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The River: Young steamboatman learns from the best Captains and steers Delta Queen from runaway barge

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

If you think it doesn’t get cold in New Orleans in January – guess again. Though the average temps for that time of year are usually in the mid-60s, the Crescent City has, on rare occasions, felt more like St. Louis than it did the fun city on the Southern Gulf Coast. At least that’s the way the thermometer outside the pilothouse of the DELTA QUEEN read that last week in January of 1970 as the QUEEN readied for her first trip of the “Save the DELTA QUEEN” season.

If you think it doesn’t get cold in New Orleans in January – guess again.

Talk of the cold blasts was on all the news. With most of the houses down-south, the Crescent City included, built on open foundations high above the wet ground where basements are unknown, plumbers throughout the Gulf region worked tirelessly to service the endless calls reporting frozen pipes and busted plumbing. Such was the local weather as the DELTA QUEEN loaded her first passengers from “Naw’ lins” to Memphis via Natchez, Vicksburg, and Greenville.

“Loading Day” aboard the steamboat is always a bustling, crowded time. Imagine taxis bumper-to-bumper on the dock, porters hustling luggage aboard, stores and supplies needing loading arriving late, passengers fumbling for their tickets, and last-minute concerns of the mates if all the garbage is ashore and the water tanks topped. Amid this orchestrated confusion, on one of the coldest days of the new year, a very high official from the Cincinnati office, aboard for the departure of the QUEEN’s first trip of the year, ordered a particularly imprudent deckhand to break out the hoses and rinse down the decks. Within minutes, ice sheets glazed the exterior walkways where pandemonium quickly replaced self-choreographed busyness.

Most of the houses down-south, the Crescent City included, are built on open foundations high above the wet ground.

Captain Wagner was especially upset that neither the Mate, Captain Doc Hawley, nor I, Wagner’s apprentice Second Mate, were aware of the deckhand hosing the decks in sub-freezing temps. After all, the deckman pleaded, it was “tha’ boss-lady,” who decreed he water-down the walkways. Just as the deck crew and I were stowing the hose and scattering sand over the ice, a commotion arose at the end of the boarding ramp where it reached the deck from ashore. An older gentleman slipped and fell hard onto the rigid, wooden deck covered in painted canvas. The senior fellow moaned and complained that his arm was in terrible pain as Captain Doc comforted him while walking the victim toward George Cates’s awaiting United Cab that Cates kept standing-by conveniently on the wharf for business whenever the DELTA QUEEN was in town.  

While I watched the grimacing man, helpers moved him back across the boarding ramp towards the shore. I thought how terrible it was for someone anticipating a delightful cruise aboard the steamboat, only to fall on their first step onboard and then require emergency medical care ashore. Who the old gentleman might be, I wondered, and what would be the consequences of his injuries? Still, there were several more hours until the DELTA QUEEN departed. Could the injured man possibly return for the trip, or would his injuries be too severe? Soon, I gave the subject little further concern and went back to the business of undoing the damage brought on by the company administrator overstepping the authority of the steamboat’s chain of command.

Once the DELTA QUEEN finally departed Dixie Machine’s docks for the last time, the steamboat, crew, and an unrecorded number of passengers were on their way to Memphis, Tennessee, with stops in Vicksburg and Greenville after bypassing lovely Natchez. Coming on-watch, underway, for the first time as the Second Mate, I was shocked to find the pilot with his arm in a cast and grimacing with lingering pain. It was he, the older man who slipped earlier on the icy deck and fell and broke his arm before being rushed to the hospital. For the first time, I stood facing Captain Howard Wager Tate of Memphis. 

If any positive benefit came out of Cap’n Tate’s misery, I certainly had the opportunity to steer the boat for the next several days. But when Tate’s pain subsided sufficiently, he took back the steering sticks. After my relegation to a seat on the “Lazy Bench” behind the pilot, Captain Tate had the satisfaction of sending me to fetch his coffee every time he grumbled for a hot cup from the galley, several becks below.
But while I had the levers in my hands, and with Captain Tate so often somewhere below doing whatever he was doing, or else napping on the pilothouse bench, I experienced the freedom only an “actual” steamboat pilot could feel “behind the wheel” all alone. “Real-live Mark Twain stuff,” I imagined until a curious blip on the radar screen in the darkened pilothouse aroused my attention.

