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The River: From shutdown to reopening, things are cranking, up, down and all around (as internet rules)


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

After two months of the shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, everything is suddenly reopening, just like that. Traffic has already increased on my street and the state road going toward the marina. BB Riverboats, headquartered in Newport announced a resumption of cruises on Memorial Day with “discounted rates and social-distancing policies on its vessels,” according to a post by BB scion, Capt. Ben Bernstein. “Young Ben,” as I call him as I once had close ties to his grandfather, added, “During these cruises, we will strictly follow the state’s mandate that we operate at a reduced capacity of one-third our maximum capacity. We will be able to operate at well below that capacity level because of our large, unique space.” The cruises were later canceled because pf “river conditions” but are expected to resume next weekend.

BB Riverboats, headquartered in Newport announced a resumption of cruises on Memorial Day but later postponed due to river conditions. Hoping to resume next weekend.

So far, the AMERICAN QUEEN Steamboat Company remains mum about when they plan to start cranking up their overnight boats on both sides of the continent. It’s a wonder Paducah river buff, Madison Berry, hasn’t announced the AQSC’s intentions. Madison seems to know before anyone else outside the company boardroom has an inkling concerning the disposition of those riverboats. But Madison’s been itching to get this coronavirus over so all the riverboats can get sailing again. He’s a favorite among several captains who invite him to lunch whenever their boats are in town.

The Ohio River and tributaries are shooting up faster than the price of beef after a steady deluge lasting several days. The town of Falmouth, Kentucky on the Licking River, is evacuating before another repeat of the deadly and destructive Flood of 1997 wrecks havoc upon the community.

In Michigan, a couple of dams broke, and the water’s been spilling overtop the lock gates on the dams all along the Illinois River. Even without the COVID-19 pandemic, the year 2020 is already one for the record books. The only sound logic coming out of all this high water is, quite- likely, the ramp at CLYDE’s dock won’t be so steep in case a prospective buyer comes calling.

It’s a wonder Paducah river buff, Madison Berry, hasn’t announced the AQSC’s intentions.

The 65th annual May 19th Camp Day celebration of the day my brothers Bob and Richard Sanders and I claimed a small parcel of shoreline on the Licking River as “Our Camp,” passed without much fanfare other than a reposting of last year’s Tribune column, “The River: Remembering Camp Day — and my first excursion onto forbidden shores of Licking River.” Again, the CV-19 epidemic took the thrill out of what might have been one of the few remaining times left for my brothers and me to congregated upon those hallowed shores to welcome summer back for another season. Brother Dick is somewhere in the Continental USA and not in a far-off land because travel restrictions and regulations governing expatriates living in foreign lands brought him home for the first May 19th in decades.

On the Upper Mississippi River at LaCrosse, Wisconsin, a town long-associated with the river, steamboats, and those connected to the riparian way of living, my DELTA QUEEN friend, Jackie Smith, unveiled her first commission of artwork and illustrations for Wisconsin historian Robert B. Taunt’s latest book, “A Brief History of the Steamboat WAR EAGLE and the Dramatic Fire at LaCrosse in 1870.”

The Ohio River and tributaries are shooting up faster than the price of beef after a steady deluge lasting several days.

According to author Taunt, “150 years ago, on May 15, 1870, at about 12:45 am the [WAR EAGLE’s] carpenter was attempting to repair a leaking barrel of Danforth’s Non-explosive Petroleum Fluid. His lantern flared up with the fumes of the gasoline, and burst, setting the barrel, the carpenter, and the boat on fire. The carpenter jumped into the river to save himself. The crew tried to roll the barrel into the water, but it jammed between the boat and a barge alongside. The fiery demon was loose. There was little time to save anything but life.”

“Within an hour,” continued Mr. Taunt, “the boat, the dock, the warehouses, the train depot, the train from Milwaukee, and the large grain elevator were gone. At 3 am, the fire subsided, and the WAR EAGLE was no more.”

Jackie Smith, a Veterinary Assistant at the Hillside Animal Hospital in her hometown, has been drawing portraits of client’s pets “since 1990,” she revealed. “But the WAR EAGLE was my first steamboat, though I painted the TITANIC and the QUEEN MARY about 25 years ago.”

Remembering Camp Day — one of the few remaining times left for my brothers and me to congregated upon those hallowed shores to welcome summer back for another season.

Her love for the Steamer DELTA QUEEN is well known on the Upper Mississippi River since her parents took her to LaCrosse’s Riverside Park to see the boat sometime in the 1970s. I reminded Jackie that I could have been on the QUEEN during that fateful incursion.

Robert Taunt has written several other books and is currently writing “an official WAR EAGLE book of some 300 pages that I’ll be in, too,” Jackie divulged.” I inquired how and why the writer asked her to illustrate his latest work, which happens to be Jackie’s first attempt at illustration. She replied, “About a year ago, Robert had me to complete portraits of the people in his book, so I suggested that I do a picture of the steamboat, too. He agreed, and there you go, I did the illustrations for the entire book!”

Jackie took the time to share a portrait of the packet BELLE of LACROSSE she recently completed. The BELLE was a sidewheel steamboat built at Paducah, Kentucky, in 1870 for the Keokuk Nothern Line. The 232-foot packet lasted until “3:00 pm on 12 July 1882 when she burned at the foot of Alma Street, St. Louis, and setting fire to the NORTHWESTERN which also burned,” or so said Captain Frederick Way’s revised edition of his celebrated PACKET DIRECTORY, 1848-1994.

My DELTA QUEEN friend, artist Jackie Smith.

Ms. Smith’s portrait of the Cincinnati to Wheeling packetboat, PHIL SHERIDAN, makes the most die-hard steamboat buff drool, myself included. Jackie has prints of the WAR EAGLE and the BELLE of LACROSSE available for purchase through her website.

On a couple of other notes, a young lady posted on a DELTA QUEEN page that she was the daughter of two former crewmembers who met while employed on the steamboat. Her father, she said, was called “Cairo,” but I asked if he could have been a deckhand I knew as “Cairo Red.” When I uploaded a photo of the thin, young deckhand  standing attentively on the head of the QUEEN’s 50-some-foot landing stage, the daughter exclaimed, “Oh, my gosh, that’s him!”

Just two days earlier, a woman in Spokane contacted me to help tie up some loose ends in her genealogical search for an ancestor who was a celebrated steamboat builder and captain at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Again, after finding several exciting discoveries, the lady hung up satisfied she found what she’d been seeking for years concerning her illustrious, river-related progenitor.

These were, but a few accomplishments made via the marvel of the internet. Please keep washing your hands for not less than 20 seconds, maintain social distancing, and wear a mask when appropriate. This pandemic is far from over. According to specific knowledgeable resources, the COVID-19 epidemic may rebound like a tidal wave once the foolish among the citizenry start disregarding sound practices and rush back into the world as though there will be no tomorrow.

The WAR EAGLE was Jackie’s first steamboat painting.

Ms. Smith’s portrait of the Cincinnati to Wheeling packetboat, PHIL SHERIDAN, makes the most die-hard steamboat buff drool, myself included.

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. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    I enjoy all your articles, but it’s a special treat when you can use folks that are active in the river history of today’s world. Congratulations to Jackie Smith and just maybe Madison Berry is on the board of some of those boats he knows so much about…..

  2. Jessica C Yusuf says:

    As always, entertaining and informative. Love those paintings and the back story.

  3. Connie Bays says:

    Always interesting and always informative! I’m entertained and educated at the same time. Essential reading for sure. Keep them coming Capt!

  4. Capt. Don says:

    Thanks everyone… your gracious comments are appreciated.

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