A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Continuing the River Hop, with great crew of BB’s BELLE OF CINCINNATI and still having fun

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

The BELLE of CINCINNATI was quiet except for the distant rumble of a generator toward the stern, inside the engineroom, a deck below. I was pleased to be up and dressed and off the hard steel deck; so I walked through the heavy fire-resistant forward door and onto the bow where the streaming early-morning sunlight in the brisk river air was a welcome relief after the gloom of the previous day. Above the landing, the city of Louisville was awake and humming with the sounds of morning commuters and commerce flowing along the labyrinth of highways where once a cobblestone wharf welcomed steamboats to the city built at the Falls of the Ohio River. Eventually, I drifted up to the second deck to find a cup of strong steamboat joe.

Above the landing, the city of Louisville was awake and humming with the sounds of morning commuters and commerce flowing along the labyrinth of highways.

Several crew members had beaten me to the coffee pot. Chief Chris Wirtjes and Scotty, the Oiler and assistant to the Chief Engineer, already had a hot “cuppa joe” and invited me to grab one. Captain Terri Bernstein was scurrying about with Christina Soto, BB’s Director of Boat Operations, getting things ready for the noon-time return of the passengers from an overnight stay at the Belterra Casino Hotel, across the river from Warsaw, Kentucky where they went ashore the previous night. Steve Coleman, the Director of Operations for the excursion boat company, was sweeping the carpet at the far end of the banquet room while Alex Schuchter was busily setting up the buffet table.

This varied group was no regular crew, but some of the best personnel BB could assemble. Only the addition of my long-time friends and BB employees, Charlotte R. Manriz and Missy Landers Schweickart could have made the trip more fun, I imagined.        

Captains Kerry Snowden and Sam Sengsouvanh soon joined us, and as we sipped our coffee, in walked Captain John Boyle, the Chief Operating Officer of the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, the former Steamer AVALON, the first steamboat I worked on as a 17-year-old deckhand. Cap’n John and I served together on the GRAND VICTORIA II casino boat at Rising Sun for a short, but fun time. Captain Boyle’s philosophy about being a successful boat crewmember is, as he expressed:

“Do your job well, show initiative, and have fun doing it.”

Captain John Boyle, the Chief Operating Officer of the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, the former Steamer AVALON, the first steamboat I worked on as a 17-year-old deckhand.

It’s no wonder John and I had such a great time on the GRAND VIC as we both possess similar notions about how to run an effective riverboat crew. Or, as the late Captain Ken Murphy, the “father of casino boat crews,” liked to say,

“When it’s no longer fun, it’s time to get off the boat.”

Captain Sam, a young, but talented pilot of just thirty years of age, was especially pleased to see Cap’n Boyle who had been Sam’s boss and mentor on the AMERICAN QUEEN. In the passenger boat business, as in many other occupations, a youngster who shows initiative, a positive attitude, and a willingness to work and learn, soon catches the attention of an older and more experienced person. In the best of circumstances, the elder helps the younger learn and advance in the direction someone probably helped them when they were just starting out.

The Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory

In my case as a greenhorn rookie eons ago, I was fortunate that several rivermen saw some worth in me and helped me along… especially, Walter Hoffmeier, Ernie Wagner, Red Schletker, Harry Louden, Bill Davis and others. When I had the opportunity to assist some novice boatmen and boatwomen, I gladly became the educator and helped several newcomers achieve their maritime goals. Various of my charges became licensed marine officers or advanced the licenses they already had, and others could have gone far in the nautical world had they not ventured into other realms away from the water.

When it came time for Captain Boyle to depart for the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, moored aways downriver, Cap’n Sam and several others of us escorted him downstairs to the Main Deck. Because the Swinging Stage was swung outboard to limit access aboard the boat while moored at the city front awaiting the arrival of our guests, Cap’n John had to gingerly climb down the mooring line the high distance from our steel deck onto the cement edging running along the river’s edge alongside the Louisville landing. Once John was ashore, Sam followed him. I was content not to have to be scaling the vertical distance to the dock that, in my younger days, would have been fun to do. But had I needed to follow my friends off the boat, I would have begged for a ladder.

