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The River: More on the flooding river, discovery of Delta Queen logs from halcyon days of the early 70s


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 First Flood of 2020 on the Middle Ohio River came and went without too much hullabaloo. We lucked out on that one, but as I said in my last column, Old Man River was “just visiting.” Both the Anderson Ferry and the LUCKY LADY ferryboat were quickly back in business after the high water and powerful river currents shut them down for safety concerns.

At Lighthouse Point Yacht Club, Aurora, where the CLYDE calls home, marina owner Karleen Gaylord’s cement alligator appeared to be “swimming about.”

Down on Hobobble Creek, Shantyboat Mike, when asked how he fared through the flood, answered: “I’m OK. I’ve been to 57-feet, before, with this setup on the shantyboat. Had to jonboat across to shore for a few days. Finishing up the morning’s Community Coffee, now. Making a pot of jambalaya for the Rabbit Hash Gen’l Store. A faux cajun band is playing there today.”

At Lighthouse Point Yacht Club, Aurora, where the CLYDE calls home, marina owner Karleen Gaylord’s cement alligator appeared to be “swimming about” when the river reached the gator’s stand, normally high above the average water level. A picture posted on a social media page concerning boating activities on the Ohio River drew mixed comments. Generally, rubes were surprised to see a crocodilian thrashing about in the Lighthouse basin, especially this far north this time of year. Or, as one pleasure-boater commented, “Wow! I learned something new today. Never knew that alligators lived this far north of the Tennessee River.”

Captain Michael Coyle, a St. Louis towboat pilot on the Mississippi River aboard the M/V TWYLA LUHR towing crushed rock from the Tower Rock Stone Company near Ste. Genevieve, Missouri to “just about anywhere it’s needed, south along the Lower River; to the jetties and even as far as 10 miles below them,” was a godsend, recently. In the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library, St. Louis, not far from the Coyle residence, the Log Books of the DELTA QUEEN for the years 1970, ‘71, and ‘72, the years most closely associated with me and the historic steamboat, were recently found among the Pott’s many treasures of the history of the river.

Captain Michael Coyle, a St. Louis towboat pilot on the Mississippi River aboard the M/V TWYLA LUHR was a godsend.

Captain Mike and his scholarly wife, Vera, a native of Russia where she taught Russian language, literature, and Mark Twain at Belarusian University, Minsk, were all too eager to find the aging ledgers, photocopy them, and send a duplicate of each page my way.  What the Coyles accomplished in one afternoon saved me the burden of flying to St. Louis, renting a car, reserving a hotel room for several days, purchasing food and drink, plus doing whatever necessary to copy the materials with the limited equipment at my disposal. And then, reversing my tracks toward home after accomplishing my mission. For that, I am grateful, but how exciting to have seen the St. Louis Harbor again, especially the Eads Bridge crossing the Mississippi River and the graceful, stainless steel Gateway Arch reaching toward the clouds.

Captain Coyle forwarded hundreds of copies of pages from the DELTA QUEEN’s logs written during those glorious first three years of the early 1970s. Those were the halcyon days when I rose from an unlicensed Second Mate to signing the Enrollment Papers of the QUEEN as the Alternate Master of that glorious steamboat, sharing command with my mentor and hero, Captain Ernest E. Wagner. Cap’n Ernie commanded the Steamer AVALON, my first steamboat when I was just seventeen. What an honor it was to become his Relief Captain on the most famous steamer in the world at the time.

Captain Mike and his scholarly wife, Vera, a native of Russia where she taught Russian language, literature, and Mark Twain at Belarusian University, Minsk.

After arranging the many hundreds of logbook pages in order, I was surprised to see how concisely-made the entries were. Captain Wagner believed in writing as little as necessary into the official logs, the first documents seized by the Coast Guard should something go afoul aboard the boat. A time or two, Cap lectured me about writing too much into “his” books and made it clear they were his logs and not mine to scribble in at my inclination. Captain Wagner was an excellent teacher and gifted in elucidating his intentions.

