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The River: Getting the CLYDE spiffed up for potential sale, Capt. Don offers up some descriptive vignettes


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

All this past week I’ve been inside the paddlewheel of the Rafter CLYDE scrapping, wire-wheeling, painting and getting the sternwheeler spiffed-up to look its best for someone in the market for the most beautiful example of a replica of a 19th Century raft boat, when I realized I had a deadline coming up for this week’s river column.

Capt. Don inside the paddlewheel of the Rafter CLYDE, a replica of a 19th Century raft boat. Scrapping, wire-wheeling, painting and getting spiffed-up to look its best for someone in the market.

It just so happens that I have a storage box where snippets of descriptive vignettes are tucked away for such a time as today. Let’s see what’s inside the lid…

The Steamer AVALON

I cannot recall my first ride on the AVALON, but it was surely during one summer day in the mid-1950s; possibly on a chartered “Covington Day” excursion when my father, the head of the Covington, Kentucky Traffic Division arranged for automobile parking for passengers riding the steamboat when she landed above the Suspension Bridge, about where the MIKE FINK later tied.

Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the steamboat’s celebrated Master, always took the opportunity to take some time off whenever the AVALON was playing the Cincinnati area. That is how my family and I met Capt. A.J. “Red” Schletker, who filled in for Cap’n Wagner as the Skipper of the steamboat. Cap’n Red always invited my Dad and me to ride with him while he steered. There were a few times when I was privileged to guide the steamboat for a short while after we were above the bridges along a straight stretch in the Cincinnati harbor.

AVALON in Negative – I cannot recall my first ride on the AVALON, but it was surely during one summer day in the mid-1950s; possibly on a chartered “Covington Day” excursion when my father, the head of the Covington, Kentucky Traffic Division arranged for automobile parking for passengers riding the steamboat.

Our favorite family gathering place to sit was on the Hurricane Roof just forward of the starboard chimney on a couch with floppy, soft cushions. As soon as our family of five came aboard, (always with those free yellow passes Dad received for his help) we made a beeline for our special place. There we made ourselves comfortable, nearly as well as home, throughout the ride. Mom kept our seats saved for Dick, Bob, and I to return to periodically, from our roamings about the boat. The whistle was right above our spot. When it blew, the sound engulfed us until I felt like being lifted above the roof in the great white cloud of steam that quickly condensed and fell back like rain around us.

Who can recall the AVALON without remembering the smell of popcorn, dance floor wax, steam, grass rope, heavy fuel oil, and the many other subtle scents which wrapped around the steamboat visitor; enhancing the experience? Later, after I was a member of the crew, floor sweepings with the pungent odor of cigarette butts and stale beer became another scent that, even today, carries me back to those glorious and happy days on the Steamer AVALON.

Capt. Howard Tate_A – Big Cap’n Wagner had some funny encounters with Cap’n Tate. Like the time Cap snuck up the pilothouse staircase and reached over the gate and pulled down Cap’n Tate’s trousers so that they fell around his shoes. Photo by Ben Sandmel.

More of Captain Howard Tate.

Big Cap’n Wagner had some funny encounters with Cap’n Tate. Like the time Cap snuck up the pilothouse staircase when it came up from inside the Officers’ Quarters, and he reached over the gate and pulled down Cap’n Tate’s trousers so that they fell around his shoes. Tate, standing at the sticks in only his knickers, whirled around ready to massacre who’d been fool enough to do such a thing. But when he saw Captain Wagner prepared to bust out laughing, all the old pilot could meekly muster was, “Oh, it’s you, Cap! Ha. Ha. Ha…..”

Big Cap wasn’t laughing the time soon after he and the rest of his deck crew just finished coating the roof of the DELTA QUEEN with silver roof paint impregnated with fibers on the hottest day of the summer. When the Captain came on watch the next morning, right after Tate worked the midnight to six shift, he found that “Old Towline” had peed into the scupper hole on the roof right outside the pilothouse door during the night.

Even I witnessed the evidence around the drain hole where the silver roof looked like it had been gold plated. I’ll never forget how yellow that nasty urine stain looked. Tate had hell to pay when Wagner made the grouchy pilot fetch a bucket of scrub water and clean up his mess. Besides knowing everyone was laughing at him behind his back, the worst notion for Captain Tate was the idea of getting caught. Although he’d been whizzing down that scupper for months, it was the new silver paint that betrayed him.

The lady was, of course, Dame Sybil Leek, reportedly ‘an English witch, astrologer, psychic, and occult author who wrote more than 60 books on the occult and esoteric subjects.’

