A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Taking a ride on Ms. Lucky Lady, the new Rabbit Hash Ferry — and what an adventure it was

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. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune
Who’d a’ thought a round trip ride on the new Rising Sun – Rabbit Hash Ferry, built and operated by the Rising Star Casino & Resort, was in the cards this past Sunday, the last day of September? I was the last to imagine such an unexpected adventure. But then, my “river rat” buddy, Barb Anderson, innkeeper of the Anderson’s Riviera Inn, situated alongside the Indiana ferry access road, posted on social media that the ferryboat rides that weekend would be, as they say in the casino biz, “comped.” From the river, the resemblance of the Riviera Inn to an antebellum mansion on the Lower Mississippi River is so pronounced, a select few of us call the home and grounds, “Anderson’s Plantation.”
As quickly as I could tear myself away from Facebook, slide into the front seat of my beat up 1995 pickup truck, and drive eight miles to the ferry landing next to Barb’s digs, Old No. 95, sometimes called “Black Beauty,” and I were waiting in line behind several other eager ferryboat-riding wannabee’s.

Taking a round-trip ride on the new Rising Sun-Rabbit Hash Ferry.

The Ohio River was cresting at 43 feet on the Cincinnati gauge, only nine feet below flood stage, as I gazed out the front window at the flotsam, blue plastic drums, and the occasional uprooted tree drifting briskly by the ferry ramp in the moderately-swift current.

Happily, several cars waiting in front of us decided to turn around and relinquish their places in line waiting for the ferry to return from the Rabbit Hash side. Their departures caused me to start my engine and hunch forward another space each time, but their absence made assurances we would likely have a space available on the ferry flat. Once the ferry arrived and the Indiana bound travelers disembarked, the spacious ferry barge had adequate room for almost every car, truck, and motorcycle waiting to cross the river back to Kentucky.
While I waited in line, I was impressed by the quality of the roadway to the ferry landing and imagined the expense that must have gone into the project. Some ten years, or so, ago, I made a formal presentation to the, then, owners of the Rising Sun Casino, Hyatt Gaming, to build such a ferry. Although my plans went to the highest levels in Chicago, the headquarters of the company, the bean counters, there, denied my proposal for whatever reasons they decided. Now, some seven years after I retired once the Licensed Maritime Officer positions no longer were required on the casino boat rosters, someone within the organization had the foresight and the moxie to bring a ferryboat concept to fruition. Whoever that person, or persons, is or are, my cap is off to them. Hopefully, a hefty bonus check or at least free ferryboat rides for the duration of their employment will be in their immediate future.

Ushered into place

At last, the immaculately-clean ferry flat and the towboat mutually named the MS LUCKY LADY, but the tug, itself, bearing the name, MISS RISING SUN, drifted from behind the willows obscuring my view of them from the roadway. The pilot came ahead on the engines, and the ferry shoved onto the concrete ramp with a shrill screech of steel sliding onto cement. The ferryboat had arrived.
With little hesitation, the crewmen on deck lowered the forward barriers on the barge, and the vehicles disembarked in an orderly fashion. I was surprised at how many four and two-wheel conveyances the ferryboat carried. Slowly, it was our turn to board the boat. Old No. 95 and I inched aboard with no difficulty, and after we were ushered into place by a fellow wearing a maroon-colored sports shirt with an embroidered logo identifying him as a crewman, I turned off the engine and stepped out of the truck to survey the situation.
Most everyone, including myself, left their vehicles and either stood by them or walked around the deck inspecting everything. I was one of the latter. With all the joviality among the circulating passengers, the onboard atmosphere was more like an excursion boat rather than a ferry. Anyone wearing a shirt identifying themselves as a member of the crew was immediately sought out and bombarded with questions:
“How soon will it be until the ferry starts running daily?”
“When’s the last trip leave Rabbit Hash tonight?”
“What’s the Captain’s name?”

