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The River: Save the Delta Queen — keeping beloved steamboat from termites, slackers, and extinction

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

“Save the DELTA QUEEN. Don’t let the termites get her,” wailed crooner Gary Busey and his band, CARP.

The year was 1970, and efforts were “coming ahead full on a double-gong” to keep the beloved steamboat from extinction should measures fail to exempt the DELTA QUEEN from the SOLAS, or “Safety at Sea Law,” at the end of December. Just what did I get myself into after returning to the QUEEN at the beginning of what historians generally remember as one of the most eventful and exciting years in steamboat memory?

“Save the DELTA QUEEN. Don’t let the termites get her,” wailed crooner Gary Busey and his band, CARP.

Changes happening that year would affect the DELTA QUEEN for the rest of her days. It’s easy, now, to see that the steamboat of that pivotable year was not the same boat as it had been earlier. The world swirling around the QUEEN also altered the climate aboard the boat. The Vietnam War was well into its ninth year and would rage another five more years. The assignations of the Reverend Martin Luther King and Senator Bobby Kennedy, just two years before, still swayed emotions, especially among the young. The Cambodian Invasion of April 1970, an extension of the war in Nam, closed the colleges throughout the United States. More than a few “hippies” who sought employment as DELTA QUEEN crewmembers were either veterans of the war or the streets, where protests against the “establishment” became fodder for nightly television broadcasts.

Returning to the QUEEN after a four and a quarter year stint in the Air Force, I found that most of the old-time steamboat deckhands who’d spent decades with the Greene Line were gone. In their place were young men more interested in the twenty-five-cent-a-can beer machine in the Crew Mess and the bootleg booze peddled below decks than they were in doing a decent job.

After I talked to Captain Doc Hawley about replacing the “slackers” on deck, and he questioned who else would work on the steamboat, I swept my arm above at the long-haired hippies leaning against the railing on the dock overhead and answered:

“Take your pick.”

Col. Vic Tooker, blowing taps with the boat in the background, 1968. 

That night, Cap’n Doc took my suggestion to Captain Ernest E. Wagner, Master of the DELTA QUEEN, and five of the eight deckhands were let go by the next morning. In their place were men previously employed aboard as temporary contract laborers, but willing to work however needed without hesitating or balking. And so, the gears of change moved ahead a turn.

When I left the DELTA QUEEN in St. Louis 1965, there was no thought that the boat would become entangled in the “Safety at Sea” fiasco. Still, a photo appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper for February 23, 1968, featuring the QUEEN’s Interlocutor, Col. Vic Tooker, blowing taps with the boat in the background.

The caption read:

“New Orleans, LA, February 23–TAPS FOR A RIVER QUEEN–Vic Tooker of Dayton, Ohio plays taps as the DELTA QUEEN, the last of the overnight passenger steamboats, ties up at New Orleans at dusk Friday, which might be the final trip down the Mississippi for the paddlewheeler. The old rivercraft, which has been operating on the river some 20 years, may have made its last trip to the Mardi Gras as new safety sea legislation requires vessels to have metal superstructures. The QUEEN is wood.”

Fortunately, the DELTA QUEEN received a reprieve from the legislation until the end of 1970. So I returned to the boat none the wiser of what the year would mean to the QUEEN or anyone involved in securing another lease on life for the vessel during that eventful, exciting year.

More than a few “hippies” who sought employment as DELTA QUEEN crewmembers were either veterans of the war or the streets. (Photo by K. Norrington)

Immediately upon my arrival in New Orleans aboard the DELTA QUEEN at the Dixie Machine Dock on the Industrial Canal, Captain Wagner named me as the boat’s “Second Mate,” a position not required on the steamer’s Certificate of Inspection. However, there is a slot for a “Head Watchman,” a job with plenty of leeway for the holder to fit in anywhere the Master decided.

Captain Wagner and I first started our steamboat relationship in 1959 aboard the steam-driven excursion boat, the AVALON. Cap was the skipper, and I was a young deckhand who soon caught his eye as someone willing to learn and ready to work hard to get ahead in the riverboat trade. 