Back up-top, Terri and her busy crew were hard at getting the dining room ready for the returning passengers who were uptown soaking in the local atmosphere at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory during a two-hour shore stop before rejoining the BELLE of CINCY around noon. Of course, the guests were well aware of one of the Falls City’s most cherished institutions, the annual “Running for the Roses,” the Kentucky Derby, the longest running sporting event in American history, held each May at nearby Churchill Downs.

The USS NIGHTMARE is a Halloween-style fright boat where professional actors scare the bejeezus out of those brave enough to step aboard.

When I returned to the second deck for that second cup of coffee, the center tables were readied for an afternoon crafts session where participants could make themselves a garish “Derby Hat” reminiscent of those traditionally worn by the lady attendees of the celebrated horse race. A variety of hobby horse heads mounted on wooden sticks hung from the overhead for the 4:30 pm games featuring “horse racing,” according to the schedule laid out for the day’s activities. My second “lecture” was listed for three p.m.

With less than an hour before the buses would arrive with Nancy leading her charges back aboard, the small productive crew was, in the parlance of old-time sidewheel steamboatmen I remembered saying, “Coming ahead full on both wheels.” 

As Cap’n Terri trundled a cartload of ice off the elevator, Christina readied the bar while Steve organized the buffet line making sure it was ready when Alex carried the hot food off the dumbwaiter from Chef Jesus Picazo’s kitchen two decks below. Still, there was a stack of cutlery, a knife and two forks, each, to be folded inside golden cloth napkins and placed in rows of five sets each, one atop the other. Once finished, Alex picked up the entire stack and put it alongside the plates on the serving table.

“You got something for me to do?” I asked Captain Terri.

“Naw,” just relax,” she answered.

“But, I don’t know how to relax,” I replied.

Aboard a boat, I am a worker – not an observer. Consequently, I genuinely believe I would make a terrible passenger if I just had to sit around and watch others hard at their riverboat chores without lending a hand.

Terri did reveal that it was her grandmother, Mrs. Shirley Bernstein, the widow of Ben Bernstein, the late patriarch of the family clan, who taught her much of what she knew.

I did, though, get to talk to Terri about the Bernstein family’s ability to work together for three generations in the excursion boat business. She explained that it wasn’t always as easy as it seemed on the surface. As in any family, she elaborated, there are differences of opinions, but, somehow, as a group, they made it this far.

At one time the Bernstein empire spread over a considerable realm with enterprises besides the riverboat business to include several restaurants with names like Crocket’s, Benjamin’s, Mike Fink’s, Covington Landing, and even a Tugboat Annie’s in distant Jeffersonville, Indiana. When I asked her how they controlled such a far-flung operation, she confided:

“It was tough – so that’s why we’ve consolidated and stay focused on our two excursion boats, the BELLE and the RIVER QUEEN… and there’s also the NIGHTMARE.”

The USS NIGHTMARE is a Halloween-style fright boat where professional actors scare the bejeezus out of those brave enough to step aboard the former Missouri River dredge, the WILLIAM S. MITCHELL. The MITCHELL was a pristine government boat hard at work on the Missouri when, as a lad during the summer of 1959, I saw her from the deck of the Steamer AVALON. After the MITCHELL retired and was set to become a floating museum in Kansas City, it broke away from its moorings and smashed into several bridges. The damage to the dredge was so severe the museum idea was dropped, and the MITCHELL was slated for the scrapyard until BB Riverboats bought it and brought it around to the Cincinnati harbor to replace a much smaller retired government boat, the U. S. WAKEROBIN. Visitors had been getting terrorized on the smaller spook- boat for five Halloween seasons before the twice-as-large WILLIAM S. MITCHELL replaced it.

Alex was standing next to the spring line after finding a finding a dark-colored line made of some type of plastic-like strands to replace the one broken leaving the Louisville city front.

All the while Captain Terri and I were chatting; she never missed a lick of work. Each eating utensil was carefully inspected and wiped with a clean cloth before folding it into a cloth napkin. And though we were busy talking, I imagined she was thinking about what else needed doing before the busses pulled-up, outside on the levee. Terri did reveal that it was her grandmother, Mrs. Shirley Bernstein, the widow of Ben Bernstein, the late patriarch of the family clan, who taught her much of what she knew about customer service and how to successfully run a business.

