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The River: Changes were in the air as grand riverboat begins the year to ‘Save the DELTA QUEEN”


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

During last week’s column concerning the ill-fated Revlon Inc.’s charter of the DELTA QUEEN for Super Bowl IV, 1970, I stated that Chief James Calvin “Cal” Benefiel suddenly came to the rescue of the steamboat at New Orleans while the Revlon group was still aboard. According to Chief Engineer Kenny P. Howe, Jr., a young apprentice Striker Engineer at the time, one more bluewater “wacko” took the place of the deep-sea Chief who left in disgrace while the QUEEN lay docked at the foot of Canal Street.

Kenny P. Howe, Jr., a young apprentice Striker Engineer at the time.

Chief Kenny recalled another engineer unfamiliar with brown water steamboats coming aboard at the Dixie Machine docks only hours before the DELTA QUEEN departed for the first trip of the memorable “Save the DELTA QUEEN” year. That season was when, according to the QUEEN’s brochure, “159 years of steamboat river packets will soon pass into history, ending an era, never to return, as the legendary DELTA QUEEN makes her last overnight cruises on America’s inland waterways. Never again, this unforgettable experience.”

Strangely, the ’70 pamphlet lists the Revlon Charter as the first trip of the season, but Captain Ernest E. Wagner’s Official Log Book makes no mention of the Revlon fiasco. The brochure labels the second trip as the “Mississippi Weekend” from Greenville, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, with no clue whatsoever of how the DELTA QUEEN got to Greenville from New Orleans in the first place. The Log Book, however, records the QUEEN departing Dixie Machine at 7:15 M, January 27, for Greenville and arriving there at 3:45 on the afternoon of January 30. After half-a-century, the variance in the documents remains a mysterious curiosity whose explanations are shrouded in time – even for those of us who were aboard the QUEEN.

The brochure labels the second trip as the “Mississippi Weekend” from Greenville, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, with no clue whatsoever of how the DELTA QUEEN got to Greenville from New Orleans in the first place.

Also aboard was Captain C. T. Newman, a United States Coast Guard traveling inspector from the Commandants Office in Washington, DC. The DELTA QUEEN’s exemption from the SOLAS, or “Safety Of Life At Sea” law was due to expire at the end of the season. The owners of the beloved steamboat were appealing to the U. S. Congress for another five-year reprieve, thus the jaunty slogan, “Save the DELTA QUEEN,” and the personal attention of the Coast Guard inspector from the Commandant’s headquarters. In essence, the “Safety at Sea” legislation directed “that no vessels carrying more than 50 overnight passengers on cruises originating in U. S. territorial waters are allowed combustible materials in their construction.” Above the QUEEN’s stout steel hull, exotic and rare woods were the materials of choice for the original fabrication of the steamboat.

During his rounds of the steamer, Captain Newman noted that the mahogany and glass case mounted in the after-cabin of the Cabin Deck, solely for the display of the licenses of the officers of the vessel, was lacking one “ticket” in particular – that of the Chief Engineer. Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley, the QUEEN’s First Mate, asked the engineer for his license so they could be exhibited in the case as required by maritime law. Still, the Chief always had an excuse that he “was too busy,” or whatever, to present his documents for display alongside the other licenses. 

However, after Captain Doc insisted, the engineer produced his documentation for a First Assistant Engineer, and not that of a Chief Engineer, as the DELTA QUEEN required. The boat was illegally operating since it left the Dixie Machine terminal. Captain Newman was none-too-happy, and indeed his unhappiness reflected in his report to the Coast Guard Commandant in Washington.

Captain Ernest E. Wagner, Master of the DELTA QUEEN.

Meanwhile, down on the deck, I listened intently as Captain Wagner explained to the traveling inspector, “In case of a fire aboard the DELTA QUEEN, the closest land is never more than a few minutes away from where the pilot could easily shove the boat ashore where everyone, then, had a chance to scamper safely onto dry ground.”

Standing, as we were on the head of the boat, so close to the anchor, Inspector Newman mentioned to Captain Wager that he wanted to see how well the QUEEN’s anchor held the boat in midcourse of the Mississippi. Ordering the pilot to stop the engines and kill all headway, Captain Wagner and Captain Newman watched while my rookie crew and I dropped the anchoring device to the sandy river bottom where the power of the Mississippi caused the stout anchor chain to shimmy in the vexing current of the ferocious waterway. As the anchor held firmly while the DELTA QUEEN was “hanging on the hook,” the inspector expressed satisfaction with the exercise and granted the Captain permission to retrieve it.

No sooner had the Skipper given the order to raise the massive beast, someone came running from the boiler room yelling that the boilers had lost their steam. There was no way to hoist the 2,000-pound device from the clutches of the river. Now we were snared like a catfish on a trotline – so close to shore, yet powerless to get nearer to the dry ground that Wagner touted as the QUEEN’s salvation should troubles arise that warranted getting everyone ashore.

