A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: You meet a lot of characters along the way, and Cheyenne was one, a deckhand and a cowboy


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

Of all the remarkable characters the Steamer DELTA QUEEN attracted to its crew, none was more unique than Cheyenne C. Cheyenne, or as he was fond of adding, “Where the Middle C stands for Cheyenne.” Like many drifters looking for “three hots and a cot,” Cheyenne found his way aboard through the dish room scrubbing endless piles of pots, pans, crockery, and cutlery. Some way, or another, this loud, garish, spindly, scarecrow ended up as one of my eight deckhands.

Of all the remarkable characters the Steamer DELTA QUEEN attracted to its crew, none was any more unique than Cheyenne C. Cheyenne.

How? I don’t recall; I remember him dressed like a drugstore cowboy from his imitation Stetson hat to his steel-capped, high heel western-style cowpuncher boots. Even when required to wear a uniform like the rest of the hands, Cheyenne’s signature black cowpoke boots and headgear gave him a distinct look that set him apart from everyone else on the steamboat. 

One of my first associations with Cheyenne found me with the deckhands gingerly scrubbing the deck outside Captain Ernest E. Wagners’s room on the forward Sun Deck below the pilothouse at four in the morning. At six-feet-four and 270 pounds, “Big Cap,” as everyone affectionately described that colossal bear of a man, was prone to come charging from his room like an angry bruin should someone disturb his sleep. Usually, it was too much tootin’ on the whistle by a novice pilot, but here was Cheyenne banging his mop against the scrub bucket outside Cap’s bedroom window.   

“Shush, Cheyenne,” I warned, “before you wake up Captain Wagner.”  

Surprisingly, the skinny deckhand’s voice rose to a shrill cry as the rest of us froze lest we add more noise to the unexpected outburst. “Here’s what I care about waking up Cap’n Wagner…” Dumbfounded, everyone stared as Cheyenne picked up the full bucket of soogie water and threw it and his mop clattering down the stairwell to the Texas Deck below.

At six-feet-four and 270 pounds, “Big Cap,” as everyone affectionately described that colossal bear of a man, was prone to come charging from his room like an angry bruin should someone disturb his sleep.

Shocked by the possible consequences of his moment of daring-do, Cheyenne froze with the others of us awaiting the raging bull expected to emerge momentarily from within the darkened portals of the Officers’ Quarters. Unbelievably, the old bear slept soundly through the loud disturbance orchestrated by the self-styled cowboy after his mop, and the steel scrub bucket tumbled like a runaway truck down the metal steps.

When assured that Captain Wagner was soundly sleeping, I gathered the crew and tiptoed down the stairs.  After we cleaned up the mess, I chose another location on the opposite side of the DELTA QUEEN from the skipper’s quarters.   

Based on his performance at the usual deckhand tasks, Cheyenne C. Cheyenne was average or below. Though generally adept at helping run the long, heavy hawsers ashore, he never learned which side of the vast iron kevels to lead his line. He couldn’t tie the simplest knot, and his housekeeping skills remained minimal no matter how much he tried to improve. But Cheyenne possessed a power that no one other than Bobby Rose, a California white boy with the most prominent Afro hairstyle on the QUEEN, had.

Professor Vic Tooker, leader of his family musical trio, the “Tooker Troupe,” invited Cheyenne to perform occasionally with them in the steamboat’s Texas Lounge. Cheyenne was in all his glory, as this surviving photograph shows. 

Bobby and Cheyenne were both fearless “bumper men” who possessed the courage to walk down a wrinkled, steel guard, or walkway, on the outside deck holding a massive, woven “possum,” or bumper, whenever the DELTA QUEEN was inside a lock. The possum man’s duty consisted of inserting the clumsy bumper between the edge of the wrinkled deck and the cement lockwall. Should they miss, the DELTA QUEEN rang like a church bell when concrete and steel met. Cheyenne was, of course, wearing his narrow, pointy-toed, high-heeled cowboy boots on that twelve-inch-wide steel deck puckered from many misses by less-skilled practitioners of the art of bumpering.

“Move further back, Cheyenne,” Captain Wagner called over the PA as the agitated cowpoke cautiously shuffled his way over the furrowed metal. “Get on down there, Cheyenne, get further on back. Don’t let ‘er hit!”

By then, Cheyenne was fuming. Instead of holding on as best as he could to the rumpled railing with one hand while grasping the possum with the other, he let loose the rail and looked up at the Captain three decks above and shook his fist in defiance at the source of his contention.

Ed Duemler, an outstanding DELTA QUEEN deckhand of the time worked with, and personally knew Cheyenne.

Surprisingly, Captain Wagner was amused at the deckhand’s bravado. Instead of becoming offended by the lesser man’s insubordination, the veteran steamboatman, known for his practical joking, goaded Cheyenne into making more gestures while uttering oaths of the like rarely, if ever before, orchestrated toward the Captain’s direction. At the last moment, Cheyenne gingerly shuffled his way outward on that perilous platform where his best efforts laid the bumper precisely between the lockwall and the edge of the deck. With the blow cushioned, the DELTA QUEEN  gently settled down for the long ascent to the top of the lockwall cushioned by the braided rope possum.

