A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: The John Henry was first boat I owned, but met a sad end; starting a recycling business

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The JOHN HENRY, built in 1937 on the Saginaw River at Bay City, Michigan, just off Lake Huron, and rebuilt on the Ohio River in 1961, was the first boat I owned.

The JOHN HENRY, built in 1937 on the Saginaw River at Bay City, Michigan, just off Lake Huron, and rebuilt on the Ohio River in 1961, was the first boat I owned. At 28-feet long and seven-tons gross weight, the JOHN HENRY was a federally-documented yacht powered by a 35-hp four-banger gasoline automobile engine. Inside the cabin, a wood-burning stove warmed the cabin on chilly autumn nights. Atop the cabin, a copper “Charlie Noble,” or galley stovepipe, added both function and decoration to the beautiful trawler built with oak frames, mahogany planking, and teak decks for service on the Great Lakes.

After purchasing the classic, wooden trawler in 1978, following the sale of my exquisite Harriet Albro House on Russell Street in Covington, the JOHN HENRY was moored at the MIKE FINK floating restaurant, across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. The JOHN HENRY docked there while I collaborated with the restaurateur on an original idea I proposed that eventually succeeded beyond most wag’s expectations.    

Besides the JOHN HENRY, the FLYING’ FISH, a wooden, sixteen-foot Weaver Skiff of racing fame on the Great Kanawha River, was my other boat that called the floating dock behind the former steam towboat “home.” Before it was converted into an acclaimed eatery on the Ohio River by Captain John Beatty and his lovely wife Clare, the FINK was a sternwheel powerhouse steamboat named the JOHN W. HUBBARD before the Ohio River Company acquired it; renaming her the CHARLES DORRANCE. The DORRANCE was a steam-powered towboat I saw only once while underway pushing a string of empty coal barges upstream on a cold, wintry, river day of my youth.

Inside the cabin, a wood-burning stove warmed the cabin on chilly autumn nights.

The most-extended trip the JOHN HENRY cruised under my ownership was a 117-mile round trip run from the FINK to Dan Webster’s marina on Craig’s Creek, above Markland Lock and Dam, and back. Most people called the harbor, “Dan’s Den,” the same name as his restaurant and bar across the highway, US 42, from the boat dock. On the way to Dan’s, we nosed into Big Bone Creek looking for the likes of “Crazy Clifford,” Clifford Pottorf, an old pal from the DELTA QUEEN, but the water became too shallow to continue to his rude cabin further up the creek. So the HENRY retraced its route back to the Ohio River where Randy and Jane Cochran admired the JOHN HENRY as I steered the trawler against the current in front of their log cabin somewhere along the Boone County shore while we renewed old acquaintances.
  
On the way back home, after staying the night at Dan’s snug den, the JOHN HENRY overnighted the next evening at Lischkge Harbor, in Aurora, Indiana, next to the hulls of two houseboats that Captain John and Clem Beatty had custom-built for them. In my wildest dreams, never would I have imagined that over two decades later, Aurora would be my home and that father and son rivermen, Bob and Robert Lischkge, and I would become good friends.

The 28-foot boat was small enough that I could operate it alone without the assistance of anyone but myself. The round trawler hull was perfectly stable when pointed into the wind and remained solidly steady as she took waves head-on, but get her fat, round bottom sideways to the wind and waves, she sometimes rolled over so far until I wondered if she would right herself again. But she always straightened-up and seemed to say:

“What’s wrong… don’t you know how to handle a boat like me?”
 

The JOHN HENRY was moored at the MIKE FINK floating restaurant, across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. The JOHN HENRY docked there while I collaborated with the restaurateur on an original idea I proposed that eventually succeeded beyond most wags ‘expectations.

