A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: The ‘Intervening Years’ (1961-1965) — remembering good times, the big race, college . . .

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

In the intervening years following my last year of decking on the Steamer AVALON, after the summer and fall of 1960 and my eventual graduation from Eastern Kentucky University in 1965, my steamboat experiences were limited to visits aboard the DELTA QUEEN.

Captains Ernest E. Wagner and Clark C. “Doc” Hawley were sharing command of the luxurious overnight passenger boat as they had done on the more-lowly tramp excursion boat, the AVALON, which became the BELLE of LOUISVILLE after the City of Louisville, Kentucky bought it in 1962.

Capt. Wagner & Mrs. Letha Greene, 1962 – When Captain Wagner assumed command of the DELTA QUEEN, it was his first time working for Mrs. Letha Greene, owner of the Greene Line Steamers, Inc., of Cincinnati.

When Captain Wagner assumed command of the DELTA QUEEN, it was his first time working for Mrs. Letha Greene, owner of the Greene Line Steamers, Inc., of Cincinnati. Captain Doc, however, absence from the AVALON during my first year, was aboard the DELTA QUEEN that year of 1959 acquiring time onboard the larger boat for his upcoming U. S. Coast Guard examination for a Master’s License of unlimited tonnage.

Captain Hawley, always quite the gallant gentleman, except when he was tearing into an errant deckhand, was also the Vice-President of the Greene Line and listed in the Cincinnati “Blue Book,” the registry of the social elite of that, sometimes, priggish community.  

Only a handful of former AVALON crewmembers were chosen to accompany the Captains. Mr. E. P. Hall, the AVALON’s cordial Purser, became the QUEEN’s Chief Purser. Firemen, Ed Smith and Charles “Bubba” Chinn traded boiler room duties between the two steamboats. Robert “Preacher” Lollar, the 80-something Striker Engineer, became “Mr. Brass” keeping the DELTA QUEEN’s extensive collection of brasses shined. And finally, Leroy Batteau, a Cajun from the swamps of Louisiana, and all-around handy steamboatman was the only other AVALON crewman to swap places on the steamboats. I like to think, and had I not been in college, a slot would have found for me on the crew of the DELTA QUEEN.

Preacher and Rollie Mae Lollar – Only a handful of former AVALON crewmembers were chosen to accompany the Captains… Robert “Preacher” Lollar became “Mr. Brass” keeping the DELTA QUEEN’s extensive collection of brasses shined.

What might be interesting to note, is that during those years of racial segregation, Ed, Bubba, and Preacher were men of color, but regarded as the best of all those AVALON crewmen Cap’n Wagner could have chosen to bring along to the new steamboat as members of his crew.

Wagner, reportedly, part-Cherokee, himself, was a man intolerant of racial prejudice or slurs aboard his boats. In many ways, Captain Wagner was a man ahead of his time in a river community know for its prejudices and discrimination when it came to human and social relationships; traits he learned interacting with people and not something he was taught or had read from a book.

Ernest Wagner was an essential, elemental man who understood what worked and what didn’t when it came to obtaining the fullest cooperation from a group of dissimilar human beings and having them work together as a crew. Wagner was a problem solver who could find the simplest solution in the least amount of time. This wisdom applied to the men and women of his crews as well as it did to the steamboats and the rivers that bore them all afloat.

The corrugated metal floating dock, built atop six worn-out sand barges, was as large, inside, like a football field. Wide ramps on either end of the wharf allowed cars and trucks access.

Passengers riding the DELTA QUEEN on overnight cruises, were, for the most part, a different lot, generally speaking, than those aboard the AVALON for only a short amount of time. Whereas the QUEEN’s travelers were onboard for several days; up to two weeks on occasional long trips, the revelers on the excursion boat had to experience all they could from the steamboat ride in under three hours. This acceleration of time afloat often influenced the behavior of the participants. A fifth of hootch might last a week sipped slowly on the DELTA QUEEN, but would be guzzled before the AVALON blew its landing whistle at the end of the short ride.

