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The River: An extraordinary moment on the river that — this time — did not just pass unnoticed


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 message from Captain Josh Lakin, Sr. Captain of the LUCKY LADY, gushed with excitement – “Watcha doing buddy? Hurry down to the riverbank in Aurora. Never before have I seen a towboat shoved into the hill at Lesko Park. Usually, they stay out in the river.”

“Hurry down to the riverbank in Aurora. Never before have I seen a towboat shoved into the hill at Lesko Park. Usually, they stay out in the river.” Josh Lakin

At the time, I was sitting in my skivvy-drawers in front of the computer screen. The last thing on my mind was hurrying up, getting dressed, and rushing out into the morning chill before having a cup a’ morning joe, brewing fragrantly downstairs. From a photo Josh included, I recognized the logo on the stack of the towboat that piqued my friend’s excitement.

“That’s an Amherst-Madison boat. They need any help getting something,” I asked?

“Crew change, I believe,” Josh answered.

“If they need help. Tell them your buddy, a friend of Nelson and Charlie Jones, sent you. They’ll understand.”

Charles Jones, my regular readers may recall, was the long-time head of the Charleston, West “By God” Virginia-based river transportation company who recently passed away at the age of 101 and the subject of my October 27, 2019 column. Sadly, his beloved son and heir-apparent to the towing company empire, Captain Oscar Nelson Jones, a friend and former deckhand of mine aboard the P. A. DENNY Sternwheeler when Nelson was still a college boy, died nearly a decade ago at age 52.

The 164-foot-long-by-40-foot-wide, twin-screw, 5,600 horsepower diesel towboat MARY ELLEN JONES was quite an impressive sight stretched out into the flow of the Ohio River behind two lengths of barges.

Cap’n Josh, though, was well on his way driving toward Rising Sun, eight miles downriver, when I sent my last message. If the crew of the towboat, I soon identified as the MARY ELLEN JONES, named for Jones’ widow who preceded him in death, needed a lift to pick up something at the Wal-Mart store, or the cook was short of something imperative for the noon meal, I wanted to be where I could lend a hand. After all, the Amherst line seemed like family to me, so I hurriedly dressed, grabbed my coffee in a go-cup, kissed the wife goodbye, and aimed my black ‘95 Ford pickup truck down the hill in the direction of Lesko Park.

The 164-foot-long-by-40-foot-wide, twin-screw, 5,600 horsepower diesel towboat MARY ELLEN JONES was quite an impressive sight stretched out into the flow of the Ohio River behind two lengths of barges nosed into the shore at the foot of 5th Street. Traffic slowed along Indiana Route 56 as rubberneckers gawked at the unusual visitor. As “Black Beauty” carried me into the riverside parking lot, a clutch of husky young men gathered around an assortment of luggage piled on the sidewalk. Immediately, I realized these fellows were awaiting a company van for the long ride home to Charleston, so I pulled into the parking space closest to the group.

Capt. Charles T. Jones often brought the family paddlewheeler, the LAURA J, from Port Amherst, downstream, five miles to the Charleston city front on summer weekends and tied alongside the DENNY.

“You men off the MARY ELLEN JONES?” I asked as an awkward preamble to the start of a dialogue with a cluster of men decades younger and far from home, cast upon the shores of a strange, nameless river town.

“Yeah,” they answered in unison. “What’s the name of this town?”

“Aurora, Indiana. About 30 miles west of Cincinnati,” I answered, extending my right hand towards the closest man. “I’m Captain Don Sanders… a friend of Nelson and Mr. Charles Jones,” as each of the others extended their hands and introduced themselves.

“Hi, I’m Donte Coleman. Steve Goodson.Tristan Pennington.” Another of the crewman standing behind me shook hands and said his name was Jamie Schumann when I turned around to greet him.

Imagine yourself being in these men’s shoes standing in a riverfront park in an unfamiliar town a couple of days away from home by boat: still, a five-hour drive on the expressway, thinking only of piling into a van, yet to arrive. Unannounced, a strange, grizzled, older man pulls up in a beat-up, unwashed, 25-year-old pickup who wants to start a conversation and photograph them. Or picture the situation from my standpoint, I had to win these young men’s confidence to question them why they landed along the Aurora shore while gaining permission to shoot their images for use in this, my 111th river column.

Captain Kidd and Crew. Jamie Schumann, Capt. Stephan Kidd, Donte Coleman, Steve Goodson, & Tristan Pennington.

