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The River: Reflecting on New Year’s days gone by on riverboats — and saying a relieved goodbye to 2020


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

Thank goodness 2020 is three days behind us. The day before the turn of the calendar, I found myself reflecting on New Year’s days gone by.

The steamboat cruising season began in Spring lay-up, and once started, lasted until nearly the end of the year– sometime around Thanksgiving.

There were never any Christmas or New Year’s Eve celebrations aboard the DELTA QUEEN when I was there. Before the end of each year, the crew was laid off and collecting their unemployment checks – at least I was. In fact, I looked forward to the break at the end of the year as we had no off-days, vacations, or other forms of time-off. The steamboat cruising season began in Spring lay-up, and once started, lasted until nearly the end of the year– sometime around Thanksgiving, usually. The official Logbook of the DELTA QUEEN, 1971, notes:

“Sun. Nov 28. The End of the Trip and the end of the 1971 Season. Most of the crew paid off, and [boat] departed Podras Street Wharf for Avondale Shipyard.”

On Thursday, 25 November 1971, Thanksgiving had no annotation in the Log commemorating the holiday. If there was a special celebratory meal served on the Main Deck for the passengers in the Orleans Room dining area, the festivity failed to spread below to the Crew’s Mess. Later crews may tell a different story when the DELTA QUEEN ran later into the year.

However, holidays aboard the Casino Boats of the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s were a different tune. On the five “gambling boats” I commanded, the DIAMOND LADY, EMERALD LADY, PLAYERS, GRAND VICTORIA I, and the GRAND VICTORIA II, holidays were special times of celebration as they were when most people were off work and available to patronize the vessels. Of my five casino boats, I remember the GRAND VICTORIA II the best, where 16 years of my life were invested in that lovely stern paddlewheeler.

I remember the GRAND VICTORIA II the best, where 16 years of my life were invested in that lovely stern paddlewheeler. 

From Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day, the “GRAND VIC II, or “GVII,” on the Middle Ohio River, Mile 506 at Rising Sun, Indiana, and across the river from Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, was one of the busiest and most lucrative times of the year. Onboard the boat, inside the spacious shoreside pavilion, and around the grounds and roadways belonging to the property, all took on a holiday air thanks to the vessel and shoreside crews working diligently under the marine department’s command with the Captains and the Marine Director in charge.

During that special week, employee and crew vacations and requests for days off for the holidays were denied. Every hand available was necessary for the rush of anticipated patrons flocking to the lure of the gaily, although gaudy, decorations.

On Christmas Day, the casino closed from 3 a.m. until noon giving most of the employees, except for the on-duty mariners required to be aboard the GVII according to the vessel’s Certificate of Inspection, some holiday time at home with their families. By noon, though, a crowd stood waiting beyond the turnstiles for the gates to the boarding ramp to open. Unless a rare emergency arose, such as exceptionally high water on the Ohio River rising to such a level to flood the roads leading to the property, Christmas morning was the only time gaming closed during the year.

An outside contractor came aboard specializing in installing inflated balloons inside a huge net suspended from the overhead atop the vast open space above the escalators.

Of all the holidays, New Year’s Eve was the grandest and most celebrated on the GRAND VIC II. While gaming continued after the Christmas Day rush, an outside contractor came aboard specializing in installing inflated balloons inside a huge net suspended from the overhead atop the vast open space above the escalators. A pull line attached to the net’s bottom was the trigger that released the balloons with a hard yank. Once the net and contents were in place a few days before the beginning of the upcoming year, the rope had to be secured and guarded until the countdown reached zero when a hardy tug unleashed the balloons onto the revelers heralding in the coming year below. Tensions remained high for several days before the big night lest some prankster pulled the cord prematurely, thereby jeopardizing the captain-in-charge’s employment security.

New Year’s Eve aboard the GRAND VICTORIA II was a super-gala event. Instead of just one group of celebrants aboard the vessel, the evening was divided into three separate “cruises.”

Each had their time aboard the boat, and after the lesser sub-groups had their turn, the primary party-goers crowded aboard for the countdown to midnight. Everyone dressed their best, and my costume was the full-dress uniform with a shiny, silk bowtie and the ornate “high-pressure” Captain’s Cap.

My costume was the full-dress uniform with a shiny, silk bowtie and the ornate “high-pressure” Captain’s Cap.

Everyone from the General Manager to all the company directors was aboard. The pilothouse became the hub of activity where a TV, tuned to the ball’s drop in Times Square in New York City, coordinated the drop of the festive balloons inside the vessel beneath the Captain’s quarters.

During the hours before the anticipated stroke of the clock announcing the approaching new year, the pilothouse hosted various department heads who needed the assurance that everything was in readiness for the anticipated drop of the inflated rubber bladders hanging high above the opening beneath the roof to the carpet of the Main Deck, some five stories below.

The visitors most welcome in the wheelhouse were Tom Sanders, Director of Marine Operations, and Arland Boyd, Director of Security. Except for the General Manager’s occasional appearance, the other big shots were accorded their rank’s courtesy. Still, they were regarded as no more than curious interlopers in the delicately-tuned operation.

A quarter of an hour before the countdown, either the Bridge Mate or the Deck Mate took charge of the scene at the net.

A quarter of an hour before the countdown, either the Bridge Mate or the Deck Mate took charge of the scene at the net and carefully readied the pull cord while the deckhands stood by to clear the, then stopped, escalators of the balloons after the release. Of course, all of the participants co-ordinated the exercise with two-way radios they carried; assigned to Channel 9, the mariner’s channel.

With the television tuned to the station carrying the traditional merrymakers in Times Square, the Captain-on-Watch (me on several occasions), watched carefully, and with a hand on the switch controlling the microphone to the public address system throughout the vessel, followed along with the count from New York City:

FIVE… FOUR… THREE… TWO… ONE… HAPPY NEW YEAR…!!!

That goes for this year, too…

HAPPY NEW YEAR, 2021…!!!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, 2021…!!!

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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5 Comments

  1. Joy Scudder says:

    Another great story, Captain Don. I do enjoy your colorful descriptions of your days on the river. Wishing you and yours a most happy, healthy New Year.

  2. Ronald Sutton says:

    Great Description. Spent a Great NY Eve years ago aboard the Treasure Chest Casino in Kenner, still then a Working Boat. Dinner in their Upscale Restaurant; then they gave us tags to jump the Line and get on the Boats. They Brought out Hats, Noisemakers, and Champagne in Timely Fashion. At Midnight, we made noise, Kissed, and Drank. When we finally left, passed those who had spent their NYears Eve in Line. Haven’t been out there in years; changed too many of favorite Red,WHite & Blue Machines to strange video poker.

  3. Charlie Rafferty says:

    Good Times Cap’t Don. May we be off to a start of having many more as 2020 fades in the rear view mirror.

  4. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Great details! I felt like I was there Capt Don. Thanks

  5. Cap'n Don says:

    Thanks, Everyone — HAPPY NEW YEAR 2021. Wear your masks, maintain a safe social distance, and get your vaccines ASAP.

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