A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Remembering gatherings of Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen in Marietta, OH

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 Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

For longer than most river folks can remember, the “Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen” have made their way to Marietta, Ohio each September, since 1939, for an annual gathering of the ever-dwindling steamboat tribe. This past Saturday, 15 September 2018, found me among those disciples.

DELTA QUEEN owner and the Chief Engineer on my paddlewheeler CLYDE, Philip Johnson, and I made a kamikaze-style foray from our homes several hours west of Marietta and arrived before noon at the Ohio River Museum on the manicured banks of the Muskingum River where the steam, sternwheel towboat, W. P. SNYDER, JR., was freshly painted for her 100th birthday dedication and celebration.

We arrived before noon at the Ohio River Museum on the manicured banks of the Muskingum River where the steam, sternwheel towboat, W. P. SNYDER, JR., was freshly painted for her 100th birthday dedication and celebration.

An antique steam tractor was standing by at the top of the embankment with its boiler sizzling with a full head of steam waiting to power a brass-whistled calliope. The calliope player was none other than my old boss and mentor from the Steamer AVALON and long-time friend, Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley who was sitting in the shade of a replica pilothouse waiting for his cue to bring the infernal contraption to life.

Though my membership in the S&D organization goes as far back in antiquity to my junior year in high school (Class of 1959), my attendance at the annual assemblies has been sporadic over time. Twenty-three years was the longest gap in my absences, and when I returned to listen to Chief Engineer Kenny P. Howe, Jr. tell about the installation of the steam engines on the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN, most of the familiar old faces I expected to find in the audience were gone.

Steamboat fans are, for the most part, older people. And I’m not sure if the devotees who attend such conclaves or ride overnight river cruisers entered into their fixation with steamboats at an earlier age and grew old along with the notion, or if reaching retirement age gives them the time and means to indulge themselves with an outmoded form of 19th Century transportation. S&D’ers are a mixture of both, but the organization is always looking for new blood to fill the gradually dwindling ranks as Father Time trims the register of old-timers.          
The late Captain Frederick Way, Jr. is credited, for the most part, with organizing the Sons & Daughters, but he is, undoubtedly, the patriarch of the group’s quarterly publication, the S&D REFLECTOR, the most authoritative river history magazine in print.  By chance, one of my river yarns, featured in this month’s September issue of the REFLECTOR, “The Lollars. A Steamboat Family Story” caused several attendees who connected me to the narrative to mention, “Loved your story…”  To which I replied, “Thanks. You would have loved the Lollars.”

The Ohio River Museum and the W. P. SNYDER, JR. were both open to the public without charge in celebration of the occasion; so the crowd was substantially larger than if only the S&D crew had gathered there. Aboard the SNYDER, different speakers praised the old steam towboat on its 100th anniversary and Captain Hawley, standing in the bright sun at the electric keyboard for the calliope, was asked to begin playing “Beautiful Ohio,” Captain Way’s favorite tune, the speaker holding the microphone informed the audience.

Captain Hawley, standing in the bright sun at the electric keyboard for the calliope, was asked to begin playing “Beautiful Ohio,” Captain Way’s favorite tune.

With a sputter of hot water, as Cap’n Doc cleared the brass whistles of condensed steam, the “cally’ope” awoke with a scream. Though I was at least one-hundred feet away from the infernal racket, the music was so loud my ears throbbed. With a finger over the ear closest to the offending calliope, I walked closer to the keyboard where my old boss was finishing the final notes of a tune scheduled on the program.

“Avalon,” I called out.

Captain Doc looked up to see who was requesting the tune most-closely associated with our beloved steamboat of the same name.

“Yes… Avalon,” he answered.

As Doc played, these words surged through my mind:   

“I found my love at Avalon
Beside the bay
I left my love at Avalon
And sailed away…”

Lunch was aboard the VALLEY GEM Banquet Barge with our genial table mates, Taylor, and Alexandra Abbott, Captain Robyn Strickland Jones, and Bill Reynolds. An informative illustrated presentation followed afterward. But after a belly-full of good grub, and after the long ride in Phillip’s car, and standing in the hot sun, earlier, while Doc hooted on the steam calliope, the soft tone of the speaker’s voice became muted and dream-like. When I opened my eyes to the polite patter of applause and the movement of scooting chairs, the congregation rose from their seats and began shuffling towards the exit doors.
 