Not only did Cheyenne fancy himself a cowboy, but he also imagined himself as a singing cowpoke in the style of his matinee idols, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, and a half-dozen more. On Crew Talent Night aboard the DELTA QUEEN, Cheyenne, decked out his extra-fancy western duds, bravely took the stage in the Orleans Room before a packed house. Across the footlights, the crew mingling with the paying passengers watched in amused delight as their co-worker stood before the microphone. Wearing a “gee ‘tar” hanging around his neck he had no notion of playing, he began belting:

“Oh, gimme a home whar tha’ buff’ lo roam…” 

Captain Gabriel Chengery, a long-time friend of Cheyenne’s, together on the DELTA QUEEN.

To Cheyenne’s delight, everyone loved his performance, and he became a favorite entertainer whenever the crew assembled to perform on the big stage. The DELTA QUEEN’s celebrated Interlocutor, Professor Vic Tooker, leader of his family musical trio, the “Tooker Troupe,” invited Cheyenne to perform occasionally with them in the steamboat’s Texas Lounge. Cheyenne was in all his glory, as a surviving photograph shows.

After I became more intimately acquainted with Cheyenne, the sad story of his earlier life unfolded. For whatever reason, he was put into a hospital when very young. Perhaps it was a mental hospital, the only facility with room for the youngster where the boy grew into a young man embittered by the abandonment by those who should have loved him, instead. In turn, Cheyenne rejected his actual name, John Hess, and assumed the identity of Cheyenne C. Cheyenne, “where the Middle C stood for Cheyenne.”

Later in the year after Cheyenne and I met on the boat, he found his long-lost mother, Bertha Mae Colen Beard, living alone in Carrollton, Kentucky, where the Kentucky River enters the Ohio. To the delight of all concerned, Bertha was overjoyed to be reunited with her lost son she’d been searching for, everywhere, for decades. Once Cheyenne realized his mother’s anguish over her missing boy, Cheyenne embraced the opportunity to be reunited with his family. He even started calling himself “John Hess” whenever he needed use for his legal name.

Speaking of legality and names, near the end of the first season after Cheyenne signed aboard the DELTA QUEEN, a friend of mine, Barback Harvey Simmonds, also closely associated with the cowboy deckhand, and I conspired to give our friend a holiday gift he’d never forget. So we made an appointment with my brother Robert E. “Bob” Sanders, Attorney-at-Law. Intently, Bob listened until we described the purpose of our visit. 

“We’d like,” I disclosed, “to have our friend John Hess’s name changed permanently to Cheyenne Cheyenne Cheyenne, and surprise him the news during the holidays after the DELTA QUEEN lays up for the winter.”   

On the internet, I discovered a photo of Cheyenne posing with Captain Richard “Butch” Karnath aboard the AMERICAN QUEEN.

As a broad smile filled Bob’s face, I asked, “What’s so damned funny? We’re dead serious.” 

Laughing hard as he explained, Bob replied, “You can’t go changing a person’s name without them knowing it.” Neither Harvey nor I had thought of that.

Joyce Sanders recalled meeting Cheyenne for the first time. As he thrust out his hand, she said, he boldly announced, “Hi, I’m Cheyenne. I don’t drink anymore… and I don’t drink any less! HAR-HAR-HAR!”

Ed Duemler, an outstanding DELTA QUEEN deckhand of the time worked with, and personally knew Cheyenne. When asked about our old shipmate, Ed replied:

“I remember him standing in the dignitary reception line, there on the bow one particular day. It was hilarious – no one knew what to do with it.  The deck crew just laughed and laughed. Cheyenne saw absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t be there. I know he didn’t intend it or even think about it, but it was a deep social commentary.” 

Like so many crewmembers on the DELTA QUEEN, Cheyenne found love. She happened to be a  cadaverous-looking young woman with a sickly, emaciated baby he met in New Orleans. Whether it was love or else Cheyenne felt he needed to help the woman and her child; he quit the boat in the Crescent City. He was still with her a time or two he came to visit when we steamed into town. Against company policy, Cheyenne and his little “family” found plenty to eat in the galley. He told of working at minimum wages for an outfit on the river cleaning the insides of chemical barges. There was, Cheyenne said, no protective gear for the cleaners as they toiled for hours in the hostile atmospheres of the noxious interiors.  

That was the last I saw or heard of Cheyenne Hess for many years until I became the Senior Captain of the GRAND VICTORIA II casino boat in Rising Sun, Indiana, in 1996. As the first television ad for the casino featured me as a participant, several people from deep within my past became aware of my locale. One was Cheyenne, who was living alone with his mother in Carrollton. After putting him off as long as politely possible, I agreed to have him meet me on the GRAND VIC. After a somewhat awkward rendezvous, Cheyenne and I kept our meetings limited to his phone calls to the pilothouse by way of the casino’s 1-800 phone number.  

