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The River: 1970 best known for the catchy slogan ‘Save the Delta Queen’ and, yes, a broken anchor


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 DELTA QUEEN departed New Orleans on Tuesday, February 24th, 1970, at twenty-past-noon, bound for Memphis on a chartered trip for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That year, 1970, is best remembered from the catchy slogan, “Save the DELTA QUEEN.” Without an exemption to the “Safety at Sea Law” or “SOLAS, that prohibits any vessel operating out of U. S. ports carrying fifty or more passengers overnight and constructed of combustible materials, the QUEEN had but nine months before she would be tied-up forever.
 

Without an exemption to the “Safety at Sea Law,” the QUEEN had but nine months before she would be tied-up forever. 

The DELTA QUEEN always prided herself on the exotic woods making up the superstructure above her steel hull. Although listing the DELTA QUEEN as a National Historic Landmark was nearly two decades into the future, the Nation Trust’s support seemed imperative to the celebrated steamboat’s future. Every detail adding to the comfort and enjoyment of the Trust’s passengers was carefully scrutinized and emphasized by the crew, from the Captain to the pot washers.

By 9:55 p.m., the QUEEN passed under the Sunshine Bridge in St. James Parish while averaging 7.4 mph against the Mississippi River’s surge. The Sunshine Bridge, completed in 1963, replaced the Donaldsonville, Louisiana ferry, and was the first bridge across the broad river between the two existing bridges named for Huey P. Long, the martyred U. S. Senator and former governor of that great state.

Following a lavish buffet the first night underway, Captains Ernest E. Wagner and Clarke Campbell “Doc” Hawley, the Master and First Mate of the DELTA QUEEN, were introduced to the audience gathered in the Orleans Room dining area that quickly converted a presentable auditorium for entertainment and the like. As quickly as the presentation of the QUEEN’s officers wrapped up, the staff and high mucky-mucks of the National Trust gathered on the ironwood deck for their mention among the wealthy and influential members of the group paying handsomely to ride the DELTA QUEEN. Officials of the Greene Line Steamers, owners of the handsome steamboat, hoped in turn, the clout of the audience would ultimately support the exemption of the historic steamboat from the hapless legislation.

The DELTA QUEEN always prided herself on the exotic woods making up the superstructure above her steel hull.

By midnight, the Logbook, written in the artistic and precise hand of Captain Hawley, recoded:

“PHILADELPHIA PT. RANGE LT. 182.6.”

When I came on watch at 0600 with Captain Wagner as his unlicensed Second Mate and understudy, the steamboat logbook recorded a distance of 42.0 miles for an average speed of 7.0 mph. Within half an hour later, I was on the bow with the deck crew as the DELTA QUEEN prepared to land at Port Allen, LA, across the river from the old ferry landing at Baton Rogue. As the QUEEN maneuvered into shore, this landing took somewhat longer to get the lines out and tightened up before the Captain yelled across the PA system: 

“ALL FAST…”

In fact, the headline had somehow gotten between the heavy anchor hanging over the bow and the hull of the steamboat. When I came-ahead on the steam-powered capstan, the line tightened, and the anchor slammed into the steel sides of the boat as it broke free of where it had bound. When the first shore man, one of the deckhands who’d been hustling the long, heavy, lines to whatever ties they could find, returned aboard, he casually remarked, “Oh… when the headline tightened, the anchor fell into the river.”

That year, 1970, is best remembered by the catchy slogan ‘Save the Delta Queen.’

“Did you just say the anchor just fell into the river?” I asked.

“Yep… see for yourself. 

“What the hell’s he talking about,” I wondered to myself, “the anchor fell into the river?”

Sure enough, as I was across the stage and onto the shore, the shaft of the one-ton anchor still hung from the heavy chain links running through the Hawes pipe, but the bulbous flukes of the anchoring device were nowhere in sight. 

Just as I stepped back onto the deck, Captain Wagner came down the front stairs, and he was none-to-happy.

“Sure took you a long time to get tied up,” he hissed.” 

Big Cap,” as he was known to the crew, was none too pleased with my performance, and the situation was about to get worse.

