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The River: As the New Year approaches, it’s time for remembrances of the year past — and the stories told


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

As New Year’s 2019 is but a day away, and if my calculations are correct, this is the fifty-sixth River Column I’ve written for the NKy Tribune. Thanks to Editor Judy Clabes for inviting me to share what has been but a fraction of what I’ve seen and done on “Old Man River” since my introduction to the joys and tears of the river by an old riverman, himself, Walter Hoffmeier and his houseboat, the PAL-O-MINE, way back in 1952.

Old riverman, himself, Walter Hoffmeier and his houseboat, the PAL-O-MINE, way back in 1952, with his wife, Lorraine.

Had it not been for this opportunity, these resurrected memories and what paragraphs were cobbled together, for better or worse, would never have happened without this medium to assemble my”stuff” into one place for those interested enough to read them. Although Simon & Schuster has not beseeched me with book offers, nor has the phone been ringing off the hook by reps of the Stephen Colbert or the Jimmy Fallon late night talk shows, I have enjoyed a small and appreciative audience for whom I am grateful for their readership and positive comments.

Besides Walter, I wrote about the summer of 1959 when Captain Arthur J. “Red” Schletker introduced me to the inebriated Chief Steward of the Steamer AVALON who, after promising to hire me, wrote my name on the back of a pack of matches (which he later forgot). Meanwhile, as thousands of cases of canned Burger Beer came aboard the steamboat, and work was underway to stow it within the holds beneath the boilers, a giant of a man interrupted the room as he grandly appeared and grabbed two spoons from a table. With these, he tapped a musical tune against his enormous frame as the crowd of workers stopped their task and cheered. Thus, was I introduced to the legendary, Captain Ernest E. Wagner, who, like Walt Hoffmeier, would have profound influences on which directions my life would take.

With Captain Wagner, my tales followed the Steamer AVALON, the precursor of the nearly 105-year-old BELLE of LOUISVILLE, on the Upper Mississippi, St. Croix, Illinois, and Missouri.

With Captain Wagner, my tales followed the Steamer AVALON, the precursor of the nearly 105-year-old BELLE of LOUISVILLE, on the Upper Mississippi, St. Croix, Illinois, and Missouri. We met Golden Gloves Boxer, Jackie Armstrong, the wiry deckhand with a speech impediment who bragged to the crew he was going to “whip my azz,” but to his shock and pain, I whipped him, instead, to retain a place in the pecking order on the steamboat deck.

We laughed at the young braggart who left the AVALON for better pickings at a South St. Paul stockyard, yet returned to beg back aboard the boat after a week of cleaning cow crap from the bottoms of cattle cars. There was the riot aboard the AVALON when two gangs “rumbled” on the dancefloor and I, who stayed ashore to catch the lines during that trip, called the police. The crew and I watched as German Shepherds, billy clubs, and fire hoses were used against the rioters once authorities drove them off the steamboat and into the streets of St. Paul.

Then there was the filth and stench of Chicago that fouled the river until we could no longer shower in the water where thick blankets of soap suds covered the Illinois after it tumbled over the dams.

Who remembers “Dirty Shirt Harold,” the Night Watchman, punching holes into piles of empty Burger cans between his rounds so they would sink to the bottom of the St. Croix River, one of the country’s first protected waterways? Harold, who had severe problems with his legs, often dreamed of having both his offending limbs removed surgically and replaced by pain-free artificial ones – but he never lived long enough to experience the relief the surgery promised.

Harold came from Pekin, Illinois were the rats on the riverbank below the grain silos were bigger than cats. Jackie and others on the deck refused to go ashore to tie off the lines, so it was up to me to wade among the well-fed rats. Although terrifying to see so close, the fat, slow-moving rodents were more interested in the corn and beans spilling from the metal grain structures than they were combating a half-scared boy running amongst them dragging long ropes.

When the AVALON was playing Guttenberg and Cassville, Iowa on a steamy summer night, and a reveler jumped overboard; it was up to Watchman Harry Ricco and me to fetch him back; which we did just moments before the water intakes almost sucked him into the Cassville powerplant. And after getting the distressed fellow into the bottom of the wooden rescue skiff and alongside the brightly-lit excursion boat, a quart bottle of Wagner Cola, the mixer sold in the concession stand flew out of the darkness and hit me in the shoulder. Had it collided with my head, instead, these words would remain unspoken.

As an 18-year-old lad, I saw for the first time, the Steamer SPRAGUE, the largest steam paddlewheel towboat ever built.

“Them’s my friends,” the ungrateful boy laughed when he saw my pain. But he quickly quit grinning after I stuck the point of a spiked pole next to his jugular.