Soon I learned that to be welcome aboard the DELTA QUEEN; I had to look and act as though I belonged there whenever I came to visit. A clean, pressed white shirt, a jacket and tie were a must, but after a while, I realized I needed to find a unique niche of my own other than that I had worked with the two captains and a few of the AVALON crewmen. The DELTA QUEEN was a prestigious steamboat with long traditions and frequented by regular travelers who came back for more of the steamboat year after year. I was neither a traveler or a member of the crew. Instead, I was an outsider yearning to fit in and be accepted by the DELTA QUEEN community.

The summer months, when the college was out, were best to make regular forays across the Ohio River to the Greene Line wharfboat at the Cincinnati Public Landing opposite my hometown of Covington, Kentucky. Summers were also when several short, back-to-back Kentucky Lake cruises brought the QUEEN in and out of town on a regular basis, making my incursions to the wharfboat that more frequent.

As soon the last one was off the boat, Captain Hawley shouted to the hands, “BREAK UP!”

Soon I found a trio of  DELTA QUEEN regulars who were not only friends with my old captains, but they were also close to Mrs. Letha Greene. Some called them the “Rat Pack,” as in “river rats.” The names were Larry and Ethyl Walker and their pal, a well-respected steamboat artist and old-time country music musician, Dorothea Frye. The three were DELTA QUEEN patrons, and as the boat, Cincinnati was their home.
 
Coincidently, at the time, I was sketching portrayals of vintage steamboats using pencils as my medium which, of course, caught Dorothy’s eye. My attempt at riverboat artistry sealed a lasting, positive relationship with the rat pack, and for a time, the troupe increased by one member; ensuring my visitation acceptance aboard the DELTA QUEEN on leaving days when well-wishers, families, and friends of those departing on the cruise crowded the boat. But, whenever I was there when no passengers were aboard with only the crew or Captain Hawley around, I had no difficulty getting aboard the quiet steamboat to visit my former mate from the Steamer AVALON.

With the car aboard, Captain Wagner’s voice boomed across the bow from high above on the Wing Bridge outside the pilothouse, “LET GO,” as the mooring lines were tossed off from the sternline to the headline.

Big Cap usually went home, overnight, to nearby New Richmond, Ohio and left Cap’n Doc in charge whenever there was enough time between trips to get away to visit his family until it was time to return and board another load of new passengers for the next cruise.
 
Departure days at the Greene Line Wharfboat, with the majestic DELTA QUEEN moored alongside, were whirlwinds of excitement. The corrugated metal floating dock, built atop six worn-out sand barges, was as large, inside, like a football field. On the upstream side, the company offices were on a second level. Wide ramps on either end of the wharf allowed cars and trucks access.

The wharfboat was shackled to the cobblestone levee of the Cincinnati Public Landing by lengths of sturdy, steel anchor chains of considerable links. Most of the “leavin’ day” excitement centered about the area closest to the bow of the steamboat where a portable gangway gave access on and off the boat. The long “swinging stage” of the DELTA QUEEN was raised off the deck and swung outboard away from the boarding activity as it was of no use when the QUEEN was alongside the wharfboat.

Untethered, the DELTA QUEEN floated free of the wharfboat. Packed inside the first couple of roll-up doors on the floating dock, friends and family waved and shouted to those waving back from the steamboat as it eased further out into the Ohio River.

Passengers driving their automobiles to the landing parked them inside the wharfboat until the boat returned. Taxi cabs crossed the wide ramps with those who came by air, train, or bus. Porters scrambled about carrying overstuffed bags onto the steamboat and up the front staircase to the Purser’s Office where the owners of the luggage checked in. The Mate ordered last-minute preparations as he called to his deckhands, “All the garbage off the boat…are the potable water tanks filled?” The strains of Dixieland music wafted on deck from somewhere inside the boat.
 
“Ring Nine,” the Captain ordered, as the DELTA QUEEN’s iconic bronze bell exploded in a deafening series of three sets of three pulls on the bell chord – fifteen minutes to departure. The bow became alive with the hurrying and scurrying of the deck crew as over the public address speakers came: “Ladies and Gentlemen, The DELTA QUEEN will be leaving Cincinnati in fifteen minutes, All Ashore Going Ashore!” Families and friends of both passengers and crew not going on the cruise bade their last goodbyes and hurried to the gangway. As soon the last one was off the boat, Captain Hawley shouted to the hands, “BREAK UP!”
 
