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The River: Working on a steamboat takes hard work and dedication — ‘fancy pants’ don’t a leader make


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

Working inside a paddlewheel has always been my favorite occupation on a sternwheel riverboat. Though my first experience was on my family houseboat with a small wooden wheel astern, my proper indoctrination into the art came during the first of two seasons aboard the Steamer AVALON. From the first time since I set foot in that steamboat wheel with Watchman Harry Ricco in 1959, “working in the wheel” has remained a source of pleasure lasting until the week before the CLYDE, and I parted company less than two months ago.

Working inside a paddlewheel has always been my favorite occupation on a sternwheel riverboat. Though my first experience was on my family houseboat with a small wooden wheel astern.

With such a love for “sledgehammer carpentry” within a giant, oaken propulsion unit as a stern paddlewheel, I was naturally delighted when Captain Ernest E. Wagner, Master of the DELTA QUEEN, assigned me the mission of hands-on supervision for the tune-up of the 26-ton wheel behind the DELTA QUEEN immediately after I returned to the steamboat after an absence of four-and-a-quarter years in military service.

The four deckhands delegated to work alongside me in the paddlewheel either didn’t share my enthusiasm for the task or else they were testing me, the new Second Mate, to see how far they could push me and how much I would take. Every time I looked up, one or more of the men were missing, and that meant I had to leave the job and hunt those who’d gone astray. Usually, by the time I returned, the workmen I’d left on the job were gone when I came back with the ones I’d hunted down. This game of hunt and seek went on for a few days until I approached Captain Clarke “Doc” Hawley and suggested we get a more dedicated set of ambitious workers who would take pride in working on the steamboat.

“But who else would work on here?” the Mate shrugged. It so happened that a line of long-haired “hippies” watched standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a railing above where the QUEEN lay moored the wharf. Sweeping my arm above us to encompass all within the crowd above, I replied, “Take your pick.”

I was naturally delighted when Captain Ernest E. Wagner, Master of the DELTA QUEEN, assigned me the mission of hands-on supervision for the tune-up of the 26-ton wheel behind the DELTA QUEEN.

That evening Cap’n Doc discussed my suggestion with Captain Wagner, who dismissed five deckhands of the crew of eight, and a new era of employment standards began aboard the steamboat. As a modern-day in DELTA QUEEN history began, the work started getting done.

In an earlier column, I told about an industrious group of onboard Manpower workmen. They were discretely informed to have their gear aboard before the QUEEN departed New Orleans if they wanted a job. We weren’t supposed to hire temps permanently, but what happened was done. One of the men, Preston “Red” Lunsford, stayed for several years and eventually became a deck department supervisor. See that column here.

Super Bowl IV, played on 11 January 1970, was a celebrated event in football history played at New Orleans when the AFL Kansas City Chiefs defeated the NFL Minnesota Vikings 23-7 at the Tulane Stadium. The game was the last between the two leagues as they merged into the NFL after the game ended. Meanwhile, at the same time aboard the DELTA QUEEN docked at the foot of Canal Street, things were just as exciting aboard the boat, but in a far different way.

Preston “Red” Lunsford, stayed for several years and eventually became a deck department supervisor.

Revlon Corporation, the cosmetics giant, started by Elizabeth Arden in 1910, chartered the DELTA QUEEN as a floating hotel for their top executives and corporate guests for the Super Bowl extravaganza. The steamboat wasn’t quite ready for guests when she was brought out early for the Super Bowl charter, as repairs were yet unfinished at the Dixie Machine docks. Worst of all, the head office in Cincinnati saw fit not to rehire the DELTA QUEEN’s longtime Chief Engineer, James Calvin “Cal” Benefiel. Instead, they hired a somewhat younger hotshot engineer coming from a deepsea background. Quite often, “blue water” oceanic mariners are thought by the uninformed to be superior to their “brown water” counterparts from the inland river waterways. Such is not always the case, as events quickly revealed.

The Revlon Charter was a ritzy VIP event as ever the historic riverboat hosted in its long history. Everything was “So-So” with the crew on its best behavior – that is, until the DELTA QUEEN lost power and went dark without light, heat, or electricity. Then everything aboard the boat turned ballistic. The deepsea Chief Engineer, basking in full, formal uniform seated at the Texas Lounge Bar, was the first to realize that a catastrophic problem existed in the engineering department. Captain Wagner was soon on the chief’s heels, demanding to know what had happened and how the hotshot engineer proposed to correct the unfortunate circumstances.