Cheyenne Hess died at age 58. He lies buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, Carrolton, next to his mother Bertha, who joined him the following year. 

During one phone call, Cheyenne revealed that after he left the river, he finally realized his lifelong dream of “cowboying” when he found work on a cattle ranch in a remote area in Wyoming. The cattleman in charge thought he would have fun with the wannabee cowpoke. “So you want to be a cowboy, eh,” Cheyenne was told. “Have I a job for you!”

Cheyenne was put on a horse with some canned food, a sleeping bag, and a rubber poncho and told to “ride-fence” around the perimeter of the vast spread. Three days later, the fledgling cowpoke returned so saddle sore he had to eat his meals standing up with his plate lying on the mantlepiece. At the end of the cattle season, the ranchers drove Cheyenne to the entrance gate and put him off in the road with the clothes on his back and the few dollars in pay earned over the summer. How he got back safely to Kentucky, Cheyenne failed to say.

Cheyenne maintained close ties to old friends within the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, as evidenced by a company identification badge he proudly wore, given by one of the captains, perhaps, I imagined, by Captain Gabriel Chengery, a long-time friend of Cheyenne’s and mine. On the internet, I discovered a photo of Cheyenne posing with Captain Richard “Butch” Karnath aboard the AMERICAN QUEEN. I was pleased that friends in high places inside the steamboat community still welcomed Cheyenne aboard the boats he dearly loved.   

As several years passed, Cheyenne called to inform me he had cancer. He believed, he said,  his illness resulted from cleaning the virulent interiors of the chemical carriers while in New Orleans. When the disease eventually ravished his brain, his mother telephoned and held the phone as her son bid me good-bye. On the 29th of September, 2003, steamboatman John “Cheyenne C. Cheyenne – where the Middle C stands for Cheyenne” Hess died at age 58. He lies buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, Carrolton, next to his mother Bertha, who joined him the following year.
  
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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13 Comments

  1. John Wright says:

    I look forward to these articles. I am from Louisville, KY … just another example of how this river has us all connected. Thanks for the great river writing.

  2. Heidi English says:

    I really enjoy and look forward to my Sunday reads of Captain Don Sanders river tales. It sends me back to my childhood memories of warm summers at Dan’s Marina (AKA) Smugglers Cove in Craig’s Creek. Of huge country ham steaks cooking on an out door grill from Froman Farms from Carrollton Kentucky, long gone now.
    Thanks for the wonderful stories Captain.

  3. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Wow, more wonderful memories brought to life in a way thst both those of the river and those just reading can appreciate. Thanks,Capt Don, for warming my river heart & soul.

  4. Fred Rutter says:

    Thanks, Captain Don, for another fine river story. I have a feeling you will not run out of them anytime soon, which is good news for all of us who enjoy reading your Sunday column. ( And thanks to the Northern Kentucky Tribune for running them. )

  5. Tony Espelage says:

    I worked with Capt Don, Ed and Cheyenne in those days. Great to hear these old stories so we’ll told.

  6. Cap'n Don says:

    Thanks… you guys are too much! I appreciate all your great comments.

  7. Jessika says:

    Love these stories! ‘Can’t get enough of them. ❤️

  8. Captain Don, thank you for a
    wonderful bit of river lore.
    I live about forty miles east of
    Vicksburg, learned to water ski
    on the river there, was happy to
    play in bands on the Amrican and Mississippi Queens and loved the river, the boats, and the people I met. Thank you for sharing your memories !!!

  9. Tom "Cap'n Walnut" Schiffer says:

    Cap’n Don: You’ve been a crew member on at least two of my steamers and I have crewed on your CLYDE. Donno which I enjoy most. I DO know if it cannot be either one, your writing is the next best thing!

  10. AS usual a Great Story from Capt Don. Looking back, I too sailed with some great characters, few with the endearing Qualities of CheyeneX3. I sometimes wonder if I should have drawn them out and tried to exploit them, rather than just trying to get what work we could.

  11. Mike Washenko says:

    Another great story Cap.

  12. Cap'n Don says:

    Thanks, everyone for the great comments, Cheyenne would’a loved them.

  13. Jerome Farfsing says:

    Cap’n Don, I was a new hire in 1970 going through my first lock on the upper Mississippi. As soon as we powered out a strong crosswind pushed the bow into the muddy bank! I thought that was it, how will we get out of this mess? We need a deckhand to jump ashore with a line and tie it to that tree. Yep, you guessed it; Cheyenne C. Cheyenne. He was complaining and squawking but jumped off the stage and tied the line to a tree. The Captain maneuvered us around and started backing up, leaving Cheyenne on shore! As l recall He jumped in and swam back to the boat, much to the amusement of the cheering passengers!

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