On my return to the DELTA QUEEN in ‘70, “Big Cap” assigned me to his watch, where he quickly began breaking me in learning how to handle the QUEEN from the pilothouse wing bridge. By April’s end of that year, Cap’s long-time First Mate and Alternate Master, Captain Doc Hawley, left the QUEEN for a similar position on the Steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE, formerly the AVALON. With his trusted mate gone, Cap’n Wagner called me aside and revealed he was allocating me to “do the work” of the First Mate of the QUEEN, though I had no certification, while an older officer “carried the license.” 

Captain Ernest E. Wagner and “Cap’n” Betty Blake on the DELTA QUEEN.

That the Captain entrusted me with such a responsibility still amazed me to this day. Another fellow, several years my junior, came along after Captain Wagner was gone. He spent some 14 years as a licensed mate and eventually took command as the Master of the DELTA QUEEN without spending instructive time on the bridge guiding the pilot in the wheelhouse and the crew on the deck below. The company, I was told, hired Captain Doc to ride for a trip with the new Master to teach him how to manage the Queen during locks and landings from the bridge.

Once I “sat” for and received my own Inland Mate’s license for “Steam & Motor Vessels of Any Gross Tons,” the additional licensed man left the steamboat on my arrival at the Cincinnati Public Landing. During all the time anyone “carried the license” for me, I never saw them when they weren’t hanging around the pilothouse catching up on the latest gossip with men of their generation. I reckon they felt I knew what I was doing, or I like to think they did.

In addition to my First Mate duties aboard the most famous steam-powered vessel in the world, “Cap’n” Betty Blake, Vice-President & General Manager, and William “Bill” Muster, President of the Greene Line Steamers, Inc., owners of the DELTA QUEEN, had extra chores they required of me to help save our steam queen.

Before long, and throughout that dramatic, invigorating, “Save the DELTA QUEEN” year, 1970, I was interviewed by magazines and newspapers and even appeared on some TV clips. In all, I learned many of Bill and Betty’s techniques for promotions, a skill that often helped me over the years since those halcyon days. Or as my hometown newspaper once quipped, “For a guy who’s never been arrested or run for political office, Don Sanders has one of the biggest clip files in the Kentucky Post.” 

Now, where do you suppose I learned that?  

I learned many of Bill and Betty’s techniques for promotions, a skill that often helped me over the years since those halcyon days. (The Kentucky Post. Terry Duennes, 1981)

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. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    Thanks again for another step back in the DELTA QUEEN’s important history.

  2. Heidi English says:

    As always I am taken by Captain Don’s fantasic work ethics. If only I had known I could have been a Captain too. It never dawned on my old pleasure boat captain Dad. I think he would have encouraged my training if he had. I sure was eager to learn back in the 1970’s along the Ohio river at Rising Sun.
    I am so glad Captain Don can inspire young folks into this profession with his captivating stores via N. Ky. Tribune.

  3. Ronald Sutton says:

    Obviously, in addition to his other skills, Big Capt Wagner was good at spotting Up & Comers. Usually on a boat or ship you can tell if someone knows ‘IT’ within a few minutes of time in the WheelHouse or Engine Room. I had a couple of young Thirds come aboard the Gulf Shipper years ago from a questionable Job Call. One, son of a Lykes C/E, proved to be a Natural, the other, a nice young man, was a satisfactory Engineer.

  4. Virginia Rhynders says:

    Another good read. Always enjoy Capt. Sanders articles. Thanks for running his column.

  5. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Capt Don yet again brings the Delta Queen & her history & folks to life. I’m so grateful for this space where old & young.river & non river can live history & learn. I hope he inspires some young folk to follow the traditions of the river. He’s a great teacher as well as historian.

  6. Cap-n Don says:

    Thanks, everyone for your kind remarks. As you can see, I am finally wading into stories from the DELTA QUEEN during my era abord her.

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