Quickly, the word spread around the DELTA QUEEN that the Chief Engineer was indulging in the Texas Lounge when everything suddenly went cold, dark, and quiet. The Captain was especially upset that the most crucial officer aboard the boat, besides himself, was boozing with the guests instead of remaining at his post, where the Chief Engineer could, at least, have a “taste” out of sight of those he was supposed to serve. Often, though, that is the case with privileged employees aboard a passenger-carrying vessel who misunderstand that no matter how many stripes or how much gold braid festoons their uniforms, they are still the hired help and not patrons of the boat.

The DELTA QUEEN’s longtime Chief Engineer, James Calvin “Cal” Benefiel.

Frantically, the Chief hurried to his quarters to change from his fancy costume into a pair of soiled coveralls to begin discovering the source of the calamity. The big game was just a few hours away, and the guests had yet to shower, shave, and dress for the big event, but the QUEEN lay in total darkness inside with a cold drizzle outside quickly cooling the temperature of the boat.

It was probably Captain Wagner and other veteran members of the crew who uncovered the source of malcontent aboard the steamer. The DELTA QUEEN merely ran out of fuel sitting at the wharf. A refueling barge eventually arrived alongside, but it would be hours before the QUEEN finished fueling, and the fires relit beneath the boilers. Aboard were nearly 172 patrons anxious to ready themselves for the game.

Immediate help came from Bob Jones, the Chief Purser, a young, energetic fellow, and his assistant, Bill Brown, who went ashore and bought all the flashlights and batteries found on Canal Street. The duo also returned with bundles of rain gear as a cold drizzle continued falling through game time. In the kitchen, the Chef, Chief Steward, and their staff prepared box lunches instead of hot meals.

Once the revelers left the boat for the bowl game, the drama continued in the bowels of the vessel. Even with fuel aboard, the Engineer could not get the fires burning beneath the boilers. Meanwhile, Captain Wagner conferred with the office, and they agreed to allow the Captain to persuade Chief Cal Benefiel to return to the DELTA QUEEN with a far better salary than he received before. At least Chief Cal was promised, I heard, as much as the company supposedly paid his deep-sea counterpart.

By some way, or another, the quickest flight possible whisked Chief Benefiel to New Orleans, arriving soon after the deepsea fancypants learned of his dismissal. The last anyone saw the downtrodden, short-lived DELTA QUEEN engineer; he stood waiting for a cab at the foot of Canal Street with his suitcase by his side and his fancy uniform hanging on a hanger thrown over his shoulder.

Chief Benefiel and his team had the boat warm and toasty by the time the Revlon revelers returned to a hot feast served in the Orleans Room on the main deck. Early the next morning, after the guests departed, for the sake of safety, a tug accompanied the DELTA QUEEN back to the Dixie Machine wharf where repairs and cosmetics continued until the steamboat left for her first official trip of the 1970 “Save the DELTA QUEEN” season.

Strangely, not a single entry was made of the Revlon Charter and supplemental events in the Official DELTA QUEEN Logbook for 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.

Quickly, the word spread around the DELTA QUEEN that the Chief Engineer was indulging in the Texas Lounge when everything suddenly went cold, dark, and quiet.

Chief Benefiel and his team had the boat warm and toasty by the time the Revlon revelers returned to a hot feast served in the Orleans Room on the main deck.


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6 Comments

  1. Joy Scudder says:

    Loved this story, Capt. Don. “…Chief Benefiel to New Orleans, arriving soon after the deepsea fancypants learned of his dismissal.” “Deepsea fancypants”, best laugh today!

  2. Ronald L Sutton says:

    Proves a couple of truths: Never come on New to anything that floats and assume you know More than the guy you’re relieving, especially on a Strange One Off like the DQ. Even so, lighting off should have been Easy for the Experienced Fire Room crew. A little Sandbagging? Engineers should Not Show off. certain Rare exceptions,That’s what the Captain, sounds like ‘Big E’, and to a way lesser extent the Mates are for. On a couple of passenger ships engineers wore rank and company collar pins. Never Shoulder Boards not Stripped Blues. Well written, Captain Don.

  3. Ginnie Rhynders says:

    Always a good read from Captain Sanders. Look forward to his columns every Sunday

  4. Bob Sanders says:

    You are probably the best paddle wheel rebuilder on planet Earth, Don. I have always been amazed by your “sledge hammer carpentry” skills.

  5. Mike Washenko says:

    WOW what a great story, you sure you’re not making this stuff up. Another great read.

  6. Terri Christie says:

    Another great read! I always enjoy Capt. Sanders’ river tales, and always look forward to them.

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