With the portable gangway stowed, the deck crew set into place two long, cumbersome planks between the wharfboat and the DELTA QUEEN. With some fanfare, Cap’n Doc, inside Mrs. Letha Greene’s automobile, gingerly drove it across the planks and onto the head of the boat. Somewhere later along the course of the cruise, Mrs. Greene would depart the vessel and return home in her car. The passengers watching from the Cabin Deck above, always marveled whenever the owner’s oversized auto crossed the gap between the dock and boat across those rickety boards.

Those waiting on the wharfboat were soon rewarded for their patience as the QUEEN soon came thundering through the upper bridges with the whistle howling, flags a’ snapping, calliope hootin’, and folks waving and cheering as the southbound steamboat whizzed by…

With the car aboard, Captain Wagner’s voice boomed across the bow from high above on the Wing Bridge outside the pilothouse, “LET GO,” as the mooring lines were tossed off from the sternline to the headline. Untethered, the DELTA QUEEN floated free of the wharfboat. Packed inside the first couple of roll-up doors on the floating dock, friends and family waved and shouted to those waving back from the steamboat as it eased further out into the Ohio River. The scream of the QUEEN’s whistle warned curious pleasure boats that the steam-powered leviathan was unrestrained and underway.
 
Getting away from the Greene Line Wharfboat was just the first step during the departure of the DELTA QUEEN. Getting the ample steamboat turned around and headed downstream, as most of the trips required, was next. The Ohio River was some fourteen-feet lower, then, before the Markland Dam was completed and backed up the river all the way to New Richmond, Ohio, Captain Wagner’s hometown. Turning the QUEEN around in the relatively narrow distance between the Cincinnati and Covington shores depended mainly on three influencing factors besides the skills of the crew and the condition of the machinery, namely: depth of the water, the speed of the river’s current, and the wind.

On rare occasions, the DELTA QUEEN turned around on only two or three jingles of the engineroom Engine Order Telegraph, but generally, several maneuvers were necessary. Opposite the wharfboat, on the Kentucky side, lay the mouth of the ancient Licking River. A convenience which afforded the pilot the option to shove the bow of the boat into the smaller stream, far-enough, to give the steamboat extra maneuvering room before backing the stern out and upstream toward the Central Bridge to get the head twisted around in the downstream direction toward Louisville, Kentucky Lake, St. Louis, or New Orleans.

Departing GL Wharfboat – At first, I went along with Bob McCann’s humbuggery, but after a while, I remained by the tall, exterior, roll-up doors and watched and waited with the rest of the crowd until the DELTA QUEEN had long departed the boundaries of the downtown Cincinnati harbor.

But when the wind and the current of the Ohio River worked in accord to hamper the DELTA QUEEN from coming about, the mammoth steamer was taken upstream, about a mile, where there was more maneuvering room, and easily turned itself around. Those waiting on the wharfboat were soon rewarded for their patience as the QUEEN soon came thundering through the upper bridges with the whistle howling, flags a’ snapping, calliope hootin’, and folks waving and cheering as the southbound steamboat whizzed by with a flood of white water washing overtop the paddlewheel. Everyone but one, jamming the wharfboat doors, gawked in amazement until the steamboat dropped below the lower bridges and out of sight.

Of the many well-wishers in the crowd, only one person turned his back and walked away as the DELTA QUEEN passed below the floating wharf. Robert H. “Bob” McCann, the longtime Purser and bookkeeper for the Greene Line, believed in an ancient river superstition that “bad luck” would follow a departing steamboat if it was watched until it was out of sight.

Bob often said that when Captain Chris Greene was alive, he would order all the outside doors of the wharfboat closed as soon as the retiring steamboat was on its way. At first, I went along with Bob McCann’s humbuggery, but after a while, I remained by the tall, exterior, roll-up doors and watched and waited with the rest of the crowd until the DELTA QUEEN had long departed the boundaries of the downtown Cincinnati harbor.
 
The radio in my Richmond, Kentucky college dorm picked up the Louisville rock and roll stations, over one-hundred miles away. For most of the month of April 1963, the chatter coming across the airwaves was often about a proposed race between the DELTA QUEEN and my old steamboat, the AVALON, renamed the BELLE of LOUISVILLE since it was bought and revamped by the city of Louisville and the surrounding Jefferson County. I made up my mind to be present at the first of what was to become an annual event soon dubbed, the “The Great Steamboat Race.”