The Coast Guard official looked at the Captain of the DELTA QUEEN and solemnly pondered, “What are you going to do now if the boat catches fire?”

Fortunately, Fireman Ed Smith and other members of the engineering staff eventually had steam back in both boilers as the anchor plopped back into place alongside the hull below deck-level.

Fortunately, Fireman Ed Smith and other members of the engineering staff eventually had steam back in both boilers as the anchor plopped back into place alongside the hull below deck-level. The DELTA QUEEN arrived safely without further adieu on February 01, 1970, at the Waterways Marine wharfboat, below the mouth of the Wolf River, at 1:10 PM. Captain Wagner’s Log noted:

“Lost 3 hours due to steam loss and anchor…”

Within a few hours, after all the passengers and Captain Newman were off the boat, an uneasy atmosphere hung like an impending storm cloud over the crew. Changes were in the air.

In the Aft Cabin Lounge, behind the Purser’s Office, a stateroom served as an extension of the Cincinnati-based office of the Greene Line Steamers, Inc., owners of the gracious, though recently-troubled steamboat. Shortly after the DELTA QUEEN arrived in Memphis, Miss Betty Blake, Vice-President and General Manager of the company, and the errant engineer sailing without the proper license for his role as Chief Engineer met in the temporary office. Heated words rang out between the two until someone remembered seeing the “chief” toting his gear to a taxi cab waiting at the foot of Beale Street. That was the end of him as far as the QUEEN was concerned.

With only the crew aboard, individual members slunk nervously into the stateroom office after their names rang out across the PA system. Not long after the stateroom door closed behind them, the unfortunates filed off the boat carrying their plunder ashore. With a general purge underway aboard the steamboat, no one knew who would be the next to fall.

“Cap’n” Betty Blake, Vice-President and General Manager of the Greene Line Steamers, Inc., Owners of the DELTA QUEEN.

In the engineroom on the Main Deck, aft, Kenny Howe sat talking to the Assistant Engineer, Forrest Foreman, when Kenny’s name sounded through the loudspeakers to report to the temporary office.

“Well, Chief Forrest, that sounds like that’s the end of me, but I was always told never to quit no matter how mad ya’ get. Make ’em fire you; then they have to pay your way back home.”

Kenny Howe recalled how crowded the stateroom seemed filled with the top officers of the boat. Besides “Cap’n Betty” Blake, William “Bill” Muster, President of the Greene Line, was seated behind a makeshift desk next to Betty. Chief Steward Franklin Miles, the first black man to hold that title aboard the DELTA QUEEN, stood on one side of the small room. Perhaps Captain Hawley was present, too. Kenny remembers “Big Cap,” Captain Wagner, all six-foot-six and 260-pounds of him sprawled on one of the beds with his back leaning against the headboard.

Betty began: “Kenny, do you intend to stay aboard the DELTA QUEEN and work all season?”

Kenny: “Actually, I’ve thought of leaving the QUEEN once we get to Louisville.”

Betty: “But would you stay if you got to work with Chief Cal Benefiel?”

Kenny: “Now, that would be a possibility. No one knows the DELTA QUEEN from an engineering standpoint than Chief Benefiel. Yes, that would be a very definite possibility I would stay if he returned.”

When the DELTA QUEEN steamed from the Memphis Waterways Marine wharfboat on Wednesday, February 04, 1970, at 12:25 PM, James Calvin Benefiel’s Chief Engineer’s license hung in the mahogany and glass rack in the Aft Cabin Lounge. Meanwhile, the man, himself, held sway, in all its glory, within the engineering principality nestled between the Charles H. Evans & Company of San Francisco Cross-Compound Condensing Steam Engines powering the QUEEN.

“The DELTA QUEEN never ran better than she did that afternoon paddling down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans,” Chief Kenny Howe remembered fifty years after the fact.

James Calvin Benefiel’s Chief Engineer’s license hung in the mahogany and glass rack in the Aft Cabin Lounge.

Chief Steward Franklin Miles, the first black man to hold that title aboard the DELTA QUEEN.

The DELTA QUEEN Paddlewheel, 1970.

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. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    Loved this “inside” story. I had never heard it before. Thanks for sharing another great one!

  2. Connie Bays says:

    Love reading this. Felt like a fly on the wall listening in on the goings on within that office. Anxiously awaiting your next installment.

  3. Ronald Sutton says:

    Do Not Mess with the Experienced Engineers! Anybody can be Chief, or Captain, when things are going fine. It is when trouble Hits that you find Out.

  4. R Sutton says:

    Thinking about it, had I been Fired as was C/E Benefiel, I would have made a couple of Adjustments before Leaving.

  5. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Thank you for another awesome look into the life of the Delta Queen and her crews. You bring it all to life so one feels they’re there as it happened. Kenny Howe came through & helped after another Chief fiasco in the later years so I’m glad they convinced him to stay.in 1970.

  6. Mike Washenko says:

    Thank you for another great read, keep it up.

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