and 40’s, the Otto Marmet to be specific. I wish they were still around as I’m sure there would be some interesting stories. I have few pictures of the Otto Marmet and some of her crew if you are interested.

  5. Ron Sutton says:

    Good Story, Captn. The last thing the Captain of a ship or boat wants is for someone to Die Aboard. The Paperwork is overwhelming. Even worse when the ship is foreign. Hours to release.

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