The mention of the senior Mrs. Bernstein reminded me of the time at the MIKE FINK when she gave me an insider’s management tip saying,

“The secret to a running a successful restaurant is the bread!”

And then she went on to tell me the reasons why only the best of bread was so important, and what brand she made sure was served aboard the FINK. Over the years, I’ve often considered Mrs. Bernstein’s words of wisdom when assessing the quality of an eatery based upon the bread placed before me.   

“They’re here…. The busses are here,” someone shouted as several members of the small crew scrambled to the bow to welcome the bus-weary and hungry passengers back aboard. At the buffet line, hot food was ready and waiting.

As soon as all were on the boat, the stage was raised and swing amidships. Once the movable walkway was secured, Alex stood by the forward spring line as Captain Kerry backed against the inch-and-a-half diameter line to lift the stern away from the shore. With just a two-part lead from the paddlewheeler’s starboard cavel to the shore tie, the line screamed as the full weight of the BELLE strained against it until two of the three strands of synthetic rope exploded like gunshots and broke. Alex and Chief Chris were standing well out of the way. As soon as the line popped, the captain stopped the engines while the wounded rope was pulled aboard.

“All Gone!” Alex yelled over the radio to the pilothouse.

Later, I asked Alex to take the broken line to the third deck where I could splice a new eye into it as a feature of my afternoon talk scheduled for three o’clock. After yesterday’s bum attempt at lecturing, knots, rope tricks, and splicing a small line saved the day, but should I have another bad experience, splicing a large lock line could be my salvation.

Once free of the mooring, the boat turned about and headed downstream toward the Louisville & Portland Canal that bypassed the Falls of the Ohio River and led to the McAlpine Lock and Dam. As the BELLE of CINCINNATI eased by the BELLE of LOUISVILLE  laid-up alongside the Louisville Riverwalk for the end of her 2018 steamboating season, someone waved from behind the glass of a closed window on the Main Deck in front of the engineroom of the century-old steamboat veteran. Ahead of us, the open span of the Fourteenth Street Bridge, or Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge, loomed high over the canal as we passed easily beneath the truss drawbridge, the only such bridge on the entire length of the Ohio River.
 

Alex was standing next to the spring line after finding a finding a dark-colored line made of some type of plastic-like strands to replace the one broken leaving the Louisville city front.

Instead of watching the lockage from one of the decks above, I chose to observe from the main deck near where Alex was standing next to the spring line after finding a finding a dark-colored line made of some type of plastic-like strands to replace the one broken leaving the Louisville city front. I noticed that Alex had a four-part lead from the boat to the floating pin within the recession of the lockwall instead of a two-part lead that broke earlier. And I also noticed that a rope bumper, a piece of deck equipment normally present when a boat is locking-through was absent. Although the captain gently brought the BELLE into the lock, just the slightest contact between bare steel and unyielding concrete can get a boat ringing like a bell when the two stubborn surfaces meet. A rope bumper, or fender, we riverboaters call a “possum,” takes the brunt of the contact between a boat and a cement wall and cushions the blow so well that hardly a soul notices the boat is against the lockwall.

After McAlpine Lock was well behind us, I was in the pilothouse and mentioned the absence of possum-bumpers to Captain Snowden, who, of course, was aware and replied that he was looking for someone knowledgeable in the art who could make a few for the deck. Though I “birthed” many a possum in my day, I kept that knowledge from the skipper, but I did let slip the name of a man we both knew who would gladly be of service if asked. On the opposite end of the ‘lazy bench,” Bayou Bob was listening to every word. Now and then, Bob asked a question or added a remark based on something said in his midst. Bob had a clever way of phrasing his observations, and I enjoyed his participation in the pilothouse patter.

Before two-thirty arrived, I was in the comfortable Level Three entertainment room setting up my computer and getting PowerPoint programmed for my three pm “lecture.” The “Great Flood of 1937” was the topic Captain Terri requested some weeks before as one she wanted me to present aboard the BELLE of CINCINNATI. This time I was determined to make a decent showing of the presentation I had spent so much time researching, collecting, writing, and editing into nearly a 3000-word text with f41pictures to illustrate my talk.

