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The River: Commanding the P.A. DENNY — and telling the stories of the first adventures


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

When Cappy Lawson W. Hamilton, Jr. hired me to command the P. A. DENNY, his new stern paddlewheel boat was moored at Port Amherst, West “By God” Virginia, on the Great Kanawha River five miles above downtown Charleston, the state capital. The DENNY began life not far downstream at the old Ward shipyard in South Charleston as the U. S. SCOTT, a diesel-powered towboat built for the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers in 1930.

When Cappy Lawson W. Hamilton, Jr. hired me to command the P. A. DENNY, his new stern paddlewheel boat was moored at Port Amherst, West “By God” Virginia, on the Great Kanawha River five miles above downtown Charleston, the state capital.

The SCOTT towed for the Army for some 24 years before Peter Anthony Denny, a friend of Lawson’s, acquired the government boat and was converting it into a paddlewheel pleasure boat, the ROBIN D TOO when Denny unexpectedly died. Cappy Hamilton purchased the boat from Pete Denny’s widow and was in the final stages of converting the sternwheeler into a passenger-carrying excursion vessel renamed for Lawson’s late buddy when I came onto the scene.

Lawson Hamilton’s right-hand man overseeing the DENNY project was a tall, thin, hyper-energetic fellow from South Charleston named Ross Tuckwiller. It turned out that Ross was a natural public relations genius as well as serving as a select lieutenant for Mr. Hamilton, a coal operator who owned and oversaw some nineteen mines, countless acres of West Virginia, and the equipment and personnel to keep things humming at an industrial pace. Everything that Lawson owned that he could get a coat of paint to cover, was colored a patriotic red, white, and blue – especially in that bicentennial year of the nation, 1976, including the freshly minted P. A. DENNY, Sternwheeler.

Ross created citywide anticipation for the completion and arrival of the new boat with his “talking shoes,” both of which had loose soles that flapped madly as he walked at a frantic pace wherever he went. Seeing Ross’s flapping shoes, people would usually comment:

Lawson Hamilton’s right-hand man overseeing the DENNY project was a tall, thin, hyper-energetic fellow from South Charleston named Ross Tuckwiller.

“I’ll sure be glad when you get that boat finished so you can get yourself a new pair of shoes!”

Ross declared early-on in the renovation of the boat, that he would not be acquiring new shoes until the DENNY was up, running, and operational. Such a simple ploy worked wonders worth a million dollars in free publicity. Whenever Ross came flip-flopping down Capitol Street, all heads turned his way filled full of thoughts of wondering how close the new boat was to completion.

Within days, everything seemed to come together at once and the newly-minted excursion boat was ready for her coming-out at the Charleston city front. At first, the DENNY, with non-follow-up steering, something new and tricky to me, took some practice to get used to handling. But I was able to pick up the boat’s first charter group on the 4th of July, 1976, America’s Bi-Centennial Day, and take the excited revelers alongside the lower wall of the community park, opposite the lock and dam at Marmet, several miles upstream.

Sandy Passmore Tuckwiller, Ross’s charming wife and the P. A. DENNY Sternwheeler Company’s secretary, made sure more-than-enough boxes of fried chicken lunches were packed aboard. When the clock struck noon on that momentous date, I was seated at a picnic table in the park eating lunch with a Revolutionary War reenactor dressed as a red-coated colonel in the British Army.

Sandy Passmore Tuckwiller, Ross’s charming wife and the P. A. DENNY Sternwheeler Company’s secretary.

After all the passengers were back aboard, returned to the city dock, and finally departed, Ross, Sandy, my crew, and I returned the DENNY to the barge at Port Amherst. But landing took me more attempts than I care to remember, probably because I had yet to get the feel of the steering stick when backing the large paddlewheel and sending a torrent of water against the rudders set forward beneath the hull. The boat had no steering, or “monkey,” rudders aft the sternwheel. Instead of coming ahead, or forward, on the wheel while closely maneuvering, the paddlewheel had to be backed astern; an art I had yet to perfect.