The guys became interested when I told them about being the first captain of the Charleston sternwheel excursion boat, the P. A. DENNY, a generation before any of the youngsters were born. I recalled how Jones often brought the family paddlewheeler, the LAURA J, from Port Amherst, downstream, five miles to the Charleston city front on summer weekends and tied alongside the DENNY. At the same time, no passengers were aboard the popular excursion boat. They enjoyed hearing that while the LAURA J remained by the DENNY’s side, everyone, including many of his most trusted aides, called the highly-respected Kanawha Valley businessman and elder riverman, simply as “Charlie.” Later, when I dropped by unexpectedly at the Port Amherst headquarters during business hours to see Jones on some long-forgotten errand, he was no longer called “Charlie,” but addressed rather more formally as  “Charles.” The story raised a few chuckles.

Once I’d established my bona fides with the young towboaters, it was my turn to say something favorable about them, so I added, “That sure is a well-kept boat you have. It absolutely glows.”

Captain Gene Lockwood told me he’d been on the river for nearly 46 years after he started decking for Cappy Bob Bozworth’s G & C Towing in 1974.

“That’s ‘cause we got a slave-driver for a captain,” a voice from the group volunteered, as laughter rose from the other fellows. “That’s him right there,” meaning a man who just arrived alongside me, obviously older than the deckhands waiting for the van. “That’s Captain Kidd… Captain Stephan Kidd.” The cap’n’s name, similar to the famous buccaneer’s, suggested I crack a feeble joke about “Captain Kidd and his band of pirates.” Failing, however, to detect a welcoming lead, I dropped the temptation, reached out, and introduced myself to the skipper.

Within a few more minutes, a white passenger van drove into the parking lot and stopped near where the departing crewmen were waiting since before I arrived. In a fury of arms and legs, the oncoming crewmen unloaded their luggage while the men I’d been talking to, piled their bags into the vehicle. The driver, an older man of around my age, or more, likely a retired riverman, eyed me warily.

The crew members clustered together and exchanged valuable information the oncoming men might need, while the men eager to depart asked how things were back home in the “Mountain State.” Noticing that Captain Kidd was in private conference exchanging “pass-down” information with his relief captain, I took leave and walked toward the head of the tow. There, a series of photos produced a better view of the barges and the MARY ELLEN JONES than the ones shot nearer the towboat.

The powerful diesel engines on the JONES roared to life as the towboat backed hard into the swift current of the Ohio River coursing around Aurora Bend.

Returning to where I’d left the Amherst crewmen, a sturdy, aluminum jonboat at the bottom of a nearby cement ramp was already piled high with the gear of the relief crew as the fellows I initially met were inside the van waiting for the last of their departing mates. Captain Kidd, sitting in the front seat, was impatient, I imagined, to get his crew on the road toward home. Waiting close to me was Cap’n Kidd’s replacement watching to ensure all his young men safely ferried themselves over to the MARY ELLEN before finding his own space aboard the last trip of the small watercraft. Seizing the opportunity to meet the new captain, I walked over and introduced myself. Of course, I liberally used Charles and Nelson’s names to establish my credibility with the Amherst – Madison connection. That is when I met Captain Gene Lockwood.

Captain Lockwood told me he’d been on the river for nearly 46 years after he started decking for Cappy Bob Bozworth’s G & C Towing in 1974. Since then, Captain Gene said, he’s been with Amherst over 16 years. Though we didn’t talk long, the veteran riverman looked the part of a towboat captain unquestionably beloved by his crew, skilled at his craft, and a stern disciplinarian should the need arise. All-to-soon, Captain Lockwood climbed into the jonboat for a water taxi ride to the MARY ELLEN JONES. Several minutes later, the powerful diesel engines on the JONES roared to life as the towboat backed hard into the swift current of the Ohio River coursing around Aurora Bend. Once twisted about, the tow set its course downstream toward Markland Lock & Dam, 30-miles below the town.

As I watched the MARY ELLEN JONES slow-bell downriver, the Amherst-Madison van was already on its way headed in the opposite direction. Captain Kidd and his crew waved as they passed. Eventually, I arrived home filled with the satisfaction that I shared some extraordinary moments on the river that typically pass unnoticed.

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.
 

As I watched the MARY ELLEN JONES slow-bell downriver, the Amherst-Madison van was already on its way headed in the opposite direction.


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2 Comments

  1. Connie Bays says:

    Love your stories, especially when they include references to home! Still chuckling over the “skivvys” and the “Black Betsy.” Can’t wait you read the next one!

  2. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Another awesone story bringing the river to life and helping us know a bit about the men who work on and love that river. I’m so glad you pulled on your outdoors garb and grabbed your coffee to go to be able to have this great experience to share. I can’t wait for your next tale.

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