Carefully, I booted PowerPoint and checked and rechecked to make sure the previous program’s problems did not replicate themselves. Nearby, lay the busted length of rope line in case I needed a visual distraction away from my “lecture.”  

By the appointed hour, many of the chairs before me were filled and many familiar faces from the day before were in attendance. Besides my usual River Rat buddies, Samone and Andrea Melson were back. Andrea, you may remember, was the lady from the audience who got PowerPoint going for my slideshow the day before. This time, the PowerPoint slide presentation obediently follow my cues as I anchored myself firmly where I could deliver each word without the microphone that added to the chaos a day earlier. In all, the talk was a success, and I received several warm compliments:

“So sweet… until your talk,” one lady revealed, “I never realized the 1937 Flood lasted so long.”

The BELLE of CINCINNATI eased by the BELLE of LOUISVILLE  laid-up alongside the Louisville Riverwalk for the end of her 2018 steamboating season.

After fielding all the questions and comments from the audience, I pulled the heavy lock line with the busted eye onto the middle of the deck close to where everyone could follow a demonstration of how to short-splice an eye into a length of three-part rope line. I was hoping Alex could have observed my presentation of the mariner’s art, but as I found out later, he had bigger fish to fry… he was steering the BELLE for the Captain. I vowed to show Alex how to splice line and tie some basic knots, he may not already know, the next time he’s aboard the CLYDE.

After my showtime ended, down below, Terri, Nancy, Steve, and Christina were hosting “Happy Hour with “‘apps’ and drink specials.” By four-thirty, it was “Games – Horse Racing” with the stick ponies. I imagine the Derby Hats made earlier in the day, were entirely in fashion. But, by then, my seat in the pilothouse was reclaimed, where I watched a darkening sky add to the gloom of a beckoning night upon an unfriendly river.

I stayed in the “knowledge box” with Captain Kerry until Cap’n Sam arrived to relieve him for the night. As the two pilots exchanged information about all the things pilots usually share at watch change, I thanked them for allowing me into their territory, excused myself and ambled in the lively, misty river atmosphere until I found the door to the dining area. Once there, I filled my plate with a feast of prime rib, mashed-taters, and all the trimmings before joining my RiverRat buddies at their table. By the time I was eying a hunk of pecan pie, Nancy was announcing the BELLE was landing at Leavenworth, Indiana, a tiny berg where boats usually don’t stop unless it’s necessary.

Years before, the DELTA QUEEN made an unexpected stop at Leavenworth to put a cabin boy off into an awaiting ambulance. He was suffering from appendicitis, most likely, and refused to get into the old-style, body-shaped “Stokes Basket” for the short carry from the bow to the meat wagon. On the QUEEN, the chicken wire litter was better known as the “dead basket.” The sinister appliance had an aura of finality about it, as its use aboard the steamboat generally was limited as a means of transporting deceased elderly passengers ashore after a heart attack, stroke, or being found sleeping in death when the maid came in the morning to clean and make the room.

By four-thirty, it was “Games – Horse Racing” with the stick ponies.

Knowing the macabre reputation of the basket, the boy, though doubled-over in misery, refused to take what he believed would be his final departure from the DELTA QUEEN. Instead, while he suffered in pain, a dining chair was retrieved from the Orleans Room, and the fellow sat upon it and rode ashore seated like a king upon his throne as two stout deckhands carried him across the stage. Less than two weeks later, the boy returned to the boat grinning like the Cheshire Cat. He knew, and so did the ones of us observing his triumphant homecoming from the edge of the grave, that had he ridden the “dead basket,” he would have never returned to the DELTA QUEEN after narrowly winning a crap-shoot with the Grim Reaper.

Of all the times I passed Leavenworth on the river, I only landed there twice.

By the time I found myself on the bow, the BELLE of CINCINNATI was shoved into the trees trying to nose into the concrete ramp at the Leavenworth landing. I heard someone say there was a “steel wall” between the boat and the shore and we couldn’t get closer because of it. The BELLE’s landing stage only reached halfway to the riverbank that was awash in the bright glow of the boat’s searchlight. Though the air was not especially cold, it was more than cool in the misty drizzle wafting from unseen clouds above. The crowd of mostly older passengers crowding the railing was impatient to get off the BELLE, out of the mist, and into the warm busses a short distance ashore.