Captain Jeff Hatfield

While I stood looking up at the empty pilothouse, a fellow wearing a dark blue shirt with the Rising Star logo and the title “Captain” stitched on it, approached on his way to cross over the barge to the towboat. A large pipe painted yellow encircled the outside perimeter of the ferry flat to enclose the vehicles within it for safety. A space of at least three feet outside the barrier and ending at a stout, steel, fence and railing contained several large, plastic bins for the commercial-style life preserves required aboard all passenger-carrying vessels.
As I was standing between the yellow tube and the railing, the Captain admonished:
“The Coast Guard says that no one should be standing outside the yellow line. Please step back inside.”
“Absolutely,” I answered and took a step into what I assumed was the area reserved for the cars, trucks, vans, motorcycles, and other motor vehicles carried on the ferry. That done, I introduced myself:
“I’m Captain Don Sanders. I was the Senior Captain of the GRAND VICTORIA II, your company’s big casino boat, for sixteen years.”
The Captain suddenly smiled, “Oh, yes. Everyone’s always asking me if I know you. I’m Captain Jeff Hatfield.”
Captain Jeff and talked but a moment, and then he excused himself to climb into the pilothouse high above the barge atop several steel stilt-like tubes set vertically onto the deck of the towboat. As I turned away, I saw another crew member wearing a maroon shirt with a decorative company logo but without a job title embellished beneath it. I introduced myself and asked if he was a deckhand. As we shook hands, he said his name was Lennie Sams, and, yes, he was a deckhand and looking forward to his job on the new ferryboat.

Lennie Sams

On the forward end of the barge, a crewman was placing the webbed cable barrier in place after the last motor vehicle was aboard. A tall fellow was helping, but he wore the dark blue shirt of a captain instead of a maroon one like the man he was assisting. Later, I learned his name was Captain Warrington Marsham and, earlier that day, he was “flown in from the Virgin Islands,” as I overheard him tell an eager listener.
(Captain Warrington and I didn’t have a chance to met on Sunday, but when I stopped by the ferry landing the next day for some information for this article, I was surprised to see the MS LUCKY LADY shoving off towards the Kentucky side. This time, the Virgin Isles native was at the controls. I thought about leaving as I figured it would take a longer time than I wanted to wait for the boat to return. In hardly anytime at all, the ferry was heading back with a boatload of vehicles to where I remained. The river’s current was “cooking” as the ferryboat streaked towards the Indiana landing.

“I hope that pilot can steer that slide out of her,” I remarked aloud to myself.    

As the boat and barge came nearer to the ramp without falling downstream below the landing, Captain Warrington came ahead on the engines; skillfully straightened the ferry, and landed as softly as a kitten on a satin pillow.

“That Captain knows his stuff,” I added again to no one other than myself. “He sure makes that ferryboat ‘talk.’”)

The tug, MISS RISING SUN, is connected to the ferry flat by a pivoting mechanism on the bow so that it can swap ends with the unit depending on the direction desired for the ferry. When the stern of the powered boat is against the barge, a deckhand slips the eye of a line connected to the stern of the towboat onto a bollard on the ferry barge to keep the two together and from separating apart at their after ends when the Captain steers the stern of the towboat away from the barge. Shoving against the swift current, the MISS RISING SUN took more time to reach the land at the River Ridge Park than it usually would if the river was lower, but the small towboat had no difficulty stemming the tide with its heavy load.
(Following my Sunday trip, the name on the pilothouse, MISS RISING SUN was repainted to read: MS LUCKY LADY.)

Getting off on the Rabbit Hash side.

About 15 minutes after departing the Indiana shore, the ferry nosed-in at the newly-constructed concrete ramp on the Rabbit Hash side of the river. By then, the comradery on deck was over, and with everyone back in their vehicles, engines started, and the booming voices of the Harleys drowned out the murmurs of the other vehicles as they positioned to be the first ones off the ferry.
At the top of the access road, where it meets the narrow and winding Lower River Road, a sign directs drivers to turn left for Rabbit Hash, when actually, “the Hash” is two miles to the right. The lower road along the river could never handle the additional amount of traffic from the ferryboat as the road is, essentially, a one-lane blacktopped path. But being a native son to the Rabbit Hash vicinity, I turned to the right and wound my way towards the Rabbit Hash General Store for my first visit since the original store burned in early 2016 and was completely rebuilt within one year precisely as it appeared before the fire. Several times along the dangerous, though scenic road, I had to stop and wait for oncoming traffic to pass before I could proceed.

About halfway to the store, I passed through the acreage that once belonged to my parents. Although the land moved out of the hands of my family over 20-years earlier, traversing through those familiar woods alongside both sides of Lower River Road, brought back pleasurable memories of happy days at our trailer-house campgrounds when we gathered there to celebrate summers long-since past.

