A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: ‘Detoxing’ after a very long life on the river, having mixed feelings and a lot of memories

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

Ever since the CLYDE arrived safely at her new home on the Tennessee River System, a little over a week ago, I’ve been de-escalating from all the excitement of the voyage. Though I was not physically aboard the paddlewheeler, I followed along with every move while waiting in anticipation for every tidbit sent my way via the internet. Though I have mixed feelings, generally, I feel relieved knowing that the boat is in caring hands. Throughout my life, I have separated from opportunities and objects that most people rarely experience. The CLYDE was but one episode in a personal series of memorable lifetime experiences. As in most of my encounters, I have no regrets.

Ever since the CLYDE arrived safely at her new home on the Tennessee River System, a little over a week ago, I’ve been de-escalating from all the excitement of the voyage.


The COVID-19 global pandemic is showing no signs of abatement, while the future prognosis for the plague is daunting. Life as we once knew it is held firmly within the grip of the lethal virus with much of the river industry being no exception. This past week, the American Queen Steamboat Company announced the permanent layoff of some 250 employees on the AMERICAN QUEEN and AMERICAN EMPRESS riverboats.

“We are taking this action because of COVID-19-related business circumstances that were not reasonably foreseeable,” stated Christina Hobbs, vice president of human resources for the American Queen Company.

Elsewhere, some smaller excursion boat businesses are trying to sail with reduced passenger capacities and services. Captain Matt Dow of the New Orleans Steamboat Company, owners of the Steamer NATCHEZ and the sternwheeler CITY of NEW ORLEANS and smaller excursion vessels, replied when I asked what was going on cruise-wise with the NATCHEZ:

Captain Matt Dow of the New Orleans Steamboat Company, owners of the Steamer NATCHEZ and the sternwheeler CITY of NEW ORLEANS.

“Were running Fridays through Mondays, one to two trips per day. Depending on the day. Folks are milling about the Quarter, but it’s summertime in New Orleans, and because it’s so blamed hot, this is usually our slower season, anyway.”

When I added that the pandemic sure has everything balled-up, Cap’n Matt confirmed:

“It sure does, and we’re lucky that we’re able to do something, even if it’s just a couple of trips per week, following all the local and state regulations for health and safety.”

On the ferryboat, LUCKY LADY running between Rising Sun, Indiana, and Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, Senior Captain Josh Lakin reported that the reopened ferry is doing a brisk business, especially on weekends. He also feels that the ferry is as much a transportation tool to the communities on both sides of the Ohio River as it is a service to its owner, the Rising Star Casino on the Indiana shore. Cap’n Josh is hoping for future financial support from both sides of the river so that the ferry becomes a regular and reliable waterway connector between the neighboring states.

Another dispatch from Captain Lakin late this week announced:

“Please say ‘Hello’ to our newest on-call captain, Ms. Brenna Karst.”

“Please say ‘Hello’ to our newest on-call captain, Captain Brenna Karst. At just the young age of 22, Brenna brings lots of river experience to our team as she is a full-time captain on the Anderson Ferry; also, a captain for the Cincinnati Cycle Boat and the SS Tiki Tours.”

Talking about the Anderson Ferry, a caller from a well-known river museum informed me that the owner of the historic 65-foot sidewheel ferryboat, the BOONE NO. 7 is looking for a non-profit organization to accept the ferry as a donation. The BOONE NO. 7, built at Covington, Kentucky in 1937 as a steamboat, was converted to diesel power in 1947 and ran regular ferry trips from Constance, Kentucky to Anderson Ferry Road in the west end of Cincinnati. Other than what little more anyone knows about the idea, I’m hoping that someone comes up with a brilliant proposal to preserve the BOONE NO. 7 as the river is losing too many irreplaceable historic riverboats these days.

There were some notable anniversaries to mention in the river community since my last issue. Captain Ernest E. Wagner would be 115 years of age had he lived so extraordinarily-long, while Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley celebrated his 85th year on the planet. When I first started working on the DELTA QUEEN in the mid-1960s, these two were often called “Big Cap” and “Little Doc,” by the crusty older pilots.

Captain Howard M. “Old Doc” Carr and Captain Clarke C. “Little Doc” Hawley on the DELTA QUEEN. 1960s

Captain Wagner was known as “Big Cap” for the simple fact of his extraordinary size. Cap’n Hawley was given the “Little Doc” moniker, not because of his smaller scale. Instead, there was another steamboatman aboard the QUEEN going by the nickname “Doc.” Captain Howard M. “Doc” Carr, was a regular Master and Mate on the Greene Line steamboats for many seasons.

Whenever the gossip flew in the wheelhouse and the conversation involved either, or both, of the “Docs,” it became expedient to distinguish the subjects by calling the elder, “Old Doc” and the much younger, “Little Doc.” After the passing of Captain Carr, who earned his title peddling snake oil and tonic elixirs from the back of a horse-drawn medicine wagon, and the retirement of the old-timers, Captain Hawley was, just plain “Doc” to the younger generation.

Captain Hawley attended a medical school where he intended to become a physician, but because the sight of blood was not to his liking, as he once revealed, he chose to stick with steamboating instead of “doctoring.”

Mary Bill Bauer, of Louisville, died this week. Mary Bill and her late husband Bill Bauer were regulars wherever and whenever a steamboat was in whistle distance. Mary Bill seemed a gregarious, outgoing woman, whereas her mate, Bill, was more a quieter type. Both, however, were always available to lend a hand or do a favor for any passenger or member of a crew whenever they could be helpful. 

Mary Bill Bauer, of Louisville. Ann Zieger Collection

Though today’s younger riverboat generation probably never heard of either Bill or Mary Bill, the Bauers were friends to several generations of steamboat men and women. Surely, many of them remembered looking across the water as their boat landed and seeing Bill and Mary Bill waving on the shore while waiting to offer anyone a ride to the drugstore, grocery, bus station, airport, or wherever else the Louisville couple’s goodwill would be appreciated.

This was my week on the river. Mainly it’s been one of detoxification after eight intense years aboard the Rafter CLYDE on practically a daily basis. Who knows what the future holds for any of us?  In the words of one old-time steamboat pilot, however: 

“Let’s just wait and see what happens…”

Left: Bill Bauer was a quieter type but doth Bill and Mary were always available to lend a hand or do a favor whenever they could be helpful. RIGHT: Captain Ernest E Wagner would be 115 year of age had he lived so extraordinarily-long while Captain Clark C. ‘Doc’ Hawley celebrated his 85th year on the planet.

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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  1. Jessica Yusuf says:

    Another informative and interesting peek into river life! Thank you. All the best for what’s around the next bend on your journey.

  2. Pete OConnell says:

    Wow time seems to stop or slow down on the river but it has a way of letting you know.
    Thanks for the information.
    A great read as usual Captain.

  3. Connie Bays says:

    Thank you for sharing all your stories. I really enjoy them.

  4. Terri Christie says:

    Great read as always. A so look forward to you weekly column.

  5. Agree, this Virus has altered our older years. At my age with a couple of other conditions I am considered High Risk. So cowering in my House except for trips to the store. Facebook, especially the River and various Deep Sea Threads are helping to preserve some vestiges of sanity. Recent Deaths of Kings Point Classmates not helping. I have previously suggested to Capt. Don that he now has time for The Book. Considering it once, I then found ‘Waiting for a Ship,’ which pretty well covered a trip down the West Coast of South America.’ G-rated, too.

  6. Capt. Don says:

    Hey, everyone – thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Much appreciated.

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