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The River: Tracking down particulars of a certain riverboat calliope; answer may never be known


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 internet proved once more to be an invaluable tool in solving a decades-old question among an aging generation of steamboat enthusiasts. It all started with a query directed to Travis C. Vasconcelos, a long-time steamboat fellow, calliope player, riverboat historian, and presently the Curator of the Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville, Indiana by Captain Gabriel Chengery. Cap’n Gabe, a legendary steamboat master I first met when he was a boy riding the Steamer AVALON in Pittsburgh 60 years ago this autumn, retired from the steamboat life after the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN and the DELTA QUEEN tied up several years ago.

It all started with a query directed to Travis C. Vasconcelos, a long-time steamboat fellow, calliope player, riverboat historian, and presently the Curator of the Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

Gabe questioned:

“Travis…I know for sure that you are the one person who can answer my question……I want to date the AVALON calliope. What year did Nichols build it; what year was it put on the IDLEWILD, and where was it until it appeared on the IDLEWILD?” 

As regular readers to this column may recall, the AVALON was the steamboat I began my professional career aboard as a 17-year-old deckhand the year before the inquisitive, younger buff and I met in the Steel City. The AVALON, built along the same shores bordering Gabe’s hometown and named the IDLEWILD, is still fit and operational, but better-known in its 106th year as the BELLE of LOUISVILLE. I want to say the BELLE is “running,” but like about everything else; the global pandemic has her tied up for the remainder of this wretched year. (EDIOR’S NOTE: After pubication of this column, CEO Krita Snider, CEO of the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, wrote to say that “The Belle is cruising every week and will continue to do so until she does to dry dock in late October.”)  

The AVALON operated only one more year after I first met Gabe where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers met and gave rise to the Ohio River. After the AVALON quit running tramp excursions on the Mississippi River System at the end of the 1961 season, the tired, but venerable steamboat and much of its operating equipment sold at public auction on the Cincinnati Public Landing.

“I want to date the AVALON calliope. What year did Nichols build it; what year was it put on the IDLEWILD, and where was it until it appeared on the IDLEWILD?”

Auctioned separately from the boat was the calliope, a steam-powered musical instrument with 32-brass whistles. When played with live, vaporous steam piped directly from the boilers, a mad, thunderous cacophony arose from the set of whistles which summoned the rubes from miles around offering them the temptation of riding a steamboat on the river. The booming, three-chimed baby-waker of a whistle and the wailing, musical notes of the Rhythm Masters Orchestra drifting from the dancefloor and the smells of steam, cylinder oil, and freshly-popped popcorn all added to the lure. But it was the calliope that enraptured the eager throngs to crowd the riverbanks and enticed them across the landing stage to fork over 75-cents for a ticket.

Travis answered by saying he had beliefs based on photographs concerning the origins of the awkward musical instrument sequestered in Captain Gabe’s garage. Still, without concrete evidence, he had no proof. Travis further stated that photos proved that a calliope was installed aboard the IDLEWILD in 1931 when the steam paddlewheel excursion boat was running from the Louisville city front landing to the Fountain Ferry/Rose Island Amusement Park on the Indiana side of the Ohio River above-town. Other evidence suggested that “the instrument wasn’t new from the factory when installed on the IDLEWILD.”

While examining pictures of steam-operated calliopes built by the Thomas J. Nichol Company, Cincinnati, Travis, and fellow calliope aficionados, David and his son Jonathan Tschiggfrie, Matthew Dow, and Zachary Morehead noticed that the “steam piano” on the Steamer AMERICA had certain unique features the group had not seen on any other Nichol-built contrivance. They concluded: “The threaded rods holding up the whistle bells were flat on the top (the only time any of us have seen this on a Nichol-built instrument) and the steam valve into the manifold was to the right side of the console and highly elevated.”

Hawley at Calliope on AVAON-1957. But it was the calliope that enraptured the eager throngs to crowd the riverbanks and enticed them across the landing stage to fork over 75-cents for a ticket.

The men informed Captain Chengery that the only other calliope instrument set up precisely that same way was the one he had in his possession that came from the IDLEWILD / AVALON after the tramp excursion boat and property sold at auction following the 1961 season. They also informed him that without “any pictures of the AMERICA calliope that show the deep end of the manifold to prove the whistle layout and spacing are the same,” only assumptions, and not proofs, could be made as to whether the AMERICA and the IDLEWILD / AVALON calliopes were the same. The primary premise was, of course, the calliope survived the September 1930 fire that destroyed the AMERICA and was installed on the IDLEWILD the following spring.

Travis summed up his assumptions with: “However, there are a few small holes in this hypothesis that make me reticent to claim it to be fact. I think we may never know for sure.”

Almost immediately, Keith Norrington, a long-time steamboat crewman, river historian, and the author of “The Old Boat Column” in the Waterways Journal (WJ), the weekly maritime trade publication of the inland waterways, added: “One of my upcoming columns in the WJ is on the excursion steamer AMERICA. I’d love for someone to solve the mystery of the calliope!”

