A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: From a young boy terrified of the river to a grown-up who can’t stay away from it


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

Two rivers bless Covington along its borders – the Ohio and the Licking. Of all the streams I have been on, and that’s a few, the Licking is not only my favorite, but it is also my most beloved. The “Lick” has been a natural place for generations of local boys (and possibly some girls, too) to play along its ancient shores and swim in its venerated waters.

A young Daniel Carter Beard’s boyhood adventures on the Licking undoubtedly inspired “Uncle Dan” when he founded the “Sons of Daniel Boone” in 1905, which he later merged into the Boy Scouts of America in 1910.

Two rivers bless Covington along its borders – the Ohio and the Licking.

Another Covington boy, Robert F. Schulkers wrote a series of some eleven books about “Sekatary Hawkins and the Fair and Square Club,” that thrilled and influenced the play of millions of kids based on Schulker’s boyhood escapades on the two rivers bordering our hometown. Likely, I had similar exploits as Dan Beard and Schulker’s “Sek,” but I read none of their books as a youngster; so their writings never swayed me; instead, I naturally gravitated to our communal rivers as they, and countless unnamed boys, did before me.

But as a young boy, the river terrified me! Especially along that gray, forbidding Ohio River shore just over the riverbank from the Covington Incinerator, at the foot of Main Street, where the city trash burned within the stone and concrete enclosure beneath a lone, brick building with a single, tall brick smokestack that belched clouds of dark smoke against the sky. Inside the brick building, a drive-on scale weighed the garbage trucks and a small, skinny man entered the figures into a narrow ledger book. His name was Walter Questa, my grandparent’s most loyal and trusted friend who boarded at their home like another member of the family.

The Incinerator, because of its remote location, was a gathering place where the employees of various departments of the city met and hung out when they were in the neighborhood. Someone might find policemen, public workers, and an occasional representative of the fire department loafing around the property. My father, Jess Sanders, Jr., was a Covington police officer, as was his dad, Jesse, Sr., who had also been a supervisor with the Public Works Department before he became the first policeman at the new Boone County Airport were regular visitors at the site. My family, dedicated to public service, expected me to follow a similar path.

Daniel Carter Beard’s boyhood adventures on the Licking undoubtedly inspired “Uncle Dan.”

Just a few paces east, and upstream of the tall brick structure, was the loveliest of shantyboats that sat elevated on wooden timbers on the shore where only the highest of floods could reach it. The owners were friends of “Chalk Coon,” a foreman in the Public Works Department and a close friend of our family. Three wooden jonboats with awnings overhead for shade bobbed in the river below the shantyboat. The boatmen used them to tend the “trotlines” set in the river to catch catfish and carp which they cleaned and sold somewhere ashore. Both the shantyboat and the smaller jonboats attracted my attention, but when invited to ride one of the small boats, the old fears of the river returned and filled me with dread, and I retreated to the safety of Walter Questa’s tiny office.

Even to this day, many decades later, I dream of the shantyboat nestled high on the hill with the awning-shaded jonboats bobbing in the water below and imagine myself floating fearlessly on the river. It would be several years later, when I was ten, that I would rediscover a new, different world awaiting my return to the river.

Before Interstate 75 mauled the west end of downtown Cincinnati and encapsulated the softball meadows of Willow Run on the Covington side of the Ohio River in cement, north and southbound traffic from Detroit, Michigan to Jellico Tennessee, and back, flowed on US Route 25. On Friday evenings, the road, jammed with bumper-to-bumper cars carrying Detroit automobile plant workers back to their ancestral Appalachian homes in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, crossed the river on a bridge that shared the same piers with a railroad and called the C&O Bridge.

My father commanded the Traffic Bureau. Friday was also payday for the police department; so every Friday night, mother, my brothers Dick and Bob, and I piled into the family “machine” and joined Dad and his men where a small parcel, set aside for the lawmen in the parking lot of the Bridge Cafe and Liquor store, lay catty-corner from the Southern end of the bridge.

Another Covington boy, Robert F. Schulkers wrote a series of some eleven books about “Sekatary Hawkins and the Fair and Square Club.”

Dad and his traffic officers spent so much time around the Bridge Cafe, both on-duty and off, It soon became their favorite after-work spot to stop for a beer, or two. Having officers of Covington’s Finest frequenting their establishment delighted the employees of the Bridge Cafe as large sums of money changed hands over the counter where the cashing of payroll checks attracted varying levels of the social ladder—much of it belonging to the lower rungs.

The manager of the liquor store was, as my mother once described him, “a dried-up, little old man” named Walter destined to inspire me and send me on a course I have traveled for the rest of my life. His name was Walter, but everyone called him “Walt” … Walt Hoffmeier.

Walt was born on a shantyboat on the Licking River fifty, or more, years before he and my father became pals. Walter and his wee wife, Lorraine, owned a fifty-two-foot, wooden houseboat named the PAL-O-MINE, a boat well-known in the Cincinnati harbor long before the Hoffmeiers bought it at Henry’s Boat Harbor above the city. One early summer day, in 1952, just a few months after my Grandpa Jesse died, Walter and Lorraine invited the young coppers who directed the traffic in front of the liquor store and their wives for an evening cruise on the PAL.

Once again, the old fears returned when my mother and father were late returning to grandmother’s house where we boys were staying while our folks cruised the Ohio. Tears streamed down my eyes as I stood on the bottom rail of the white picket fence protecting the front yard of the bungalow on 38th Street as I prayed for their safe return. Two weeks later, Walt invited mom and dad to ride the PAL-O-MINE again, but this time we boys received an invitation to come along, too. Whatever happened on that first day aboard the PAL changed my life forever, and I still ride that euphoric spell over sixty-six years later.

Fondly, I still recall pleasant summer days when we cruised upstream to Dayton Bar where an anchor, run ashore and buried in the golden sand, held the head of the boat, and a stern anchor, cast into the river keep the boat aligned at a right angle to the shore. The Ohio was clear-enough to see for 20 feet underwater. After an afternoon of swimming, beach-combing and gathering firewood, Walt light a bonfire and we ate supper by firelight as the sun sank beneath the hills west of Cincinnati.

(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.

Just a few paces east, and upstream of the tall brick structure, was the loveliest of shantyboats that sat elevated on wooden timbers on the shore where only the highest of floods could reach it.

Walter and his wee wife, Lorraine, owned a fifty-two-foot, wooden houseboat named the PAL-O-MINE.

The Pal-O Mine

After an afternoon of swimming, beach-combing and gathering firewood, Walt light a bonfire and we ate supper by firelight.


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2 Comments

  1. Cirnelia Reade-Hale says:

    I so love watching the history of Covington and the river coming alive in Capt Don’s great words. I can’t wait for “the rest of the story” to unfold.

  2. Deb G. says:

    Capt. Dan, Walter Hoffmeier was my uncle. My cousins and I would love to hear more. Do you have an email contact info? Thanks for sharing these stories.

Reply to Deb G. Cancel Reply