Quite possibly, Ross and Sandy wondered as I made one attempt after another to land alongside the barge, if I had a clue to what I was doing, but I was determined to get the boat alongside without an incident. Finally, we landed abreast the floating dock where strong lines snubbed us off and the first memorable day in the history of the P. A. DENNY came to a safe and successful conclusion.

As soon as the DENNY began its first year of operating as the Capital City’s only commercial playtime boat on the Kanawha River, it was an instant success. Ross Tuckwiller was proudly showing everyone his new shoes.

Peter Anthony Denny, a friend of Lawson’s, acquired the government boat and was converting it into a paddlewheel pleasure boat, the ROBIN D TOO when Denny unexpectedly died.

Our first crew was predominantly local college fellows on summer vacation who came from backgrounds and families with close ties to the river. Deckhand Oscar Nelson Jones, whose family owned Port Amherst and Amherst Industries, was also in the coal business. The steam towboat named for his grandfather, the HERBERT E. JONES, was my family’s favorite steamboat that brought sweet West Virginia coal from Huntington to the Hatfield Coat Terminal across from Walt’s Boat Club where we docked our family paddlewheeler, the MARJESS. Nelson’s family owned the Cincinnati coal business, as well.

Tom Cook, another college man, had a towboat named for him, the TOM COOK that towed for their family business, Cook Sand & Gravel. Their friend, John Elkins, or “Elk,” another deckhand, eventually became a captain with Amherst. Both Nelson and Tom, after receiving their U. S. Coast Guard licenses as boat operators, prepared to take the reigns of their family businesses. Tragically, cancer took the life of Captain Nelson Jones, one of the most beloved young men on the river, at the height of his career. The river remains a sadder place without him.

Several other local lads started decking that year, too. Todd Mace and Bradley Price were standouts. Todd became a favorite Captain of the DENNY and Brad “went to towboating.” Early on, his little brother “Tommy” wrangled his way into my pilothouse, where, as soon as I realized he was genuinely interested in the boat, he became my twelve-year-old “Cub Pilot.” Eventually, Captain Tom Price commanded the DENNY; taking it as far as New Orleans and back.

PA DENNY Crew, 1976, for the birthday. Captain Don Sanders, Connie Bays, Tommy Price, Tony Harrison, Unknown. Brad Price, seated.

Just days before I left my home in Covington for Charleston, a local friend, Jim Harrison, and I were enjoying a suds at Mick Noll’s Covington Haus. With Jim, was his younger brother Tony fresh in town from Akron, Ohio, their hometown, and looking for a job.

Tony, Jim said, was a capable drywall man who wondered if I might have a job for him in the restoration of old homes around the city. But after I informed both that I was leaving for Charleston soon, Tony immediately expressed an interest in working on the new paddlewheeler. But not knowing the employment situation on the P. A. DENNY, I told him to go over to the Cincinnati Public Landing where the DELTA QUEEN was in town and ask for Captain Gabriel Chengary.

“Captain Gabe,” I assured Tony, “will put you to work if he has an opening.”

After our meeting, Tony followed my suggestion and Cap’n Gabe had an opening on deck that fit the Akron man perfectly. One of the last things Tony said to me was, “If you ever have room for me on your new boat, I’d sure like to come to Charleston and work there.” Tony eventually came to the DENNY where we doubled his DELTA QUEEN salary and made him the Mate. By the end of my second year, Tony became a licensed Captain. At the December Christmas party, my gift to “The T” was the command of the boat, as, “I’m not coming back next season,” I assured him.

Todd became a favorite Captain of the DENNY.

My youngest brother Jeffrey Sanders, a Centre College of Danville, Kentucky undergraduate, spent two summers decking and acting as the “Chief Purser” to keep an honest eye on the DENNY’s sometimes substantial pile of cash-money kept hidden in the overheads of my room when the DENNY was playing towns distant from Charleston. Once, in Huntington, WV, some four-thousand bucks in mid-1970s dollars, equivalent to almost $18,000 in today’s nearly worthless script, lay stashed in the rafters!

