A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: The story starts in 1991 as Vanna White cuts the ribbon opening casino boat gambling. . .


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

April Fool’s Day 1991. Aboard the DIAMOND LADY on the Upper Mississippi River at Bettendorf, Iowa, the letter-turning, game show hostess Vanna White cut the ribbon opening casino boat gambling as I watched the ceremonies on “Good Morning America” at my aluminum can recycling center in Covington.

Recently the metals business had just sold, and my family and I were but days from moving to Natchez, Mississippi. There, I was hoping to find a job as a licensed mate or captain aboard the GOLDEN LADY, a larger version of the DIAMOND LADY built especially for the antebellum city nestled atop the loess bluffs along the Lower Mississippi River.

The DIAMOND LADY on the Upper Mississippi River at Bettendorf, Iowa.

But not long after we settled into the Natchez community, the state politicians interpreted the gambling laws to mean the boats would not have to cruise because the legislation did not specify the riverboats had to sail; so I was stranded in the poor, but a picturesque city with no job and a family to support.
 
Still, the Bettendorf-based company, Steamboat Casino Cruises, intended to open a Natchez operation aboard a fake paddlewheeler, and they began advertising for different positions within the impending enterprise. No matter what job the casino solicited in the Natchez Democrat, I promptly responded with a resume: Sous Chef, Surveillance Director, or Internal Auditor – it did not matter. My reply was always the first in Steamboat’s mailbox.

Eventually, Tim, the Iowa representative in Natchez, apparently tiring of receiving abstracts of talents I never possessed, suggested I contact the Human Resources Department in the Quad Cities and see if their two operating sternwheelers, the DIAMOND LADY (DL) and EMERALD LADY (EL) had any openings.
 
My recent job searches in the maritime industry reached dead-ends. Whenever asked what I had been doing for the past eleven years, I replied I was off the river and in the metals recycling business. My telephone interview with the HR Director seemed to be going into another blank corner when he said there no openings available at the time. I refused to give up and told him that I noticed he seemed interested in what I had been doing since my last boat job. I knew that the owner of Steamboat Casino Cruises was Mr. Bernard “Bernie” Goldstein who also headed Alter Trading Company, the largest scrap recycling company in the midwest.
 
“Yes,” I heard the voice from Iowa reply, “I was with Bernie in the scrap business for several years. Tell ya what – send me two resumes – one for the boats and one for recycling.”  

The letter-turning, game show hostess Vanna White cut the ribbon opening casino boat gambling as I watched the ceremonies on “Good Morning America.”

Within the week, the phone rang, and the voice speaking in a deep-Southern accent identified himself as Captain Ken Murphy calling from the DIAMOND LADY.
 
“Say, ole boy,” Captain Murphy began, “I see you worked on the DELTA QUEEN. Did you know Captain Howard Tate?”
 
Answering to the affirmative that I spent many hours on watch with Cap’n Tate, my caller replied:
 
“Tate was my second captain when I first started on the river. When can you be up here?”
 
So, I was hired as a mate on the Bettendorf boat while my family stayed in Southwestern Mississippi. My first glimpse of the DIAMOND LADY was looking straight down from the window of the commuter flight as we flew over the casino boat while approaching the local airstrip. I would have recognized the LADY anywhere. The folks in those four neighboring cities, Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois take collective pride in being lumped into one communal pigeonhole, the “Quad Cities.”
 
Once aboard the $10 Million DIAMOND LADY, I found a unique atmosphere about the riverboat that reminded me of the DELTA QUEEN which send warm and fuzzy goosebumps the length of my spine bone. A boat, like many other things, either has it, or it doesn’t. Someone called that elusive property the “right stuff.” Both the QUEEN and the LADY had it.

The voice speaking in a deep-Southern accent identified himself as Captain Ken Murphy calling from the DIAMOND LADY.

For much of my first hitch of about a month, I bunked in one of the two living quarters below-decks. There was plenty to eat as the entire Second Deck was reserved for dining only, no gambling, as specified in the rules for casino boats as stipulated by the Iowa legislature. To make gambling legal within the state, the politicians and the casino owners, mainly local business leaders, had to make “gaming” as non-descript and syrupy-sweet as possible for the voters to approve what had been a felony within the State of Iowa. The big gambling outfits from Vegas and Jersey were yet to take over.