From Zachary Morecraft: “I think it (the calliope) could have been manufactured somewhere between 1915 to 1923. That is my hypothesis.”

The Steamer AMERICA landed at Rose Island Amusement Park.

Travis agreed with Zach on the estimated dates of the manufacture of the “infernal musical instrument.” He noted that identifying parts and entire contraptions were especially troublesome due to the lack of serial numbers on the part of Mr. Nichols, the manufacturer. Not every calliope was fabricated the same way, unlike the routine precision common these days in industrial production. Mr. Nichol’s methods reminded me of the way I rebuilt many paddlewheels in my time in that each part was a little different to fit within imprecise tolerances. 

Back to the apparent one-of-a-kind flat top, threaded rods seen only in photos of the AMERICA calliope and on Captain Gabe’s IDLEWILD / AVALON musical machine, Travis concluded: “Were the flat-topped threaded rods a one-off? Were they all he had left in the shop when he built it? Was this the last instrument (Nichol built), and he rushed it? We will never know.”

Zach: “I’m guessing it could have been a one-off, or hell, someone could have taken a hacksaw and cut the tips off. You pretty much hit the nail on the head. We’ll never really know.”

Keith: “Sometimes the “River News” columns in newspapers mentioned things like the transfer of a calliope, etc. I have tried to find mention of what boat the engines on the IDLEWILD came from, but no luck – yet! I have some OLD scrapbooks from Mr. Harry Stocksdale, who lived here in New Albany and who played the calliope on various boats. I’ll go through them again to see if there might be something about the calliope on the AMERICA.”

One-of-a-kind flat top, threaded rods seen only in photos of the AMERICA calliope and on Captain Gabe’s IDLEWILD / AVALON musical machine.

Travis: “Wouldn’t it be exciting to unearth some new information? If anyone would know what happened to the AMERICA’s Calliope, Harry Stocksdale was ‘Mr. Calliope’ in the Louisville area…our own Homer Denney!”

Every one of the participants mentioned in this quest, so far, to find if the IDLEWILD / AVALON and the AMERICA calliopes are the same, are recognized musical masters of that infernal, racket making steam-powered musical contraption called the Calliope. Pronounced several ways, Calliope also sounds like, : “ka-li-o-pee,” “kally-ope,” or as my Grandmother Edith always said, “Kal- le-oh,” as examples. There are others.

Harry Stockdale and Homer Denney are legendary masters of the contraption in historic proportions. Especially Mr. Denney, a Cincinnati musician whose name will remain forever celebrated wherever the steam instrument is the subject of discussion in terms of steamboats along the Ohio River. Coincidently, quite possibly, the last time Homer Denney assaulted the auditory senses of those within earshot of his art, was in the Summer of 1970 when he begged himself aboard the DELTA QUEEN with a strange request. The boat was laid-up for a few days in Cincinnati. Captain Wagner was at home and left me in charge in his absence when the Watchman knocked on my cabin door and reported that an old gentleman was on the bow and requested permission to come aboard and play the QUEEN’s Nichol’s steam calliope.

The last time Homer Denney assaulted the auditory senses of those within earshot of his art, was in the Summer of 1970 when he begged himself aboard the DELTA QUEEN with a strange request. (From the Bert Finn Collection)

I was about to laugh, but a hunch told me to ask if the old fellow gave his name.

“Yeah, Benny, or something like that.”

“Denney?”

“Yeah, Denney – that was it.”

Out the door, I flew to the bow, where I found Mr. Homer Denney, one of the most famous calliope players in the history of the river. Gabe, not yet a captain, was aboard, too, as he was a Purser in the onboard office and doubled as an on-call calliope player. I took black and white photos while Gabe made an audiotape recording while Mr. Denney performed, quite possibly, his last concert behind the keys of the steam-powered musical instrument he mastered in his long-ago youth on steamboats with all-but-forgotten names. 

At this time, the first non-calliope player spoke up. It was James E. “Jimmy” Reising, one of my generation but with closer ties to the DELTA QUEEN preceding even my affiliation with the boat from the early 1960s when Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley, E.P Hall, Ed Smith, Bubba Chinn, Preacher Lollar, and Leroy Batteau followed Captain Ernest E. Wagner to the QUEEN after the AVALON quit running. I was still in school and only worked summers on the AVALON, but, today, I still harbor the notion that Big Cap would have surely included me in this select group had I been aboard with them when the tramp excursion boat laid up.

Thanks, Capt. Gabe Chengery for causing the ‘sternline telegraph’ to work together.

Jimmy added: “The AMERICA burned just before the IDLEWILD got its first calliope. The AMERICA’s fire was somewhat suspect at the time it happened, and the calliope could have easily been removed before the fire. Anyone have any close-up pictures of the AMERICA’s instrument? The IDLEWILD did take the place of the AMERICA in the Rose Island charter.”