“What’s the holdup? What can’t we get off?” I heard someone ask.

Captain Bernstein was in the middle of the working deck on the forward side of the hand-railing. Around her were her most-trusted aids trying to figure out the best way to get the people off the boat, but there was no way the gangplank could stretch any closer to land. Someone from town driving a four-wheel quad car was trying to assist from his side of the situation when the boat backed away from in front of the concrete ramp and shoved in close to the high ground to the left of where the nose of the BELLE had been.

Now the stage was close-enough to reach the shore, but it needed the help of an aluminum walkway and a strange looking, massive wooden platform made especially for a situation like we were experiencing. Terri directed the crew to place the platform on the ground under the head of the stage. The aluminum walk soon bridged the gap from the wood structure to the not-so-dry ground.

I helped with what little I could.

“Perhaps,” I thought, “this cleverly jury-rigged concoction that allows safe passage from the boat to the shore belongs in the annals of engineering marvels.”

Slowly and surely, everyone going ashore was carefully assisted over the formidable passageway regardless of their age or physical condition. Not one of those disembarking fell or was injured in any way; although a few may have felt inconvenienced for the delay.

After all were safely ashore and inside the warm busses bound for a motel in Corydon, Indiana, retrieving the wooden cubicle and heavy aluminum walkway proved to be another challenge. But with the muscle of both Steve and Cap’n Sam who came down from the pilothouse while Captain Kerry watched the controls, all the gear was ultimately extricated from the unrelenting mud and brought aboard to be used again at another time and place.

All this time I helped with what little I could: such as assisting the passengers while they awaited their turns on the walkway in the misty rain, and there were broken tree branches and large Sycamore leaves that needed removal from the deck. In my younger days, I would have been in the thick of the worst of the situation, but time changed that. I also understood that I could have been inside out of the wet; watching from the lazy bench in the pilothouse,or even sitting at one of the cloth-covered tables on the cozy second deck with another piece of pecan pie, but I’d rather been on the bow in the damp and cold with this hard-driving crew. Though I wasn’t expected to be there with them, that’s where I chose to be.

Once all was stowed and secure on the bow, I went directly to my inflatable rack on the hard steel deck, got out of my wet clothes, changed into sweats, and slid between the folds of the warm sleeping bag.  

(To be continued.)

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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11 Comments

  1. Jim Karnath says:

    These are great stories from Don. Keep them coming!

  2. Cori Reade-Hale says:

    Another fantastic”ratastic”day documented. The details so great.I could feel your enthusiasm Capt Don and the enjoyment of your audience (not just the “rats”). I heard the shot as the line let go. I could feel the chill & mist as well as your dedication to passengers even though now partially one of them. I can’t wait for the rest of your adventure.

  3. Brenda Clifton says:

    I love your river stories and look forward to each new one.

  4. Rebecca McCreery says:

    I so enjoy reading your stories!

  5. Ron Sutton says:

    Great Narrative; including the inner workings of Passenger Care and Feeding, which I had avoided my entire life. Interested to note Alex working both in Dining Room and on Deck.

  6. Damned good stuff. Bernsteins do a helluva job. And Cuz-you surely bring back loads of fond memories of my Dad and the river.

  7. Christopher Wirtjes says:

    Excellent stories and pleased to be a small part of them. Thanks for the mention Captain!

  8. Marshall Hacker says:

    Love Don Sanders’ stories from his lifetime on the river. It’s a foreign world to me, but he opens it up like a book. Have to admit, he shows just enough of the manual labor and quickness needed for work on a riverboat to convince it’s a good thing i never even thought of applying for such a job. If I didn’t fall overboard, somebody would probably have thrown me over.

  9. John Fryant says:

    Great part two article. I’d love to make that trip sometime, but like you, I’m getting older – in Jan. 2019 I’ll turn 81. Doesn’t seem possible but its true.

  10. Another eloquent chronicle of our wonderful River Hop. We work hard but the smiles on the passengers faces make it all worth it. Thanks Cap. Can’t wait for next week’s edition!

  11. Mike says:

    Great story, keep it up.

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