Summer on the Illinois River as it was in the last year of the 1950s were exciting times. The commercial fish market at Peoria, where tons of river cats and carp were bought and sold, was close to where we docked. Above Joliet, the filth and stench of Chicago fouled the river until we could no longer shower in the water taken from the Illinois where thick blankets of soap suds covered the river after it tumbled over the dams.

Up the thrilling Missouri River, the AVALON continued near the end of my first summer of steamboating. Though the Missouri thrilled me with its wicked currents and wild antics, I learned later that it was more than a challenging waterway for the slow, plodding steamboat. On the next to my last day aboard, a nasty “junkyard” dog, chained to the only tree that offered a place to tie the boat created an uncomfortable situation that caused me to hesitate to enter within the radius of the chain. But, when I looked back at Captain Wagner standing on the wing bridge, he yelled back, “You ain’t gonna let that little dog stop you, are you?” And so, I put my shoulder to the task, waded in, and was soundly dog-bitten before fastening the headline.

We met eighty-two-year-old Robert “Preacher” Lollar for whom, when I was just seventeen, transcribed his correspondence to his wife Rollie Mae, herself a veteran steamboat cook.

The next summer, I quit college for a semester and stayed through the remainder of 1960 and was aboard when the AVALON tied up for the end of the season. Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley returned from the DELTA QUEEN where he had received a Master’s License from the Coast Guard for Unlimited Tonnage and became the alternate skipper of the AVALON with Captain Wagner. The steamboat bypassed the mean Missouri River that year, and after the Illinois was history, the AVALON set its sights on the Lower Mississippi River — clear to New Orleans.

As an 18-year-old lad, I saw for the first time, the Steamer SPRAGUE, the largest steam paddlewheel towboat ever built, where it lay moored as a floating museum on the Yazoo at Vicksburg, Mississippi. At Natchez, the sights and scents of the ancient Cyprus and brick buildings of old Natchez-Under-the-Hill recalled narratives of flatboatmen, painted ladies, nefarious gamblers, and murdered corpses found floating in the eddy, below town, at Deadman’s Bend.

In Baton Rouge, I rode the steam ferry, the CITY of BATON ROUGE, stood near where Governor Huey Long was assassinated and learned the difference between “chicory and pure” coffees.

The AVALON arrived in the New Orleans harbor with such fanfare and whistle salutes from the many steam-powered stevedore cranes which loaded and unloaded the ships along the wharves; our pilot ceased returning their welcomes for fear of “running out of steam.” It was at the Harmony Street Wharf where Captain Wagner entrusted me to stand the night watch while Harold was in the Marine Hospital for his leg problems. That next morning, a group of muscular longshoremen attempted to bully me into letting them have the run of our boat while the crew slept. But, until I thought of the consequences of having to face the wrath of the stern Cap’n Wagner, I nearly let the strongmen have their way.

The lovely, flame-haired maiden called “the Fish,” and I broke two 1941 speed records in our sixteen-foot, wooden Weaver Skiff.

After the AVALON left New Orleans and the Lower Mississippi, I saw Cairo, Illinois, at the juncture of the Ohio River, much as it looked unchanged since the time General U. S. Grant saw the strategic city during the Civil War. Since my first visit, racial strife, a hundred years after Grant’s time, has reduced the town into a moldering ruin.

The Steamboat climbed the Ohio, with stops along the way, until it reached the Great Kanawha River where I fell into the river at St. Albans, WV on a cold autumn day and the mate had me stand in the chilly night air until the boat unloaded its passengers and on its way toward Charleston. After the Kanawha was left behind, the AVALON played its way to Pittsburgh where the 1960 World’s Series was underway. I told of being on an afternoon boat ride when the Pirate’s second baseman, Bill Mazeroski’s “Greatest Homerun Ever” won the series over the Yankees. After the AVALON landed, I was uptown and witnessed the unbridled celebrations in the streets of the city.

Once the rides ceased for 1960 season, the AVALON deadheaded home to Cincinnati for the winter. All the way back, my work was committed to weaving rope bumpers or “possums,” until my hands were raw and sore from the chaffing manila line. The next year, I relented to the pressure of my parents who opposed my choice of the river as my way of life and stayed home to work in a city park where my heart yearned for the steamboat during the last season it was ever to operate as the AVALON. After 1961, the boat was sold and relocated to the largest city in Kentucky where it still runs as the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, almost sixty years later.

