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The River: Introducing you to more storied steamboat captains, and there was a president on Delta Queen


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

Last week I wrote about the connection the country music star, the late Conway Twitty, born Harold Lloyd Jenkins at Friar’s Point, Mississippi in 1933, had with steamboats on the Mississippi River. Explicitly, I associated Twitty’s father, Captain Floyd Dalton Jenkins, with the sidewheel, railroad transfer steamboat PELICAN I was aboard at Helena, Arkansas, Twitty’s hometown, during the Summer of 1960 while I decked on the Steamer AVALON “playing” Helena that year.

Cap’n Jenkins possibly piloted A. C. JAYNES, not the PELICAN, I surmised from a few, stray scraps of intelligence gleaned from the internet.

No sooner had the story “gone to press,” dark shadows raised doubt concerning the connection of Captain Jenkins to the PELICAN. I also reported, “While the AVALON remained in Helena, I ventured down to the city front landing where the charred hulk of the small, steam, sternwheel automobile ferry, the A. C. JAYNES burned just a few months before my visit.” Cap’n Jenkins possibly piloted A. C. JAYNES, not the PELICAN, I surmised from a few, stray scraps of intelligence gleaned from the internet. Still not satisfied, I waited for the feedback from my readers in Helena.

If Captain Jenkins piloted the JAYNES, then he would have been unemployed during my visit, His steam car-ferry lay in smoldering ruins when I slipped aboard and found the miniature engines unscathed by the fire which destroyed the steamboat. From personal knowledge, I know that experienced licensed steamboat pilots are always at a premium. Was Captain Jenkins piloting on the PELICAN after his boat burned?

On the “Friends Who Like Helena on the Mississippi” Facebook page, I asked: “ I heard he (Captain Jenkins)  was piloting the PELICAN, too.

Answer: “Don Sanders – Yes, he did.”

“Hummmmm,” I wondered, “Is this another case of, ‘I thought I was wrong, but I was actually right’?” Periodically, it happens.

The Helena Car Ferry A. C. JAYNES burned just a few months before my visit.

Let’s allow the subject to drop – for now. After all, we revisited Helena on the Mississippi River that hot summer day 50-years-ago aboard the PELICAN. We prowled the charred hulk of the ferry A. C. JAYNES, explored the connection of a legendary country music star, Conway Twitty, to the river, and remembered the life of his father, Captain Floyd Dalton Jenkins, a Steamboat Captain and Pilot Brethern of the Highest Order.

While not too far afield from Helena, allow me to introduce another steamboat man from that small town on the Great Mississippi, the late Captain Charles “Charlie” Fehlig, who began his long and illustrious river career with the Streckfus Steamers of St. Louis. Cap’n Charlie, always immaculately-dressed when he piloted the DELTA QUEEN, where we met, recalled that aboard the sidewheel, excursion steamboat ADMIRAL, a man was forbidden access on the dance floor unless he wore a coat and tie. “He was told to leave unless he came back properly dressed,” Captain Fehlig revealed in the pilothouse of the QUEEN.

When President Jimmy Carter and his family spent a week aboard the DELTA QUEEN during August 1979, Charlie Fehlig was one of the pilots entrusted to the safety of the POTUS and the First Family. Cap’n Fehlig, quoted in a newspaper account of the Carter trip, told of a humorous encounter with the President:

Captain Charles “Charlie” Fehlig, who began his long and illustrious river career with the Streckfus Steamers of St. Louis.

“I was sitting up in the pilothouse, enjoying an order of chicken wings when Mr. Carter comes up and snatches one off of my plate. And he didn’t even say ‘thanks.’”

Captain Fehlig long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most excellent steam and towboat pilots on the Western Rivers. In 1964, the Prince William Sound Alaskan Earthquake “rolled up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge,” according to Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley. “I thought the rusty Toulouse Street Wharf was sinking. Instead, it was the DELTA QUEEN rising.”

In the nearby New Orleans Industrial Canal, the water suddenly rose six feet above normal. Along the busy Crescent City wharves, mooring lines snapped as ships and barges drifted pell-mell throughout the crowded harbor. Captain Fehlig, commanding the towing vessel MISS NARI, rounded up many of the errant watercraft and became a hero of the times whose bold actions undoubtedly prevented losses to property and personnel along the river.   

