A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Some short tales about life aboard river steamboats; remembering the people behind them

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The Captain’s Table

Yes, I do recall Captain Wagner telling visitors that the heavy Officers’ Table on the DELTA QUEEN came off the Steamer LUNGA POINT, a Defense Plant Corporation (DPC) screw-wheel steamboat built to tow oil during the Second World War era. But the solid oak table was acquired while I was off the boat serving active duty time in the Air Force.

Before my departure from the QUEEN in 1965, we ate on round plywood tables in an area behind the Orleans Room, on the port side, with the Greene Line veteran waiter,  Mr. Mose England, serving us. Four and a quarter years later, when I returned from the military, food service had been moved into the lower Hold Deck in a large area called the “Crew’s Mess” between the watertight doors, and sadly, Mr. Mose was gone.

The heavy Officers’ Table on the DELTA QUEEN came off the Steamer LUNGA POINT, a Defense Plant Corporation (DPC) screw-wheel steamboat built to tow oil during the Second World War era.

The Captain’s Table was in the forward, starboard corner of the room. Captain Wagner sat at the farthest end of the LUNGA POINT table with the Chief Engineer to his immediate right, and the Mate sat to his left. In descending order, sat the Pilots, Assistant Engineers, Chief Steward, Watchmen, Pursers, etc. Luckily, all the officers did not eat at the same time, so there was usually room on a staggered schedule. However, if the Captain was not at the table and his seat empty, no one, and I mean NO ONE, sat in his place unless the “Old Man” had personally given them prior permission.

On the Steamer AVALON, the crew ate on picnic tables in the “deck room” ahead of the engine room. Captain Wagner’s place was on the outboard side where he sat facing-in so he could have his eyes on everyone during the meal. The deckhands and the steward’s boys had two tables shoved end-to-end, athwartships, closest to the cookhouse. The Chief Engineer maintained a separate table for his white crew and himself, while all of the “colored” crew members had their table on the starboard side, as racial segregation was still the law of the land. Although the races ate at separate tables, everyone, regardless of color, shared the same showers and toilets.

One time I ate my lunch at the “colored table,” and no one said a word until after the meal when my friend Ed Smith, the AVALON’s venerated negro fireman, leaned close to me and whispered sharply into my ear, “Don’t ever do that again.”

Bones of the J. M. WHITE.

Captain Howard Tate, best remembered by his contemporaries as, “H. Tate — The Very First Mate” was as well-known on the river as a storyteller as he was a steamboat pilot. When freelance writer, Richard Rhoades, rode on the DELTA QUEEN for a week in 1972, much of his article published in that year’s December issue of Playboy Magazine came from pilothouse chats with Cap’n Tate.

The towhead that formed around the wreck of the palatial sidewheel packet, the J. M. WHITE.

As Tate told Mr. Rhoades, the towhead that formed around the wreck of the palatial sidewheel packet, the J. M. WHITE, may be washed away for now, but those old bones of the WHITE that the Mississippi River’s been kicking around, are still down there where they have “taken to ground” for at least another century or more. Eventually, they will rise again, vampire-like, and resurrect themselves as a second or third generation towhead, or small island. When the river conditions are right, muck and sand will collect around the vestiges of the J. M. WHITE. One of these days, passers-by may again remark that beneath the sand, brush piles, and scraggly willow trees lie the immortal bones of the J. M. WHITE; that is, the ones not scattered all over creation by the devastating explosion caused by the black powder the WHITE was carrying in the hold on the bow.
 
The only deaths resulting from the conflagration, Tate told, were three or four roustabouts later buried on the riverbank near where they perished. Their bones, too, may have long-since washed down the river with the rest of the scattered remnants where they settled and seeded a tiny island whose pedigree will never be the cause of speculation or astonishment.

Cap’n Tate Spills the Beans

The DELTA QUEEN crew experienced a taste of “soul food,” back in the early ’70’s. The Cincinnati Office felt it would be what is now called “politically correct” to have sow’s ears, hocks, greens, and other such delicacies on the steam table in the crew’s mess with Crew Steward, Jerry “Next Pah’leeze” Brooms, dishing it out.

One of “Cap’n” Betty Blake’s travel-writing gal pals, with the aftertaste of a delightful Orleans Room brunch still lingering on her taste buds, had Captain Howard Tate nervously cornered.