On the way to Rabbit Hash, passing through acreage that once belonged to the family.

Closer to “downtown” Rabbit Hash, the familiar shape of my last commercial boat command, the imposing GRAND VICTORIA II, a 330-foot paddlewheel casino boat, caught the corner of my eye, but guiding Old No. 95 on the twisting and turning road proved too hazardous to get a good look without stopping; so I continued driving toward the General Store.

Surprisingly to many newcomers, the Rabbit Hash General Store and other remnants of the old river community lies across a creek at the end of Lower River Road. To reach the store, turn left and continue uphill until the road turns into Rabbit Hash Hill Road. At that junction, turn right, and within a few feet, the heart of the Rabbit Hash community lies at the bottom of a slight grade towards the river.

Weekends are always busy days around the Rabbit Hash General Store. As long as the weather is warm and pleasant, the tiny village becomes a Mecca for motorcyclist and their bikes congregating along every parcel of parking space available. But as soon as cold winds blow across the Ohio River, the bikers generally retreat for the season. Inside the store, the cast iron wood-burning stove merrily blazes away and warms the jovial crowd packing the place to hear Bluegrass tunes played by first-rate bands most every Sabbath afternoon.

Arriving in the heart of Rabbit Hash

As I coasted slowly down the modest dip toward the store, making sure to thread my way carefully through the scores of parked motorcycles and pedestrians milling about the newly reconstructed General Store, I was witnessing the Rabbit Hash equivalent of the “Temple of Amusement & Entertainment,” for the first time since before it burned.

Parking in a space nearly out of town, the relatively short walk took me between brightly polished, chrome-encrusted motorcycles and among a crowd generally bedecked in Harley “biker duds” in any color as long as the color was black. Finally, I found myself standing before the most hallowed site for all who truly believe that Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, is indeed the “Center of the Universe,” the Rabbit Hash General Store!

Carefully, I surveyed every detail of the reconstructed building, originally built in 1831, and the only difference I detected was the fresh paint job that set the new edifice apart from the old. Reverently, I solemnly touched the clapboard siding at last.

Pausing before the entrance door, I prepared myself for a dramatic life-changing revelation as I stepped through the wooden portal, but once inside, everything looked and felt the same as the General Store always did other than it was cleaner and brighter in a new coat of white paint. While I stood gawking about the room trying to compare the “now” with the “then,” a familiar voice to my right greeted me. It was Terri Marksberry, the lovely proprietor of the historic structure.

The newly-constructed Rabbit Hash General Store

“This is my first time back here,” I told her. “I came over on the new ferry.”

“Cool. How did you like it?” Terri answered.

“Great! Marvelous! Terrific! Fantastic boat! Motivated crew! An absolute Blessing to both sides of the river!” I gushed as the superlatives describing the ferryboat flew out of my mouth.

Terri added, “You just missed Mikey. He was here playing music, but he just left.”

By “Mikey,” she meant Shantyboat Mike Fletcher, one of the last authentic shantyboat dwellers anywhere on the inland waterways who also plays slap-bass and mandolin in various string bands.

“That’s too bad, but I’ll catch up with him sometime later on the river,” I added.

Soon, other customers eager to pay for their beer and chips and return outdoors to the spectacular autumn weather crowded around the counter where I stood talking to the storekeeper; so I left Terri and went to the rear of the room to discover what selection of exotic root beers the store was stocking. After an indecisive amount of time perusing the see-through glass-doored chill boxes, I settled on “Abita Root Beer,” a sassafras root brew which touted, “Made with Pure Louisiana Cane Sugar,” on the printed label. A bottle of “Premium Fritz Ginger Beer” selected for my bride back home across the river in Indiana, concluded my selection of fine bottled soft drinks.

Terry Marksberry at the General Store

After I paid for the sodas, I bid Ms. Marksberry “toodle-oo” and added, “I better get back to the ferry landing and get in line. It’s gettin’ on towards five and they’re going to shut down at seven.”

I handed Terri a ten. She returned my change, a five and a one, and called as I strode out the door:

“Come back… and don’t be gone so long next time.”