Jeff’s first day aboard the DENNY almost proved his last as the boat came alongside the high concrete wall for a landing at the city front where a deckhand needed to get from the second deck to atop the wall to catch the lines. Always a mission reserved for an experienced man, I was aghast when I looked over the side to see my youngest brother halfway between the boat and the wall with several pairs of hands beneath his butt shoving him towards the top. I knew better than say anything lest the men doing the shoving slacked-off causing Jeff to fall between the boat and the concrete wall.

Thankfully, my brother safely breached the top of the wall. After the cruise, I called the deckhands together and chewed their collective ass and asked why they chose to put a newcomer into such a precarious position.

Tony Harrison eventually came to the DENNY where we doubled his DELTA QUEEN salary and made him the Mate. By the end of my second year, Tony became a licensed Captain.

“We thought because Jeff was your brother, he knew as much about the river as you,” I was told.

Though it was Jeffrey’s first day working on a boat, he became as seasoned as any of the DENNY’s crew. Had he chosen, Jeffrey could have become a licensed officer with the credentials and ability to command any boat on the river. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of our brother Bob, another good boatman, and became a lawyer. Bob Sanders, we hear, is fixing to retire after many years practicing law, and says he wants to “get his captain’s license and pilot small boats!” Say what!?

This narrative is how my adventures with the P. A. DENNY Sternwheeler began in Charleston, West “By God” Virginia on the Great Kanawha River. There are a thousand or more stories, and perhaps I will eventually get around to telling others.

My youngest brother Jeffrey Sanders, a Centre College of Danville, Kentucky undergraduate, spent two summers decking and acting as the “Chief Purser” to keep an honest eye on the DENNY’s sometimes substantial pile of cash.

“Tommy” wrangled his way into my pilothouse, where, as soon as I realized he was genuinely interested in the boat, he became my twelve-year-old “Cub Pilot.”

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.


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6 Comments

  1. Connie Bays says:

    This was the most beloved time of my adolescence. I was only 14 when I began hanging out at the P. A. Denny. I love that boat so much and all these guys became family to me. I spent every spare moment I had on the boat and if not on it, I was waving from the bank as she went by. So many happy memories there and lifelong friendships.

  2. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Another magnificent story. Full of adventures and great introductions (or re introductions)to some great river people this story makes it all come alive.
    I hope to see more PADenny stories , like tramping ti Marietta Oh..

  3. Ronald Sutton says:

    Excellent as usual from Capt. Don. He has a real talent for bringing the reader Into the Story; close to being there.

  4. Pete says:

    I ca only imagine the early years on the Denny before I read this story. Now I feel as if I was there. Well I was with the Denny for a few years and felt a kinship with her as if she creeped in my soul.
    Thanks for the memories Captain.

  5. Mr. Bela Berty says:

    The sternwheeler P. A. DENNY and her captain Don Sanders got me interested in riverboating in 1976 after my three years in the US Navy got me interested in going back into the hills. I would like to read how Captain Don remembers meeting me. After hanging out on the DENNY and volunteering some, Captain Don suggested that I drive to Cincinnati to see the first return home of the new steamer MISSISSIPPI QUEEN, assuming I would pick up an application to work and bring it home to Charleston to fill out and wait for an opening. That night I started working as a Wiper in the Engine Room. Five days later, I had my dream job as a Deckhand. Some of my quick success was that Captain Gabe Chengery assumed that I had actually worked for Captain Don. Yes, Captain Don Sanders has a well-known reputation as a Slave-driver according to his brother Jeff. But Captain Don Sanders’ boats are clean and painted and welcoming. That is why I “mess about in boats.”

  6. David Shanklin says:

    Love the story.I was a freind of Lawson’s and Trip.Great people.

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