“Wanna tour the museum?” Phillip asked.

“Yes, I need to have a closer look at those wooden skiffs,” I answered.

Near the entrance to the Ohio River Museum, I saw Captain Doc leaning on his cane as he stood in the hot, September sunshine. I asked him what he was doing,

“Waiting on a ride,” he answered.

“You’re a Southern boy,” I told him. “You know better than to stand in the sun. Let’s go up by the door and get in the shade.”  

After we found some respite from the blaring rays of the blazing orb, a woman who knew the Captain asked if he needed a ride. Doc said he was waiting on one, but before he could say much more, she insisted that he get into her car, not far away, and go with her instead of waiting any longer. Once I was assured that my long-time friend was in good hands, I joined Phillip inside the air-conditioned museum where ice cream and cake for available for all who wanted a slice and a dip. After the sumptuous lunch, the sweet treats proved to be a bit too much, but I finished most of mine before dropping the leftovers into a large plastic can just outside the entrance doors. That done, I set off to find the small, wooden boats on the breezeway between the display rooms.

S&D’ers are a mixture of both, but the organization is always looking for new blood to fill dwindling ranks as Father Time trims the register of old-timers. Captain Roy Barkhau, Paul and Ruth Seabrook. 1973.

Bill Reynolds, a long-time curator at the museum was anticipating my arrival to show off the beautiful wood skiffs made long ago in the late 19th Century to have around the builder’s home in case the Ohio River flooded. Often stowed beneath a front porch, these type boats could be pulled out for use whenever the water rose and threatened to isolate the homestead. It would not surprise me to hear that there are still boats like those in the museum beneath someone’s porch, or in a barn loft, patiently anticipating flood waters yet to arrive.
  
The granddaddy of all the small wooden boats in the collection is the eighteen-foot Thompson Skiff, built in the 1880’s, and another “under the porch” boat. The “scantlings,” or dimensions of the Thompson, were measured and drawn to scale some years ago by the late Jim Stevens, an associate of the museum. Jim taught small boatbuilding classes where several replicas of the original white oak yawl, constructed of lesser quality woods, lasted a great deal less time than the original.

One remaining relic in no condition to float, the GEO. THOMPSON lies moldering beneath an exterior museum walkway and used as a catch-all for bales of straw and a length of towboat “leaving-line.” Over the years, many hours of daydreaming found me rowing a modified Thompson Skiff from Cincinnati, one way to New Orleans. That long row is a bucket list item that will forever remain forever unfulfilled.

After enough time passed fawning over the ancient craft to satisfy my wooden skiff “jones,” I joined Phillip and Captain Bob Harrison, owner of two historic sternwheel towboats, the SEWICKLEY, and the STANDARD, in the pilothouse of the W. P. SNYDER, JR. for the annual “what would it take to get the SNYDER running again?” discussion. Bob’s grandfather, Chief Engineer George Harrison and I were friends when Chief George operated the Harrison Boat Club out of what remained of the steamer CHRIS GREENE at the foot of Dayton Bar, across from Cincinnati, before the waters of Markland Dam covered the golden, sandy beach. George and my mentor and friend, Captain Arthur J. “Red” Schletker served together as crewmen, on the U. S. GREENBRIAR, a steam-powered sternwheeler belonging to the U. S. Lighthouse Service and, later, the Coast Guard. George kept his engineer’s license hanging on the wall near the bar on the CHRIS close to where the old Chief mixed highballs in tiny glasses.  

The Ohio River Museum and the W. P. SNYDER, JR. were both open to the public without charge in celebration of the occasion.

Before long, visitors entering the “knowledge box” who had never been aboard a steamboat before, diverted my attention away from Bob and Phillip, and I began explaining to them all the wonders of a century-old steamboat pilothouse. If I lived in Marietta, I would enjoy volunteering on the SNYDER doing what I was doing for those wide-eyed greenhorns. Perhaps one young lady from Marietta College might even follow in the footsteps of a certain young woman who graduated with honors from a “small college in Maryland” without waiting to receive her diploma before hitchhiking to New Orleans to join the crew of the new MISSISSIPPI QUEEN. This youngster learned that she might meet other like-minded, adventurers, like herself, on the AMERICAN QUEEN. If she turns up one of these days looking for a berth aboard the steamboat, she won’t be the first I sent that way.   