Straight ahead of the DELTA QUEEN, according to the illuminations displayed on the round screen, it looked like a blip turned sideways. According to what I learned in radar interpretation classes, it could be an echo returning off the bottom loops of high-tension power lines crossing the river. A check of the river chart showed electrical-carrying cables crossing about where the radar painted the strange return. For a few moments, I slumped comfortably in the pilot’s chair, satisfied with my interpretation of the greenish, glowing tube. Still, despite my self-assuredness, I bolted upright with a primal apprehensive of foreboding and flipped on the power switch energizing the starboard carbon arc headlight.

Just as the deck crew and I were stowing the hose and scattering sand over the ice, a commotion arose at the end of the boarding ramp.

With an intense brilliance, the arc light illuminated the blackened river ahead like the first rays of the morning sun. My heart raced as I stared at a large, floating something no more than half a mile ahead. Instead of low hanging power lines, the returns on the QUEEN’s radarscope discovered a runaway barge loaded with seashells, the southern equivalent of gravel for paving driveways and parking lots. Quickly, I steered the DELTA QUEEN out of the path of the errant shells just as Captain Tate returned to the pilothouse from an errand below.

“That would’ a ruined our whole day hadn’t you seen that barge in time,” Captain Tate remarked.

While I continued guiding the boat clear of the barge as it passed several hundred feet to our portside, Cap’n Tate reached for the handheld receiver-mike of the VHF marine radio and announced all the boats listening in the area:

This here’s the DELTA QUEEN. We’re passin’ a runaway barge loaded with shells right about the powerline crossing at Reserve Fleet.”

A few seconds later, a heavily-accented voice with a Louisiana Cajun accent replied:

“We be lookin’ all ober dis ribber fo’ dat bahge… T’anks for comin’ in dere, Cap.”

When Tate’s pain subsided sufficiently, he took back the steering sticks. (Photo by Ben Sandmel )

By a stroke of good fortune, due to my acting upon raw intuitiveness, the DELTA QUEEN avoided a cataclysmic encounter with a loaded barge. It felt right behind the steering levers, often called “sticks,” of possibly the most famous steamboat of the QUEEN’s kind in the world, though my piloting duties were not to last much longer. Captain Tate was quickly adjusting as the pain in his broken arm diminished. All-too-soon, he took back his seat at the pilot’s duty station. 

Captain Wagner had other chores for me in mind, however, and it was not long before he started teaching me all he could about his job as a “Roof Captain” of the DELTA QUEEN. In those days, the QUEEN’s First Mate, Captain Hawley, naturally stood in for Cap’n Wagner when the Master was off-watch. The mate was in charge of the opposite watch and performed all the duties the Captain would, otherwise. Little did I know what changes were not so far into the immediate future. 

Promptly, “Big Cap” began instructing me in the “handling” of the DELTA QUEEN from the Wing Bridges alongside the pilothouse, where I learned to command the deck below while guiding the pilot during landings and departures, and eventually at locks and dams. These sets of skills were those that individual captains coming after Ernie Wagner, jealousy guarded, and failed to pass on to their younger apprentices. 

Truthfully, I was blessed to have Captain Ernest E. Wagner as my steamboat advisor and mentor. I reckon it’s one advantage of being old enough that I can say I worked with him. Although later, many boasted they were Wagner’s equal. While some came close, none will ever be tantamount to “Big Cap” in stature, not only size-wise but in Cap’s natural ability as a leader and an all-around great steamboatman. 

The QUEEN’s radarscope discovered a runaway barge loaded with seashells, the southern equivalent of gravel for paving driveways and parking lots.

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. Don has some great stories..Told in true steamboat fashion, he captures the event as if it’s happening right now..Good stuff, Cuz

  2. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Awesome save by an awesome steersman/2nd Mate. Another great tale bringing the DQ & her people to life. It’s good that Capt Tates lemons gave you lemonade. Thanks for sharing your knowledge & skills with many young rivermen.

  3. Joy Scudder says:

    Wow! Great story, Captain Don. I could almost see that run away barge. What a life!

  4. Jessica C Yusuf says:

    I bet that was a breath taker when you spotted that barge in the electric light! Pretty clear you were destined for the captain seat with the gut reaction that prompted you to check out that blip. As always, an informative and entertaining read!

  5. Ronald L Sutton says:

    Another Great Story. Often, how much of avoiding Disaster, is pure blind luck? Skill, Background and experience? A Visual beats Radar, handy and necessary as it is. Fortunate to be taught by The Master. How many promising Careers have been cut short by ploughing into something like the Barge, a Pier, or something that is adrift.

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