The early Spring of 1980 found the JOHN HENRY “on the hard” at Boat Smith’s above Cincinnati; the FLYIN’ FISH sold to a friend and hauled to a rough neighborhood across the river where it was promptly stolen and never heard from again; that I had left town after New Year’s, vowing never to return, but March found me back in Covington, again, after hanging out in Key West with John Hartford and Shel Silverstein; and that I had survived a tropical storm in the Bermuda Triangle aboard a 180-foot Offshore Supply Vessel (OSV) with cement poured into the hull to keep the tub from rolling over in the 30-foot waves our “Nazi-U-Boat-Commander-of-a-Captain” took ship and souls into seas where we should not have been. But by the Grace of God, both men and ship defied all odds, survived, and lived to sail again.

By April, my spirit and strength restored, my lovely neighbor-girl, Peggy, and I married. Less than a week later, we began pioneering the uncertain occupation of recycling “used beverage containers,” (UBC’s), better known simply as, “aluminum cans.”  Before we knew what happened, the aluminum can recycling business “grow’d like Topsy,” but the JOHN HENRY suffered for it.     

Both time and money were a premium as we struggled to build a business so new that the general public hadn’t a clue what the word “recycling” meant. All our personal and financial resources went for our recycling enterprise. The JOHN HENRY, finally out of Boat Smith’s, languished at a honky-tonk harbor in Newport known for cheap canned beer, for loud hillbilly music, and for throwing super-sized sacks of trash, aluminum cans and all, into the river.

Before it was converted into an acclaimed eatery on the Ohio River by Captain John Beatty and his lovely wife Clare, the FINK was a sternwheel powerhouse steamboat named the JOHN W. HUBBARD before the Ohio River Company acquired it; renaming her the CHARLES DORRANCE.

Eventually, I convinced the generally ill-natured proprietor that the UBC’s had value, and he should have his scantily-clad barmaids separate the aluminum cans from the garbage and bring the beer and soda cans to our Can-Do Recycling plant where we would weigh and pay cash for the net amount. When the bags eventually showed up at our place, they were as full of trash as the ones previously launched off the harbor; bound for destinations downriver.

After my crew and I sorted the cans from the filth, nearly filling a roll-off waste collection container, the harbor owner became belligerent and angered for not getting paid for the gross weight of the heavy bags full of trash he lugged to Can-Do from Newport. As uncertain as our relationship was before, primarily after had I lectured him concerning his polluting the river with his garbage, I was indeed, from then on, at the top of the distasteful man’s short list.

The JOHN HENRY, meanwhile, developed engine problems and with my virtual lack of knowledge to repair them, and unable to afford a professional mechanic, I recruited the aid of a brother-in-law who prided himself on his self-proclaimed mechanic abilities. But as soon as he discovered a slight leak in the gasoline fuel line, he refused to continue his diagnoses of the source of the engine’s illnesses and swiftly departed. A gas leak inside the hull of a boat can be an explosive calamity, but before he took off like a frightened boy and left me all alone on my ailing vessel, I believed the in-law possessed more pluck than he displayed at the first whiff of gasoline.

By 1982, several miles downriver from the third-rate boat harbor, in an abandoned sewage treatment plant, an eager entrepreneur proposed converting what residents, living within smelling distance called “the stink bowl,” into a posh eatery featuring catfish cuisine. The whiskered critters destined for the dining table were intended to be bred within the murky, former sewage holding tanks until, according to rumors, the county health department suggested otherwise. Somehow, or another, the speculator and I struck a verbal deal whereby he would purchase the JOHN HENRY to float in a tank as a featured attraction harmonizing with the nautical theme of the catfish bistro.
 

… we began pioneering the uncertain occupation of recycling “used beverage containers,” (UBC’s), better known simply as, “aluminum cans.” Before we knew what happened, the aluminum can recycling business “grow’d like Topsy,” but the JOHN HENRY suffered for it.