After finally tearing ourselves away from the pilothouse, Phillip informed me that a room where we could freshen up before the banquet was generously at our disposal, courtesy of two “rats,” members of a long-standing group of steamboat gals who pride themselves on being dubbed, collectively, the “River Rats.” Confident that I had explored every aspect of the Ohio River Museum I had time to see, we found the car and followed our benefactors to the motel. With fresh towels and washcloths, we cleaned up and donned clean white shirts, a jacket, a tie, and set off for the Lafayette Hotel on the banks of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers; long the headquarters for the annual event since its first gathering 79 years earlier.   

The Lafayette, a century-old hotel with a steamboat theme throughout the public spaces, is especially appealing to the S&D crowd, although the new motels along the expressway have diverted the attention of some members their way. After our tickets for the banquet were in our hands, Phillip and I followed other boat buffs past walls filled with steamboat art and memorabilia until we came to the open doors entering into a cavernous chamber aptly named “The DELTA QUEEN Room” where hardly a seat remained empty. But then, we saw the raised hands of more River Rats beckoning us to their table, so Phillip and I joined die-hard steamboat ladies, Barb Hameister, Carol Roth, and Jo Ann Schoen for two of the last seats left to spare.

We both ordered the roast beef, but if I’m blessed-enough to attend another S&D summit, I will be sure to request the salmon. After dinner and a ten-minute break, everyone eagerly returned in anticipation of what Captain Doc Hawley had to say about his long and fruitful steamboat career. Jeff Spear, S&D President, took the podium to introduce his long-time friend, and if there ever was such an entertaining introduction ever given, before, to a speaker appearing before that organization, it has not happened since Captain C. W. Stoll passed on to that Great-Steamboat-in-the-Sky. If Jeff is ever the S&D guest speaker, himself, I will brave the choked highways to witness his elocution before his kind.

The granddaddy of all the small wooden boats in the collection is the eighteen-foot Thompson Skiff, built in the 1880’s, and another “under the porch” boat. The “scantlings,” or dimensions of the Thompson, were measured and drawn to scale some years ago by the late Jim Stevens, an associate of the museum.

The 2018 Annual Meeting of the Son & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen honored two venerable veterans of the river: the 100-year-old steam, paddlewheel towboat, the W. P. SNYDER, JR., and Captain Clarke Campbell “Doc” Hawley who has, himself, been on the river for over two-thirds of a century. As the Captain settled in behind the dais, everyone in the audience, it seemed, was beaming, for Captain Hawley is one of the most beloved steamboatmen since Nicholas Roosevelt paddled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans – and that covers legions of extraordinary boatmen –  and boatwomen, too. A hundred years from now, and beyond, when the history of steamboating on the Mississippi River System is a matter of discussion, Cap’n Doc’s name will be among those honored and remembered as one of the greatest the river ever called its own.

Captain Hawley, who never lost his boyish grin, stood beaming at his audience while grasping each side of the podium. Not until every eye gazed steadily upon him did he begin:  

“I am not Old Man River,” he started, implying that he was not the embodiment of all rivermen, although most everyone in the audience could readily accept the fact he was, had they been told so.

“I am not Old Man River,” Captain Hawley continued. “But I worked with many good rivermen,” he said as he began reciting a list of some twenty-five rivermen and two river women, Mrs. Letha Greene, and Betty Blake, he boated with on an assortment of steamboats; namely the AVALON, DELTA QUEEN, BELLE of LOUISVILLE, and the NATCHEZ.