For most of the month of April 1963, the chatter coming across the airwaves was often about a proposed race between the DELTA QUEEN and my old steamboat, the AVALON, renamed the BELLE of LOUISVILLE…I made up my mind to be present …

I had no car, in fact, I couldn’t even drive one if I did. So, early on the cold, gray, blustery morning of Tuesday, April 30, 1963, dressed in my best togs, I walked to the busiest curb, held out my thumb, and began a long, chilly journey to Louisville. It those days before the expressways were completed, most of the journey was over two-lane roads, but after several different rides, I was standing in awe at the circus-like extravaganza happening on the Louisville levee where throngs of excited spectators lined up and down the shores on both sides of the Ohio River as a television newsroom helicopter clattered noisily overhead.
 
The DELTA QUEEN lay shacked to the cobblestone landing with only single-part lines as she would be getting underway within a short time.

Seeing the former AVALON with her new name, BELLE of LOUISVILLE, painted on her stern flanks seemed odd. Standing in a knot near where the head of the DELTA QUEEN’s landing stage imprinted the mud overtop the cobblestone was a group of men who looked familiar. Surprisingly, they were other former AVALON crewmen with the same notion, as I, of riding the QUEEN with Captain Wagner. Anticipating how to deal with a gang of unexpected steamboat freeloaders, Wagner announced that he had orders directly from Mrs. Letha Greene that “No one rides the DELTA QUEEN without a ticket.”

As a murmur of sad disappointment arose among us, Mrs. Rosalee Wagner, standing near her husband, declared, “Well… the Captain’s wife certainly doesn’t need a ticket,” and handed her boarding pass to me. With hardly a moment’s hesitation, I accepted her kind generosity, glanced around at my disappointed steamboat fellows, turned and walked crossed the stage and boarded the DELTA QUEEN. That was the last time so many of the AVALON’s old crewmen were together since our steamboat quit operating at the end of the 1961 season. Since that day, only three of us, including Captain Hawley and myself, are still around to answer whenever the roll of AVALON shipmates is called. The other is the noted Iowa attorney, John M. “Corky” Bickel of McGregor and Cedar Rapids
.

Start of First DQ_BoL First Race – Throngs of excited spectators lined up and down the shores on both sides of the Ohio River as a television newsroom helicopter clattered noisily overhead. [BUT] As far as a race between two opposing steamboats, the first event was undoubtedly a disappointment for the local fans and supporters of the BELLE.

As far as a race between two opposing steamboats, the first event was undoubtedly a disappointment for the local fans and supporters of the BELLE. As the hometown newspaper, the Courier-Journal, later reported, “It’s amazing she ever raced again after a dismal first year, in 1963, when she got stuck in the mud, then windswept, and lost to the QUEEN by a staggering three miles.”

On the DELTA QUEEN, the bands played, the buffet was endless, the mint juleps icy, and everyone experienced an unforgettable time. Soon after the DELTA QUEEN was snubbed to the landing, I was back on the highway hitching rides for the long, cold, damp, trip back to the dormitory before the last remaining light of the gray day failed.
 
Nearing the end of the “intervening years,” episode, I eventually created my niche aboard the DELTA QUEEN and no longer needed a gimmick or influential friends to get aboard.

Before my graduation from Eastern Kentucky University in the Summer of 1965, Captain Wagner promised me a slot on the crew when school was over. Unbeknownst to the Captain, I was accepted into the United States Air Force Officers’ Training School, starting in early September. But, before my enlistment, a few months were spent aboard the QUEEN as a Watchman and Striker Engineer before I left the boat in St. Louis with Mrs. Greene and her daughter Jane.

After four years and three months of active military duty, I was, again, asking Captain Wagner for an opportunity to rejoin the crew of the DELTA QUEEN.

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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One Comment

  1. Connie Bays says:

    As always, very interesting reading. This was such a different era than today. I would have loved to have experienced it first hand. Since that was not meant to be, I truly appreciate the writing skills of this author in making me feel as if I was indeed there afterall. Thank you for putting those pictures in my mind in a way that they are almost like memories!

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