We met eighty-two-year-old Robert “Preacher” Lollar for whom, when I was just seventeen, transcribed his correspondence to his wife Rollie Mae, herself a veteran steamboat cook, but who was home in Cincinnati caring for her grandchildren. As a young man, Robert started on the river as a Cabin Boy aboard the steamboats belonging to Captain Tom Ryman of Nashville, Tennessee. Cap’n Ryman who “got religion” after hearing the Rev. Sam Jones speak at a tent revival in 1885, and later built the Union Gospel Tabernacle, now renamed the Ryman Auditorium, shepherded the young negro cabin boy and taught him to remember Bible verses at length. Otherwise, Robert could not read or write except to sign his name with a flourish.

A dingy, crumbling dive on Silver Street in old Natchez-under-the-Hill.

Come every Sunday, Captain Ryman’s steamboat tied up for the Sabbath. If his boats were at a town, the passengers and crew went ashore to find the nearest church of their choice, but if they were “in the bushes,” Ryman conducted services in the dining area set aside for the whites while Robert held services for the blacks on the bow. After a time, Robert was called “Preacher,” a name he proudly wore to the end of his long days. Preacher also possessed a secret musical talent he revealed most interestingly and peculiarly one day aboard the AVALON. The Lollar story, after appearing in the Tribune on 28 March 2018, was edited and later appeared in the September 2018 S&D REFLECTOR, the most authoritative steamboat magazine published, today.

On the 2nd of September 2018, I recalled the “Great Skiff Race” on the Kanawha River and how the lovely, flame-haired maiden called “the Fish,” and I broke two 1941 speed records in our sixteen-foot, wooden, Weaver Skiff, the FLYIN’ FISH. But we’d forgotten to carry a light with us, never expecting to be on the river after dark. And when challenged by a boat belonging to the U. S. Coast Guard Reserves, they threatened to ram us when I refused to stop so close to the finish line of the downbound segment of the five-mile trip.

“Flick your Bic,” I commanded the Fish after the weekend warriors screamed through their electric bullhorn, “STOP YOUR BOAT OR WE’LL RAM YOU!” We didn’t stop, and they escorted us to the finish line where, when Fish checked her watch, we beat the 1941 speed record by two minutes!

I discussed at least two murders. One occurred in the Crew’s mess of the DELTA QUEEN over a crap game dispute, and the other happened due to a misunderstanding about a quarter a girl requested to play the jukebox in a dingy, crumbling dive on Silver Street in old Natchez-under-the-Hill. Where, as I described, “ the perfume of old cypress and the pungent aromas of sour beer, sweat, and the accumulated grunge of two centuries often assailed the unwary in sudden cold blasts in harsh contrast to the heat of Mississippi Delta afternoons.”

Nor, have I discussed the DELTA QUEEN at any length.

Perhaps, I will get around to retelling the minute details revealed to me by an old steamboatman when he deliberately and methodically murdered a rebellious rouster who had challenged the authority of the storyteller on a dark, moonless night somewhere on the Lower Mississippi, so long ago.

Nor, have I discussed the DELTA QUEEN at any length. But, if I do, I will have to find a way to copy the 1970, ‘71, and ‘72 Log Books of the QUEEN at the Pott’s Library in St. Louis to get the dates and times is a sequential order as too many DELTA QUEEN buffs are out there demanding an accurate and authentic accounting.

My first full command, aboard the sternwheel excursion boat, the P. A. DENNY, is yet to be deliberated. Then, there are more tales about Captain John Beatty and our trips together on his CLARE E. BEATTY and the BEN FRANKLIN. And what about the five casino boat I commanded — and which one did John Hartford pilot while I watched him as he steered the straightest course that gam’lin’ boat ever tracked?

And I’ve said but little about my beautiful paddlewheeler, the Rafter CLYDE., the most authentic small sternwheeler anywhere on the river. But as an old friend somewhere on the river was fond of saying, “Let’s see what happens.” I will extend that to include: ”Let’s see what happened in the coming new year.”

HAPPY NEW YEAR! 2019!

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.

And I’ve said but little about my beautiful paddlewheeler, the Rafter CLYDE., the most authentic small sternwheeler anywhere on the river.

Click here to read all of Capt. Don Sanders’ stories of The River.


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5 Comments

  1. David Wilson says:

    Love the river stories by capt Don Sanders

  2. Ronald Sutton says:

    Please keep Capt. Don’s Stories coming. A Rare Combination of Good, Authentic, Knowledgeable Writing, combined with Inside Knowledge and Experience. Too often River and sea stories written by those wearing Rose Coloured Glasses.

  3. Betsy Ross says:

    Love the river stories

  4. Kim Applegate says:

    Please keep these stories coming . Love them

  5. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    History.a wee touch of the romance of the river and good hard work,all the parts that drew Don to the river and draws us to his stories. Please keep him telling great tales n teaching great things.

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