“Tell me, Captain Tate, how do they feed you on the DELTA QUEEN?”

Without batting an eye, the crusty old pilot fired back:

“Lady, they slop us like a bunch of hogs… they slop us like a bunch of hogs!”

Save the DELTA QUEEN According to the CARP

During the summer of 1970, Bill Muster, President of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, heard the tune, “Save the DELTA QUEEN… don’t let the termite get her,” coming over the radio and he contacted the group, CARP, and took them on tour to help promote the DELTA QUEEN’s fight to stay operating in spite of the so-called “Safety at Sea” law that threatened to take the venerable old steamboat off the river.

Gary Busey and his band CARP consisting of college chums fresh out of the University of Oklahoma made a round of TV and radio stations promoting their song and the plight of the DELTA QUEEN.

Gary Busey and his band CARP consisting of college chums fresh out of the University of Oklahoma made a round of TV and radio stations promoting their song and the plight of the DELTA QUEEN. The flaw within the tune, “Save the DELTA QUEEN,” was the word “damn” used in context with Mr. M’s feelings about removing the QUEEN out of the overnight, passenger-carrying trade. This rather mild cuss word kept the song from getting more airtime than it did, but the exposure Busey received on the Muster-engineered tour undoubtedly helped him in reaching the heights of Hollywood he later scaled.
 
Gary was, and remains, an actor of genuine talent who, or so I read, could have become one of the top motion picture artists of his generation if he did not have a severe drug problem at the height of his meteoric climb toward stardom.
 
CARP was a smash hit with the crew and most of the younger passenger-set for the week, or so, Gary and the band were aboard, but for many of the older crowd, both in the pilothouse and below, the Okie’s style of music did not fit well within their Glenn Miller frame of musical reference. After the DELTA QUEEN arrived in the Queen City at the end of the trip, the old-timers were tickled to see a rental van backing down to the landing stage to load up the band’s gear. Captain Harry Louden’s sarcastic wit come into full bloom as he leaned on the portside wing bridge hand railing and slyly commented:
 
“Someone ought to throw in a couple of them dead carp a ‘laying there along the water’s edge. And when they get back to Californy and open them doors, they’ll think they’re the CARP!”

The DELTA QUEEN Piano

That’s exactly right. Harmon Mize played both the electric organ and the steam calliope on the DELTA QUEEN. Did anyone see where Jazzou Jones commented, “A good coat of paint often helped an ailing piano?”

Didn’t young Mary Greene tickle the keys, too? And who can ever forget lovely Mom Tooker on that piano – or Captain Gabriel Chengary? Capt. Wagner on the “bones. Vic Tooker on banjo.

After Captain Wagner removed the black paint from the baby grand in the Orleans Dining Room, wags claimed the thing would never sound right again, but Wagner would hear none of it. He gave ‘er several thin layers of polyurethane varnish that must have had the same remedial benefits as did the original coats of slick, black factory finish.

Didn’t young Mary Greene tickle the keys, too? And who can ever forget lovely Mom Tooker on that piano – or Captain Gabriel Chengary?

One fellow who should have stayed away from that piano (still painted black) was a young college student working on the DELTA QUEEN as a deckhand for the summer of ‘70, whose interests were more sophisticated than what he was getting paid to do. What he wanted, instead of his deck duties, was to mess with the piano. As a group of us following the Mate entered the Orleans Room from the Fire Box on the way aft to move the garbage ashore, this fellow was plinking away on the ivories. That tough ole Mate, one Captain Clarke C. Hawley, looked at me, his Second Mate, and commanded:
 
“Fire him.”
 
Though it nearly broke the kid’s heart, I had to follow orders. He was last seen toting his suitcase, with his college’s insignia plastered on both sides, up the hill at the DELTA QUEEN’s next landing.
 
The piano, by the way, was always getting out of tune from would-be-players messing with the thing, so the instrument had to be tuned whenever the boat reached a town where an expensive professional piano tuner could be located to get the thing back into musical order. No one else, who shouldn’t have, played around with the piano after that harsh example.
 
Dorothea Frye – Steamboat Artist

After the AVALON folded, and I was still a college student, Cap Wagner, Doc, and others went to man the DELTA QUEEN, and though my friends were aboard, I felt somewhat uneasy about mooching my way aboard the steamboat on “leaving days” at the old Greene Line wharfboat.