It’s clear, now, that I must study the logbooks carefully, and with the help of certain scrapbooks of the times, I may piece together some tales from the spartanly worded official documents. One example of an entry in my handwriting prompted a recollection. On the top of page 62 of the 1970 Log, appeared in my signature script, “ Donald J. Sanders got 1st Mate’s license, 15 July 1970.” My simple entry prompted me to recall:

What an Exciting Day that was. “Inland Mate of All Gross Tons Upon Rivers,” my first license read after testing at the US Coast Guard Office in Louisville, KY, under the supervision of CWO Jake Jacobson. Jake had been with the U. S. Lighthouse Service before the Coast Guard it absorbed into one unit. Captain Wagner was keeping one of the older pilots aboard the DELTA QUEEN who’d been “carrying the license” while I performed the Mate’s duties in case I didn’t pass the exam. In those days before cell phones, I tried to make a collect call to the Cincinnati Greene Line Office on 4th Street so they could get the word to the boat that I’d passed. When the operator told the girl answering the phone, I was making a collect call; she refused. “We don’t accept collect calls.” After some pleading, I finally convinced the receptionist to inform “Cap’n” Betty Blake I was on the line. Betty promptly accepted the call, congratulated me, and said she’d get the word to Captain Wagner. After the hour-and-a-half drive to the Cincinnati Public Landing, I stepped aboard the DELTA QUEEN for the first time as the newly licensed “First Mate.”

Captain Coyle forwarded hundreds of copies of pages from the DELTA QUEEN’s logs written during those glorious first three years of the early 1970s.

A fountain pen sketch of a stylized steamboat on the inside cover page of the DELTA QUEEN Logbook drawn by Benton Roblee Duhme, 1970 cause these comments:

Benton Roblee Duhme, the scion of the St. Louis family owning a major shoe-manufacturing company (Buster Brown and Roblee Shoes), was the premier steamboat buff anywhere on the river. However, he suffered from a fatal disease that would soon claim his short life. With his doctor’s permission, Benton finished the final segment of “The Last Trip.” As a conscientious worker, he earned his way more nobly than did others in the Steward’s Department who resented his presence and shifted their share of the load towards him until I stepped in and corrected the unfair situation.

I also remembered Benton in my column on the 8th of December 2019.

How exciting to have seen the St. Louis Harbor again, especially the Eads Bridge crossing the Mississippi River and the graceful, stainless steel Gateway Arch reaching toward the clouds.

David Gulden, a fellow administrator on the Facebook page “Riverboats & Rivermen,” while tireless gathering photos of old-time steamboats and modern towing vessels on the Mississippi River System, stumbled across a photograph of the Steamer AVALON in a lock somewhere on the river, with, quite possibly, me being tending the sternline. I am confident that another fellow on the fantail holding a rope bumper, or “possum,” is Leroy Batteau, a steamboatman-deluxe from the Cajun County of Southern Louisiana. If the photo proves to be me as a skinny boy working at my first role on a steamboat, it may be the only picture in existence of myself aboard the AVALON. In those days, I was overly self-conscious of my frail-looking appearance and shied away from the camera whenever possible. But when Capt. Dave revealed the date of the picture as 1959, the first year I was aboard the steam excursion boat, a cold shudder suddenly chilled my spine. Brrrrrrrrr…….

With so many potential reminders of my Glory Days on the DELTA QUEEN available, I need to buckle down and start analyzing the log entries for those years and see what stories lie within them. I should do so before the days transform from cold Winter into beckoning Spring when my efforts will turn toward a spunky paddlewheeler waiting a couple of miles down the road, rather than reading the dusty logbook pages from half-a-century ago.

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. Ronald Sutton says:

    I could only wish that I had some of past logbooks from my sailing days. I am glad that Capt. Don differentiates between the Operating, Day to Day Log, and the Official Log, which had little to do with the operation of the vessel, but was more a Chronicle of Special Events, and sometime CMA for the USCG. I have an incident, first trip as Chief, I shall write up and post eventually. We could only wish to know what prompted Capt. Wagner’s caution regarding Official Log Entries. Many veterans of the Industry are blissfully unaware of the existence of the Official Log….unless they have been Logged in it.

  2. Michael Coyle says:

    Thanks for the plug Capt. Don. It was a pleasure assisting you in this project. Always look forward to your weekly stories.

  3. Connie Bays says:

    I always enjoy these glimpses you offer into your life and experiences from long ago. I can almost feel your excitement as you received that first license.

  4. Bob Sanders says:

    Publish the 1959 photo of you on the Avalon, please.

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