The DELTA QUEEN and Dame Sybil Leek.

Who can recall Dame Sybil Leek? One long-ago morning, several hours before boarding was scheduled to start after the noon hour, orders came to the steamboat directly from the Broadway Street office of Cap’n Betty Blake, that, without exception, no passengers were allowed on board until 11 AM.

A seemingly odd couple was reported scurrying around the DELTA QUEEN as though they owned the boat. So as soon as I saw them, they were informed that they could not be aboard until three more hours had passed. The woman was insistent that she could, indeed, be allowed aboard early, but I held my ground according to the orders from above, and the two reluctantly exited the boat and went ashore, but returned later.

The lady was, of course, Dame Sybil Leek, reportedly “an English witch, astrologer, psychic, and occult author who wrote more than 60 books on the occult and esoteric subjects,”  and her nameless male traveling companion. In spite of my lapse of hospitality, Ms. Leek revealed something somewhat positive that I do not know if it came true or not, so I will not divulge her divination concerning myself. Not long after, however, rumors of a “curse” put onto the QUEEN by Dame Leek were whispered about, but not cast as a result of our uncomfortable encounter.

Fish used to make “special” cookies and brownies and had to send “regular” ones up to the bridge, but one evening a batch of the potent ones were cooling on a rack and the old pilot came into the galley and loaded up a big plate of them.

Fish’s Cookie Story

Fish sent this humorous story about an incident on the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN written on her last birthday, 15 December 2006. Fish died on April 2, 2007:

I was on the MQ  from 1977 to ’79, and I was also the Relief Galley Supervisor but had to do the “maid” thing (housekeeper) to make some actual money with not many hours. I was terrible at it but kept my passengers thoroughly entertained.

What was that old miserable f’er pilot’s name – the one that hated females? I used to raid the waiter’s pot stashes and make those “special” cookies and brownies. I had to send regular ones up to the bridge, but one evening I had a batch of the potent ones cooling on a rack and he came into the galley and loaded up a big-assed plate of them saying in his raspy voice,

“The wheelhouse ain’t going to get cheated this time.”

I told him that batch was “tough;” and to “take the ones off the other tray,” but he just smirked and left with them.

A picture of a rustic passenger cabin on the Steamer GORDON C. GREENE looked like the Ritz compared to the tiny, hot, smelly room I shared with three other sweaty men on the Steamer AVALON.

It was one of the worst pea-souper nights I could remember on the river- I kept putting my hand in front of my face and couldn’t see it. I was so nervous I was nauseated thinking we were going to have a wreck or I was going to get fired, or both. I kept asking the guys who were going up there if he was eating them, and they said he was “wolfing ‘em down.” I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag, until after “next-oh-dark-thirty.” (midnight to six-am)

When I saw him later that day, he said,

“Sure enjoyed those cookies, girlie!”

Those were the only civil words that old reprobate ever spoke to me.

Romanticizing Steamboat Days.

A picture of a rustic passenger cabin on the Steamer GORDON C. GREENE looked like the Ritz compared to the tiny, hot, smelly room I shared with three other sweaty men on the Steamer AVALON. And our’s was the coolest room on the Main Deck! By comparison, practically all the other rooms were ovens alongside the boilers, and way too hot for sleep. Most everyone slept on thin mats outside their cabins on the hard steel deck.

Air-conditioning? What’s that?

There were, but one toilet and one shower behind the boilers for everyone on the crew except the select few rooming on the Texas Deck, and even they shared bathrooms. Yes, we had an oscillating fan sitting atop a dresser with one drawer for each occupant. As the fan traveled back and forth, each man got a short burst of fresh air before it moved on while they laid there sweating in anticipation of the return of the refreshing breeze.

There was absolutely no way to wash clothes. With a paycheck of $19 a week, sending them off to the laundry was unrealistic. When I tried dragging my jeans behind the boat on a handyline, what remained of them was imbedded in grit and tiny, sticky water plants. Someone deliberately dumped my underwear, soaking in a bucket of soapy water, overboard and I went the rest of the summer knickerless.

Watches or shifts? Haha! We worked as long as needed. I was up and at ’em for 30 hours at a time, many times. And no matter how long we worked, everyone was still called for locks, landings, deliveries, fuel docks, and such. When passengers were aboard, we were confined to the Main Deck like human chattel unless needed elsewhere.

Captain Wagner told me on several occasions what transpired on the bow of the ISLAND QUEEN that led up to the catastrophic explosion and fire at the Foot of Wood Street, Pittsburgh, on the 9th of September 1947.