Once more I ran the gauntlet of bikes parked close together along both sides of the road until I passed the twin outhouses on the upper side of the General Store and was home free without getting my tail kicked for scratching someone’s precious motorcycle. At the intersection of Lower River Road and Rabbit Hash Hill Road, I paused momentarily before taking the right-hand fork going up the hill instead of taking my chances on the lower way around. The roadway going up the hill is somewhat broader, but it still needs to be navigated carefully.

At the top of the hill, Rabbit Hash Hill Road converges with two county roads, Numbers 338 and 536. As I was expecting some signage in place directing drivers toward the ferry landing, to my surprise, none was found. By experience, I knew to take 338 to the left, but six-tenths of a mile further down, the road forked again with the option of continuing on 338 or taking KY 18 to the left. Still, no signage. The correct choice was Route 18. And after another nine-tenths of a mile to Lower River Road, a sign should have directed me to the ferry, but didn’t. Had I not spent years driving those back roads, I would have been lost, for sure. I pity the poor souls wandering aimlessly along those lanes until the roads become better marked.

Enjoying the ride back.

A few minutes before 5 pm found me in line for the ferry that was loading as I arrived. Judging by the number of vehicles ahead of me, I knew I would be waiting for the MS LUCKY LADY on her next round trip after returning from Indiana; so I resigned myself to relax and enjoy the respite.

The approach lanes to the Kentucky ramp are sufficiently broad-enough to accommodate more than a boatload of awaiting ferryboat customers. The roads, one coming and one going, are enclosed within a landscaped perimeter of privacy fences and overhanging trees native to the setting before the approach area was carved out of the natural grove. Much to the delight of several waiting for the return of the ferry, was a portable public toilet sitting alongside the fence.

As time slipped by, an occasional car or cycle pulled out of line and left. Apparently, they were not heading home as Old No. 95, and I were. At 5:27 PM, the woman in the car beside to me asked how long I’d been waiting.
“I got here at five,” I answered.
“That’s not too bad,” she commented.
“No, it’s not with all the current in the river, and they are new at this, and all. After the ferryboat crew has a routine, the ferry will be zipping back and forth in no time,” I added.
The lady disclosed she lived in Rising Sun and how delighted she was with the ferryboat operating between the two states. I reminded her that the Florence Mall, various other stores, and two hospitals were as close to her hometown, now, some 15 miles, as was the I-275 Bridge above Lawrenceburg crossing the river with another 17 miles, yet, to the mall. Much of what I told her were various facts garnered years before when I made my ferry proposal to the casino.

A memorable ferry ride

Our conversation abruptly ended with the sudden return of the ferry. As engines restarted, drivers queued to board the MS LUCKY LADY for the trip back to Indiana. This time I stayed inside Old No. 95 and enjoyed the ride. By 5:57 p.m., the ferryboat rubbed against the concrete ramp with a screech, and I waved to deckhand Lennie Sams as I slowly disembarked for the eight-mile drive home.   

Since my adventure on the Rising Sun – Rabbit Hash Ferry, regular operations began on Wednesday the third of October at 11 a.m. From all indications, the ferry will be a success and a boon to residents on both sides of the Ohio River, and not just for the casino.

While I was at the Rabbit Hash General Store, Terri asked me about the grocery store in Rising Sun. I replied that it had new owners who made many changes for the better. I also reminded her that a couple of banks, churches, a new library, a delightful museum, and other services and amenities were now within easy reach as they were years ago when the old ferries were running and 75 percent of the money in the Rising Sun, Indiana banks was from Boone County depositors.

Terri smiled after I informed her of the goods and services the ferry will bring closer to home. I imagined she was mulling all that over in her mind and wondering if she would be giving the ferryboat a try. I reckon she will.

After all, the only way to find out is trying.

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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  1. Cecilia Barry says:

    So enjoy reading your articles Capn. Don. Tom n I worked on the lovely Grand Victoria casino. So glad Rising Sun and Rabbit Hash share this Lucky Lady.
    Best of everything for y’all. Keep the articles coming . We now live in Tennessee and Tom just celebrated his 80th birthday.
    Cath you next trip!

  2. Connie Bays says:

    Excellent story! Very descriptive! I felt like I stowed away for the ride!

  3. martin louden says:

    Do you have any books in print that I can buy.
    My grandfather was the farmer(Flave Louden) on the Dinsmore place in 1917 when my father was born.
    I enjoy reading your stories in NKY Tribune.
    Thank You
    Martin Louden

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