Dorothea Frye paintings still tickle a particular nerve whenever I see one, for she was an artist of uncommon talent unlike anyone else using the same genre for the root of their artistry.

At the time, I possessed a decent talent for pencil sketching that has since forsaken me for lack of practice. Two detailed drawings were the extent of my portfolio. One was the HERBERT E. JONES, and the other was the GENERAL WOOD. They caught steamboat artist, Dorothea Frye’s attention, who immediately induced me into the now-celebrated group lovingly remembered as the “Rat Pack.” Of course, it was Dorothy and Ethel and Larry Walker. It was my inclusion into that exclusive club which allowed me nearly unlimited access to the DELTA QUEEN before I made my way onto the famous steamboat under my merit, later on.
 
Dorothea Frye paintings still tickle a particular nerve whenever I see one, for she was an artist of uncommon talent unlike anyone else using the same genre for the root of their artistry. Forty years ago, when I told Dorothy that one day her paintings “would command a thousand dollars if sold,” she found it hard to imagine one would ever sell for that much…then, a princely sum.
 
The first time one of her paintings sold for a thousand bucks, she made a point of reminding me of my prediction of the value her oils would one day take. Had Dorothea’s eyes not failed her, and had she painted more, who knows to what extent the world might respect her remarkable artistic talent, today?
 
More than anything else, I am honored that I was a party to that “pack o’ rats” – Ethel and Larry Walker, and Dorothea Frye.
 
The Engine Room Washing Machine

The only washing machine on the DELTA QUEEN, in 1965, was the same wringer-washer kept in the small “laundry room,” on the port side alongside the low-pressure engine. It belonged to the engine room crew, and no one used it without their invitation and consent, especially those who did not belong on Chief Cal’s payroll. Captain Wagner found a slot for me, that year, as a temporary Watchman “punching the clock” for Bruce Edgington and his partner so they could get some time off. For in those days, there was no off-time or vacations unless someone else came on and worked for you, or else you quit.

My experience trying to clean my clothes by dragging them tied to a handy line off the fantail of the AVALON had been a dismal failure, so the same method was not an option on the DELTA QUEEN. Instead, I found a five-gallon steel bucket, and as there was also a live steam line in that laundry room, I was able to persuade the Chief Engineer to allow me access to his superheated steam, and so was able to construct a primitive washing machine that far exceeded a handy line for cleaning clothes.

It was fun boiling my knickers in my invention, but after a few uses, I noticed that I drew a small, curious crowd on the other side of the engine whenever my “washing machine” was boiling away. And I could not be sure whether they were admiring my inventiveness, pitying me, or waiting to see if I would end up like a scalded dog.

Eventually, the Chief must have either felt sorry for me or else thought such genius deserved its reward, for, one day as again I begged permission to make use of his hot steam, he casually remarked:

“Why don’t you just use the washer?”

So with that, I became a member of the exclusive wringer washing machine circle, and remained so, because, as soon as Brucie came back from vacation, my next assignment was as a Striker Engineer in the Engine Room. . .right next to the washing machine.

Handling Steamboat Engines

There is no “long-handled lever” on the BELLE’S Rees variable cut-off engines. It’s the DELTA QUEEN that has such a directional lever. To change directions on the BELLE of LOUISVILLE’s engines, if I remember correctly: (1) close the throttle; (2) the valves are lifted with the steam-assisted jack; (3) the engines are shipped-up with the steam gear or else by the manual lever while remembering that when the “sawbuck” is in the up-position the boat will back; (4) when shipped up, lower the valves, and (5) apply throttle accordingly.

The Louisville boat’s high-pressure, non-condensing James Rees engines are similar to a standard shift engine on an automobile where lifting the valves is similar to depressing the clutch pedal before shifting gears.

Of course, you have to keep a close watch on the level of the boiler water by watching the position of the needles on the Vanduzen pie-plate gauges on the back side of the BELLE’s boilers. And the same vigilance holds true with the boiler water level on the QUEEN’s water gauge of a different sort. But the principle remains the same on both steamboats. The Louisville boat’s high-pressure, non-condensing James Rees engines are similar to a standard shift engine on an automobile where lifting the valves is similar to depressing the clutch pedal before shifting gears.

The DELTA QUEEN’s Evans cross-compound, condensing engines function more like an automatic clutch does on a car, in that the valves are not lifted during the shifting operation. However, that “long-handled lever” must be in the proper setting to go in the desired direction.
 