Entertainment? Quite often, someone owned a scratchy radio, while others banged on an old guitar and tried to sing. Sometimes, we collected a “deckhand band” together. I strummed a stick across a chain for rhythm as another hand clanged two pieces of pipe together.

I could go on with other examples, but I don’t want anyone to think I am complaining as those were some of the most glorious days of my life. To a seventeen-year-old kid eaten up with an insatiable desire to be on the river; especially on an old-time steamboat, they were as close to heaven as I may ever get. I’ve earned the license to romanticize those days as I lived them and loved them, and I will continue to sing their praises every opportunity I can.

Ernie Wagner and the IQ Explosion

Captain Wagner told me on several occasions what transpired on the bow of the ISLAND QUEEN that led up to the catastrophic explosion and fire at the Foot of Wood Street, Pittsburgh, on the 9th of September 1947. I have to grimace when I read comments like, “Wasn’t there a chemist to certify a gas-free environment before welding?”.

The decision to weld a loose stanchion was an impromptu, spur of the moment decision made on the observation of Captain Charles Hall, the Master of the steam excursion boat, as he placed his hand onto the post and saw that it moved and needed tacking at the deck. Had he not put his hand on the stanchion as he prepared to cross the landing stage to shore, none of this would have happened.

And had not Chief Engineer Freddie Dickow been standing a few away talking to the Mate, Ernie Wagner, the Captain may have only made a mental note of the loose piece, crossed the stage, went on to town, and told the Chief later.

And had the Mate accepted the Chief’s invitation to standby where they were talking while he welded the post so they could go to lunch together, Wagner surely would have perished with Dickow. Instead, Mate Wagner went to his bed to catch a nap, as he had dance floor watchman duties during the Moonlite Ride that evening.

Wagner in Hospital after IQ Explosion, 1947 – After realizing the flames had blocked his path back to his room, Wagner, instead, pulled the terrified man to the outside railing where they jumped into the Monongahela River and both were rescued and lived.

And had the deck beneath the post not been partially rusted-through where water had collected, it’s likely the flame of the gas welder would not have penetrated into the partially-filled, heated, fume-laden, Bunker-C oil tank.

And when the fuel tank exploded covering the ISLAND QUEEN in burning oil, had Wagner not left his week’s pay inside his wallet on the nightstand next to the bed which he remembered just as he was ready to leap overboard to safety, but went back into the smoke and encroaching flames for his money, he would not have stumbled onto the “band boy” (musician) lying in a fetal position in the passageway.

And after realizing the flames had blocked his path back to his room, Wagner, instead, pulled the terrified man to the outside railing where they jumped into the Monongahela River and both were rescued and lived.

Such is the capriciousness of the fates…

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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12 Comments

  1. Matthew says:

    Love capt. Don’s stories. I myself am currently working on a pilot’s license. Great history and insights to the river and the boats.

  2. Everett Dameron says:

    When you sell The Clyde Cap, you should start putting that book together. You’re the living link with the steam boat days and today. The world will appreciate your knowledge.

  3. Angie Brisse says:

    I always look forward to reading Cap Don’s comments and reminiscences from our river days. This one especially hit home.

  4. Great snippets of life aboard Steamboats. Such goes on every day on every ship and boat.

  5. Heidi English says:

    Captain Don, I could listen to your stories all day long and never get tired of them.
    I do enjoy being captivated by them!

  6. Keith Tinnin says:

    What a pleasure to listen to your stories, Cap! I still remember the night in the Texas Bar, while DQ was a Chattanooga hotel, when you, Kenny Howe and I “chewed the fat” while one of the owners video
    taped the session. Sure wish I could see that tape!

    Keith Tinnin
    Later- days DQ crew 1997- 98-99

  7. Vernon C. Shafer says:

    …sure wish the lead images would share on Capt. Don Sanders terrific stories…

  8. Joy Scudder says:

    Love how you described being on the Avalon and the whistle. “…the sound engulfed us until I felt like being lifted above the roof in the great white cloud of steam that quickly condensed and fell back like rain around us.”
    I could hear it and feel it. Thanks again, Captain Don.

  9. lowell E smith says:

    yup the special brownies

  10. Jane Dvorak says:

    I love reading your personal stories about the Delta Queen and other paddlewheelers. Keep on writing.

  11. Cap'n Don says:

    Thanks, everyone for reading and taking time to post a comment.

  12. Connie Bays says:

    As always, I am captivated and entranced by the words you choose in your stories! They always transport me back to another place in time, just as if I was standing there watching, listening, and smelling all the various scents you describe! Keep the stories coming Cap’t! Hoping for a bound version one day!

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