When I volunteered with a photo of Harry Stockdale standing behind the keys of the AMERICA’s calliope, Travis interjected:

“I have that picture in my collection. I’d love to see a good closeup from the other end. With a view like that, we could say with certainty if this is, or is not, Gabe’s calliope. My money says it could prove to be the exact instrument. We are just one picture away!”

Meanwhile, the lot of us were going through our files and photo collections about anything related to the subject. My gathering of photos, drawings, broadsides, and whatever else about the history of steamboats on the Mississippi River System numbers over some 20,000 items garnered from the internet. Compared to what lies within the files of all the systems on the net, my grouping is minuscule. So what I found added nothing further productive to the quest to answer Captain Gabe’s initial queries.

Just then, Travis posted:

“ I just got an email of a picture Jimmy Reising found on the Courier-Journal website with a great shot of the end of the manifold I needed to see to prove my hypothesis.”

Keith Norrington quickly added a new challenge to solve a century-old mystery puzzling steamboat buffs for generations.

“I can say with certainty that the AMERICA calliope is, in fact, the calliope installed aboard the IDLEWILD in 1931. The pictures prove it to be fact.”

“It would also explain why the IDLEWILD had no keyboard cover in her earliest years; it burned off in the AMERICA fire in 1930.”

“Thanks, Capt. Gabe Chengery for causing the ‘sternline telegraph’ to work together and do all this photo forensic work.”

“This solves one of the great calliope questions of the years!”

Keith Norrington quickly added a new challenge to solve a century-old mystery puzzling steamboat buffs for generations:

“THANKS to ALL concerned for solving this puzzle! Now, to find out from whence the IDLEWILD engines originated! Inquiring minds want to know!”

At this time, the first non-calliope player spoke up. It was James E. “Jimmy” Reising.

The “sternline telegraph” that Travis mentioned is the name given to a means of communication within the river community to spread the word whenever anything of mutual interest needs sharing. In days of yore before electronic devices spread the word approaching the speed of light, messages flew from one end of the river to the other by whatever means possible.

Perhaps, it was just one person gossiping to another, and that prattle went up the river at the speed of a steamboat cresting the current of the mightest of waterways on the continent. Somehow, or another, the method always worked. However, it is doubtful that a more-than-a century-old puzzle has been solved so quickly as when a small group scattered along the breadth of the river used the unlimited power of the internet to come to a solution so rapidly.

Postscript:

No sooner had everyone been satisfied that this mystery was one for the record books, a conversation with one of the most respected patriarchal steamboatmen still among the living revealed that he was not totally satisfied that the findings discussed here were correct. 

Perhaps, the most valid answer may lie in the earlier words of Travis and Zach:

“ We may never know entirely for certain.”

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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6 Comments

  1. Everett Dameron says:

    Are younworking on “that book” Don?

  2. Ronald L Sutton says:

    Really More about Calliopes than I really want to know. about the only Sunday Column that has not whetted my interest.

  3. Connie Bays says:

    I have always loved the sounds/music of the calliope. On one hand, I wish the ease of photography through digital means had been available way back in the heyday of steamboat excursions/work. I would love to see it all. That, however; would take away a lot of the mystery, lore, imagination and romance of the dreams that flutter through my head. But still…..
    Thanks for another interesting read! I look forward to these every week!

  4. Terri says:

    Quite the twist and turns. This story kept me on the edge of my seat. Love it.

  5. Pete Eveland says:

    Well done, Capt. Sanders! As I’m sure you recall, the calliope is one of only three musical instruments uniquely invented in the USA. Named for the Greek goddess of sweet sound, it remains the only instrument that is audible for ten miles and is tuned with a pipe wrench! I personally recall playing the Delta Queen’s calliope for a mass baptism one Sunday morning in St. Louis, many years ago, for thousands who came to the banks of the mighty Mississippi to wash their sins away. Thank you for yet another entertaining article!

    Dr. Pete Eveland (aka “Professor Pete”)

  6. Capt. Don Sanders says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments, but I made a glaring error that rightfully irked one reader when I stated that the BELLE of LOUISVILLE is “tied up for the remainder of this wretched year.”

    According to Krista Snider, CEO of the BELLE of LOUISVILLE Riverboats, Louisville, Kentucky, “That’s simply not true. The BELLE is cruising every week and will continue to do so until she goes to dry dock in late October.”

    My sincere apologies go to the Captain, crew, staff, and the CEO who are working so hard for “the remainder of this wretched year” to keep the nearly 106-year-old steamboat cruising every week through late October. As one of the only three known AVALON, the BELLE’s former self, crewmembers still on the sunny side of the sod, I would be the last person to intentionally report any misinformation damaging to this treasured maritime historical landmark – especially, during the added difficulties of the global pandemic.

    The BELLE of LOUISVILLE needs all the help she can get during these extraordinarily wretched times. The BELLE has an internet page where anyone can become a supporter to “Keep the BELLE Afloat” by making a donation (which I have), purchasing a gift certificate, booking a cruise, or several other beneficial activities at https://belleoflouisville.org/.

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