Without a propulsion engine, a way to deliver the JOHN HENRY downstream only materialized when Commander Marve Broman, a retired U.S. Coast Guard inspector-friend and the instructor at a Cincinnati maritime high school, agreed to tow my trawler as a class project. For whatever reasons, the school boat only hauled the JOHN HENRY to a marina within a half-mile, or so, above its final destination and left it there. When I informed the impresario of the catfish escapade the JOHN HENRY lay within easy distance of his proprietorship, he replied that his development budget no longer allowed for the purchase of my classic yacht. But, he noted, I was welcome to moor the wooden boat alongside a small steel barge on the river adjacent to the catfish enterprise. By then, I had no other options than to accept his consolatory offer.

With the help of Steven Murdoch, a friend, and employee at Can-Do Recycling, we wielded a set of oars, used as paddles, to utilize the river’s current to raft the JOHN HENRY downstream from the marina to the steel barge, below. Steve was impressed by how easy it was to control the boat on the river with only the oars to guide us until I reminded him that before men harnessed steam to power riverboats, current and paddles propelled all vessels upon the river. Wind power on the inland rivers was never a vital source of propulsion, mainly because the tall hills bordering the shores made its use unreliable.

We arrived alongside the rusty steel float to find it stripped naked without a single bumper, not even a rubber tire, to protect the JOHN HENRY’s soft wooden hull from abrading against the inflexible metal barge. Scrounging along the riverbank, a hefty tractor tire found among the willows, became a suitable fender protecting the JOHN HENRY’s sensitive skin from the rigid steel on which it lay. With the trawler snugly secured against the protective rubber tire, Steve and I left satisfied that the JOHN HENRY was in good hands until I could return to check on the cozy accommodations where the antique yacht nested against the barge.

Occasionally, a salvaged piece of metal off the HENRY found its way to Bruck’s scrapyard on Holman Street, my nearest competitor, where I saw a brass porthole used as an ornamental piece hanging like a sculpture on the wall…

Returning to the JOHN HENRY, a few days later, I was incensed to discover a gaudy, kitschy, fiberglass cruiser, looking more like a plastic bathtub than a boat, lying alongside my lovely wooden trawler; using the JOHN HENRY for its bumper. The “yachtsman” failed to grasp my serious pleas to untie his garish watercraft and remove it from the side of my vessel until threats, including those of cutting his mooring lines and setting his boat adrift, convinced him of my sincerity. Complaints to the property owners fell upon deaf ears.

The last time I saw the remnants of the JOHN HENRY, was the afternoon I arrived to find a floating crane and a small towboat shoved against the bank next to the steel barge. The barge had some welding done on its bottom while the stout crane lifted one end of the barge out of the water to permit the arc-welding craftsman to apply his trade. Instead of completely untying the JOHN HENRY and moving it out of harm’s way, the workmen simply untied the sternline and allowed the trawler to float free on the headline fastened, yet, to the barge. The lead of the line was long enough that the JOHN HENRY drifted beneath the raised end and beat itself to ruin on the bottom of the barge.

It was futile to consider obtaining restitution for the loss of the JOHN HENRY, so I walked to my pickup truck and never looked back. Occasionally, a salvaged piece of metal off the HENRY found its way to Bruck’s scrapyard on Holman Street, my nearest competitor, where I saw a brass porthole used as an ornamental piece hanging like a sculpture on the wall over, owner, Dave Kohorst’s scrap-buying scale.

Besides, I had a can recycling business to run and the demise of the JOHN HENRY was just another bump in the road; a sacrificial anode essential to the ultimate success of what Peggy and I originated six days after our marriage during the first week of April 1980.

Thirty-eight years later, at this writing, Can-Do, now called, “Can-Dew,” operating under its third ownership, is, according to certain observers, a “flourishing, prosperous enterprise.” Just four short years after its inception, the offbeat eatery atop the riverbank where the JOHN HENRY met its sad fate, failed and turned belly-up like a lifeless, malodorous catfish.

As triumphant as our business venture was, the ruination of the JOHN HENRY was as despairing. The demise of the lovely Great Lakes trawler, resulting from the painful circumstances that contributed to its destruction, was a loss I promised myself would never happen again.

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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