The Iowa boats had a “two-hundred-dollar loss limit” whereby a patron had to purchase that amount in “script” to exchange for slot tokens and table games chips to play instead of using their cash, directly. And the boats had to cruise unless extenuating events such as weather conditions or mechanical problems prevented them from going off the dock. The DIAMOND LADY was a hard-charging cruiser as the pilothouse staff took pride in going as far as time allowed each voyage. Quite often that meant running the paddlewheel and both propeller engines at full blast to return to the ticket barge on time. If late, the company could expect a hefty fine by the state gaming board, and no one wanted to be responsible for the boat getting penalized.
 
Captain Murphy was the Senior Captain in charge of the boat and all the crew. Ken, a “good ole boy” from Arkansas, was a master boat-handler, and his slow, thick, southern drawl and genial manner belied the authentic leadership he possessed. Cap’n Ken was one of those rare administrators who created an atmosphere in which those within its sphere did their absolute best so as not to disappoint him. His influence went beyond the pilothouse and the marine crew as witnessed wherever Captain Murphy went within the province of the riverboat. When Mr. Goldstein wanted the best man he could find to command his fledgling casino vessel, he had only to look no further than his own Alter Barge Line where Murph was the skipper of one of Bernie’s newest and most potent towboats. In turn, Captain Murphy gathered the best boatmen he could find to assist him.

Bernard “Bernie” Goldstein who also headed Alter Trading Company, the largest scrap recycling company in the midwest.

Captain Brent Willits, Pilot and Captain, and Bobby Duncan, Chief Mate, would eventually go to the highest levels within the gaming industry, and both ultimately commanded the palatial steamboat, the AMERICAN QUEEN. Although Cap’n Brent has since returned to the towing industry, Cap’n Bobby still commands the AQ with Captain Kris Kelso as his First Mate. Kelso was brought to the DIAMOND LADY by Captain Murphy. A young DL deckhand, John H. Vize, is now a licensed Master on both steam & motor vessels, and he, too, served a spell as the Captain of the AMERICAN QUEEN and currently operates a powerful towboat shoving barges wherever they need to go anywhere on the Mississippi River System.
 
After I was comfortable with the 201-foot sternwheeler with two propellers beneath the hull, Captain Murphy and others within the pilothouse staff soon broke me in on “handling,” not “driving,” the casino boat. After I had been on board for only a month, Captains Brent and Bobby left for another gambling den opening further up the Mississippi River, and with their leave, I took Captain Duncan’s place as Chief Mate with a modest increase in salary. Then, within a short time of their departure, Captain Murphy took leave for health reasons, and I became his relief on the DIAMOND LADY during his absence.
 
At LeClaire, Iowa, a small town just over ten miles upstream from Bettendorf, the lovely passenger boat, TWILIGHT, owned and operated by Captain Dennis Trone, whom I knew even before he ran the steam-powered JULIA BELLE SWAIN in Peoria on the Illinois River. In 1971, when the JULIA BELLE was new, the DELTA QUEEN was in town to race Captain Trone ’s sleek, new sternwheeler, but because of a mechanical malfunction, and as hard as he and his engineers tried, Cap’n Dennis could not get his steamboat to run. With a boatload of excursionists aboard who paid dearly for the experience, the QUEEN went and “raced” as though the JULIA was alongside. Also aboard the DELTA QUEEN was the “banj’er-pickin’” Bluegrass musician and river aficionado, John Hartford, who was at his peak of fame following hard on the success of his hit tune, “Gentle on My Mind.” John and I had met on the DELTA QUEEN a year before and became instant friends.

Capt. Dennis Trone

After “the race that wasn’t,” I asked John if he would like to meet Captain Trone; so we walked over to the JULIA BELLE SWAIN where we rousted Captain Trone from where he was napping on a pile of life-jackets. I introduced them and changed steamboat history in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century.
 
While I was Captain of the DIAMOND LADY, John Hartford sent word that he was on the TWILIGHT and he would like to come down to visit. Communications were far more difficult in those days, but John and I eventually arranged a time to meet aboard my boat. We met on the LUCKY SEVEN, the LADY’s ticket barge, and went directly to the pilothouse where, once the sternwheeler left the dock, John steered. As he was used to hand-steering a boat with a large wooden wheel, he learned not to waste a smidgen of a hard-earned rudder. John Hartford surely navigated the straightest course anyone ever steered on the DIAMOND LADY.

(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.

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

The GOLDEN LADY

John Hartford surely navigated the straightest course anyone ever steered on the DIAMOND LADY.

Captain Brent Willits, Pilot and Captain, and Bobby Duncan, Chief Mate, would eventually go to the highest levels within the gaming industry.


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One Comment

  1. Cori Reade-Hale says:

    Another fine story bringing people and boats to life. I can’t wait for “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say.

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