Manually handling a set of steam engines, for those who haven’t had the thrill, is as exciting an experience as anything a steamboat can offer. It is nearly as much fun as cleaning the greasy hot well and washing luffa sponges in trisodium phosphate and live steam. Although fifty-nine summers have passed since first “handling” the AVALON’s Rees engines, the fragrance lingers.

(P.S…  I handled the Rees Engines, again, during the 2014 100th Anniversary Celebration of the BELLE, and the absence of practice was evident as I blundered through the motions.)

Roll That Cotton

Aboard the Cotton Packet GEORGIA LEE.

Though cotton packets were long-gone by the time I started steamboating fifty-nine years ago, I’d be safe to say that the set of uplifted rails that run the length of the GEORGIA LEE’s Landing Stage allowed the rousters to shove the heavy bales on the tracks instead of flipping them over and over, or “rolling” them. I am confident to say that could I call these helpers, “Cotton Rails” and old times would know what I meant. Loading, stowing, and unloading a cotton packet was an art that Mates working on the northern boats did not understand.

The GEORGIA LEE’s Landing Stage allowed the rousters to shove the heavy bales on the tracks instead of flipping them over and over, or “rolling” them.

Baled rags were also a staple for steamboats of this era on this section of the Ohio River, but most of the rags unloaded at Cincinnati went into the manufacturing of high-quality rag paper which is superior in both strength and durability to wood pulp-based paper. So many rags found their way to the Queen City, steamboatmen called Cincy, “Rag Town.” A steamboat hailing from that city as its home port was called a “rag town boat.”

Ohio River scholar and steamboat historian, D. Arnold Sunman, had this to say: “Musician, historian, and author, Carl Sandburg set out, years ago, from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in quest of ballads, songs, and poems of the river that were quickly disappearing from the collective memory. A number of the early black roustabout songs collected in their original dialect, may, if repeated in their ‘earthy’ manner today, might be considered ‘politically incorrect,’ yet, they are gaining increased historical value.”

The term “rag town,” as we said before, came from steamboats bringing bales of reclaimed rags, cotton, or a waste product known as “batting,” by way of steamboats to the Queen City. Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River, were major centers in the manufacturing of cloth, bagging, and paper products based on this trade. I remember seeing a photo of the Steamer QUEEN CITY taken very late in her career coming up-river with bales of rags on her deck for one of the many businesses once existing on, or near, the Public Landing.

Another roustabout term for the stream flowing by the Cincinnati waterfront was “Cincinnati River” — not the Ohio River. One verse from “Ragtown” gives us a feel for those times:

‘Ya wanna know whar we are from?
It shor will make you shivah;
We’s from dat dar ol’ ‘Ragtown.’
On de ol’ Cincinnati Ribber!”
 
Bruce Edgington’s Wit & Wisdom

Cap’n Harry Louden was fond of letting slip certain tales about Bruce Edgington regarding events Bruce would instead have remained overlooked which happened years before on the old “SCIO’TEY,” or another of the Corp of Engineers boats the two crewed on together. For those who missed the pleasure of knowing Mr. Edgington, he was a beloved character and an excellent riverman, deluxe.

<Bruce Edgington by Frye: For those who missed the pleasure of knowing Mr. Edgington, he was a beloved character and an excellent riverman, deluxe.

So, to recollect some of his doings is also a way to honor him as one of those departed steamboatmen worth recalling. In old Egypt, inscribed upon Pharaoh’s tomb were these words: “To speak the name of the dead is to make him live again.” That said, a Brucie tidbit of wit:

During the bustling “Save the DELTA QUEEN Days” of 1970, Bruce was sitting on the lazy bench in the pilothouse of the QUEEN where an especially inquisitive reporter from a widely-read magazine had a microphone, attached to a reel-to-reel tape recorder, shoved into the frail, bent, old fellow’s whiskered face. Bruce, by then well into his eighties, was recalling all sorts of steamboat tales complete with the exact details of boats, folks, times, places, and dates.

Finally, the reporter thinking that little-old-Brucie was just another funny old fellow with a fertile, but hyperactive imagination, took the microphone back to her lips and questioned him in a deriding tone:

“How in the world, Mr. Edgington, do you remember all that?”

As the mike has thrust back into his face, Bruce shot back:

“BECAUSE, LADY… I LIVED IT!”

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