“Uh, Captain Wagner,” I sheepishly added as I requested his attention. “We just lost the anchor.”

“WHAT’D YOU JUST SAY?” 

“The anchor broke and fell into the river when I tightened the headline. The line must’ a gotten between the anchor and the hull.”

The CITY of BATON ROGUE at Port Allen, LA, across the river from the old ferry landing at Baton Rogue.

For those who never experienced the wrath of Captain Wagner, it was what he didn’t say that could be far worse than had he exploded like a volcano. The colossus of a man just stood towering above me, staring down with a look that caused me to shudder. Instead of words coming out of his mouth, tiny bits of tobacco from his ever-present Ibold cigar began flying out one side of his mouth in staccato bursts like bullets firing from a Tommy gun. Fortunately, Captain Hawley arrived on the bow, and Wagner left him in charge as the Master was too peeved to remain on the scene. 

I had to do something and do it quickly; I reasoned to keep my job. The broken anchor’s heavy shaft was on-deck, by then, while one of the braver deckhands volunteered to dive to the river bottom to locate the errant flukes. As the DELTA QUEEN nose was shoved into the shore, a twenty-foot aluminum pike pole became an efficient tool to locate the heavy metal object. It took but a few probes before the metallic “clank” of metal-on-metal located the flukes in some twelve feet of swift, cold, river water.

A length of ½-inch manilla tied around the waist of Ernest Veasley became his lifeline. With the pike pole held securely in place by another deckhand, Veasley fearlessly pulled himself along to the bottom to attempt to attach a heavier rope to the missing section of the broken anchor. After three attempts, Veasley was noticeably weaker, and his lips looked blue from the temperature of the late-February chill of the Mississippi. Captain Doc ordered the brave deckhand out of the icy water who retired below for a hot shower and a rest. Meanwhile, the Captain informed the First Mate that a professional diver was located, and he would be aboard shortly.

Still, I had a personal dilemma to resolve. In the eyes of Captain Wagner, I caused the anchor to break. In desperation, I began examining the end of the shaft, where to my delight, I made an amazing discovery. The broken end of the 4-inch square steel shaft was covered in a thin coating of rust except for one speck of bright, shining metal no bigger around than the tip of my finger where the anchor pieces broke and parted. There was just enough steel attached to the cracked shaft to hold the anchor together.
 

The one-ton anchor of the DELTA QUEEN.

Hurriedly, I showed my findings to the Mate, who immediately agreed that the anchor was already busted before it banged onto the hull plates and separated. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. Had the DELTA QUEEN needed the anchor in an emergency, it would have quickly parted with possibly devastating consequences.

Before long, the contact diver arrived, and after he attached a stout line to the set of anchor fluke on the bottom, we pulled them to to the nosing using the powerful steam capstan. Additional lines keeping the broken part in place until the shipyard fabricated a new shaft and reconnected the two anchor parts into one functional device that still stands ready on the DELTA QUEEN today, half a century later. 

Captain Wagner eventually conceded that I did not cause the anchor to break. As the crew and I made more “bank landings,” we learned to work better together as a team, and never again did I garner a butt chewing for being too slow getting the QUEEN tied off.

Captain Hawley’s left this entry in the DELTA QUEEN Log Book:

“WED. 25 FEB. 11:40 AM. Departed Port Allen. Arm broke off anchor while landing. Called diver to locate and raise anchor — took approximately three hours.”

At 1:45 PM, March 01, 1970, the DELTA QUEEN landed at the Waterways Marine floating wharf, Memphis, where the members and staff of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, apparently delighted with their charter, piled into a fleet of taxi cabs waiting at the Foot of Beale Street for the quick trip to the airport.

This would not be the last charter for the National Trust.

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.  

As the crew and I made more “bank landings,” we learned to work better together as a team.


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2 Comments

  1. Ronald Sutton says:

    Stuff Happens, to paraphrase. Fortunate that it broke when it did, as Capt Says. The shank would not be much help in keeping the boat off the beach, or rocks.

  2. Béla K. Berty says:

    How often should a passenger vessel exercise her anchor?

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