“Captain Lawrence “Bo” Allen taught me to turn a steamboat around when I was in the pilothouse of the AVALON at Mile 777.7, the only mileage number I could ever remember, on the Ohio River. Not only did I turn the boat around once, but I turned it around twice.” (audience laughter)

“Captain Wagner who was helping out down at the hot dog stand,” Doc continued, “noticed the boat spinning around and came to the pilothouse and said to Captain Allen, ‘I know it wasn’t you who turned the boat around.’” Pointing to the young Hawley, Bo Allen answered, “It was him. He listened, but he didn’t understand.” (more Laughter)

Captain Hawley, who never lost his boyish grin, stood beaming at his audience while grasping each side of the podium. Not until every eye gazed steadily upon him did he begin.

For more than an hour Captain Doc recalled one boatman after another, and again he repeated himself: “I don’t want to be no Old Man River, but I wanted to tell you about the people who made me what I am – I didn’t learn about the river out of a book.”

The Captain mentioned several of us in the audience and others not in attendance who served with him: Captain Jim Blum, Chief Kenny Howe, and the late Captain Alan Bates, among others. I was duly noted for decking for him on the AVALON, and that we were together on the DELTA QUEEN. Doc noted that I had been on about as many rivers as he had.

Doc summed up his discourse with an oft-repeated tale of a feisty little fellow from a small town somewhere along the Upper Mississippi River who came aboard the AVALON during the Summer of 1960 wearing a clean white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a fifth of whiskey, carried like a football, under one arm. Before the ride began loading passengers, Captain Doc had assigned me a task most found unpleasant, but I relished.

The compartment beneath the port-side steam engine was a catch-all for waste oil and grease that, in those days, was pumped overboard at night when the boat was underway and out of sight. As the goo accumulated around the “rose boxes” surrounding and protecting the suction ends of the steam siphons that sucked up the foul waste, periodically, someone had to don a pair of knee boots and get into the nasty bilge and clean out the sludge stopping up the boxes. The only access into the greasy compartment was through a hatch that also served as the floor of a gorilla-cage-like jail in the dimly-lit, aft section of the hot engineroom.

While I was squishing around down in there, a voice from above called me to come out to help with a late-arriving load of groceries. I climbed out, removed the rubber waders, and left without replacing the hatch cover on the floor of the jail, but with the intention of returning to finish mucking out the rose boxes, later. But after the stores were aboard, boarding time was soon upon us, and I cleaned up and forgot about the open hatchway.

Lunch on Valley Gem – Lunch was aboard the VALLEY GEM Banquet Barge with our genial table mates, Taylor, and Alexandra Abbott, Captain Robyn Strickland Jones, and Bill Reynolds.

About halfway through the ride, I was standing close by the engine room when a great ruckus from the dance floor, above, made its way toward where I was watching. The little fellow I’d seen boarding earlier, was being dragged kicking, swearing, and fighting down the stairs by two burly Watchmen toward the sweltering cage. Captain Doc went ahead to open the jailhouse door. As soon as the battered and bloody trio were in front of the cage, the assailant was tossed bodily inside. For an instant, he hung in mid-air and then disappeared. A moment later a splash and a scream arose from the muck below as the slack-jawed crewmen standing next to the jail looked at each other in amazement.

When the fellow finally climbed out of the hole, he “looked like he’d been mining coal,” as Captain described to the audience. Captain Hawley, not realizing who the real culprit was, went on to describe that it was “Dirty Shirt Herald,” the Night Watchman, who left the hatch open. As I was about to raise my hand for the speaker’s attention to confess it was I, and not Dirty Shirt who negligently failed to replace the jail floor, Cap’n Doc  informed his listeners that “we placed the Watchman on suspension.”

With Cap’s last words on the subject, I had to keep quiet so as not to spoil his talk, but after the show was over, I pulled Captain Hawley aside and made a full confession. But the good news that came from the talk about the incident that I did not know before was, as Doc emphasized, “the fellow never sued… he just never sued!”

All too soon, the gala affair was over for another year and Phillip and I had a long drive ahead. Bidding our old and new friends adieu, we departed with Phillip behind the wheel. As I was determined to stay awake and to keep us both from falling asleep, I talked as the hours and the miles slipped away. I was so tired and dehydrated from the hours standing in the sun; the road ahead looked strange as a dream. When Phillip eventually turned off the expressway, I exclaimed:

“Why are you getting off the highway – where are we?”

“You’re home,” was all he said.

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. Ron Sutton says:

    Now I wish I’d gone to Marietta.

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