The venerated Captain Kelly King of the Streckfus Line was the steamboatman who interested Charlie in the river. Cap’n, Doc revealed, “Cap’n King took Charles on the steam sidewheeler PRESIDENT from New Orleans to St. Louis, where young Fehlig accepted a job on the boat as a Watchman. Within a few years, he was ‘Captain Fehlig’ piloting steamboats with the company where he got his start.”

The venerated Captain Kelly King of the Streckfus Line was the steamboatman who interested Charlie in the river.

Captain Charlie also piloted the modernistic ADMIRAL and became a valued towboat pilot with Mississippi Valley Barge Lines and other towing companies. Captain Fehlig never steered fulltime on the DELTA QUEEN, but he took time off from towboating, each fall, to spend a few weeks aboard the overnighter on the Upper River. Everyone, it seemed, eagerly awaited his presence on the St. Louis to St. Paul autumn trips. I know I did.

The last time I saw Captain Charles August Fehlig was in the throng outside Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter when Captain Roddy Hammett and I were passing that way after leaving the Steamer NATCHEZ. Just days earlier, I delivered the replica of the 1792 Flatboat, ADVENTURE GALLEY II, to the Louisiana World Exposition, better remembered as the “New Orleans World’s Fair of 1984.” Both Captain Charlie and I were surprised to meet for the first time in many years in the Quarter just feet from where a Dixieland band blared New Orleans-style jazz from behind the fashionably-soiled windows of Preservation Hall. Less than two years later, Captain Fehlig was dead and lay buried in Garland County, Arkansas, about 186 miles by highway from Helena, the town he called home when we worked together on the DELTA QUEEN.

When President Jimmy Carter and his family spent a week aboard the DELTA QUEEN during August 1979, Charlie Fehlig was one of the pilots entrusted to the safety of the POTUS and the First Family.

While Captain Hawley and I were on the phone talking about Charlie Fehlig, he mentioned that the river in New Orleans “was a mess – and with all the rain upriver,” he continued, “we’re going to have more flooding this year than last.” Friends of his living upriver in Iowa and Illinois informed him, “the cornfields are in standing water.” The Ohio River where the Rafter CLYDE is wintering was at 31-feet as Captain Doc and I talked. By the time this column is in print this coming Sunday, the Cincinnati Guage, we go by on this stretch of the river, should be hoovering close to 43-feet, a gain of 12 feet in just three days.

Before long, however, this winter will be a side note in the history books, and time to start preparing for the 2020 boating season. I, though, am eagerly searching for the right buyer for the CLYDE, the best-looking and most-authentic small paddlewheeler on the Inland Rivers. Potential new sternwheeler owners can contact me on any online pages featuring this column, or at CLYDE’s email address: RafterClyde@yahoo.com. Please get in touch and let’s talk paddlewheels.

Captain Fehlig never steered fulltime on the DELTA QUEEN, but he took time off from towboating, each fall, to spend a few weeks aboard the overnighter on the Upper River.

I am eagerly searching for the right buyer for the CLYDE, the best-looking and most-authentic small paddlewheeler on the Inland Rivers.

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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4 Comments

  1. Another great column Cap’t Don. Keep the history lessons comin! Wishing you and everyone on the Western Rivers to stay safe in all the high water.

  2. Connie Bays says:

    Thanks for another great story. Looking forward to the next one!

  3. Faye (Yelton) Rhomberg says:

    First, i love your stories and all of the history. I remember Charley Fehlig very well. I remember that i could tell he was on board and in the pilot house not only by his “golden” voice but how he had the DQ wait in line to go thru a lock…………… The fist time i was on board when he did that, i couldn’t imagine how he accomplished that. I made my way up to the pilot house to experience it first hand. And, of course the choice of music in the pilot house. I had no idea of his river history, just that he was always a welcome visitor on board.

  4. Joy Scudder says:

    Capt. Don, your stories bring the river to life. Keep up the grand work.

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