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The River: Today, the refrain is ‘Don’t throw it in the river,’ but it wasn’t always that way unfortunately


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 Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

“Throw it in the river…”

That was a command I eagerly obeyed many times early in the course of sixty-some years on the river.

“Throw it in the river!”

Nowhere did I discover that the aboriginal people had a blatant disregard for the environment, as did those who displaced them on the North American continent.

Books have been written on why the earth’s most precious resource, water, has been so drastically abused and polluted by humankind since the deepest, dimmest recesses of time. The rivers belonging to the Mississippi River System, about which I write, have suffered drastically over the two-hundred-plus years European pushed their so-called “civilization” over the Appalachian Mountains soon after the American Revolution ended. My family was among them.

So now you’re probably thinking:

“Weren’t native people living in Kentucky long before your 4th great-grandfather, Nathaniel Sanders, laid claim to some 20 square miles of prime, fertile land in the north-central region of the Commonwealth in the 1780s?”

That’s true, and the thought of speculating how the native peoples handled the waste byproducts of their civilization got me wondering, too, and quick research into the problem disclosed a few remarks by Euro-American descendants claiming they “studied anthropology” at some university or another.

After all, was it not the custom for Europeans to empty their chamber pots out the front or back door?

While they all conceded the Native populations did have waste disposal issues, nowhere did I discover that the aboriginal people had a blatant disregard for the environment, as did those who displaced them on the North American continent. Or, as one unnamed scholar commented:

“The Indians were notably clean and hygienic, unlike most Europeans. Barring imported diseases, they were healthier as well. Although Mr. Whipple was not widely known at the time, Amerindians’ sanitation practices would have also been superior. After all, was it not the custom for Europeans to empty their chamber pots out the front or back door?”

My study in the anthropological contrast between the Native American people’s sanitary practices and those who superseded them ends here. I merely wanted to establish that when I first entered the Ohio River’s fluvial surroundings, the disregard for the environment reflected the chamber pot emptiers’ culture. That indifference allowed the river to become the receptacle for the liquid and solid wastes of those not only living on its shores but also for those working and playing upon its surface. That’s where I come in.

Walter Hoffmeier, the old boatman who first acquainted me with the delights of the river, and of whom I’ve written many thousands of words describing the relationship between me, his boy-understudy, and him, my old-school mentor, was the first to command:

“Throw it in the river.”

Walter Hoffmeier, the old boatman who first acquainted me with the delights of the river was the first to command: “Throw it in the river.”

Walt was born on a shantyboat on the Licking River soon after the turn of the 20th Century. Beneath his buoyant childhood home flowed a murky, ancient waterway that consumed all things discarded into its liquid clutch. Once within the wet, brown solution, the abandoned item was, in the mind of the perpetrator, as surely gone as though it was cast into a fiery furnace. Once out of sight, regardless of whatever it was, remained thoroughly out of mind. Such are the advantages of a silt-laden stream. Whatever Walter learned about throwing discards into the river, he passed that knowledge on to me.

For a boy barely into his teens, throwing unwanted materials into the river can be heaps of fun. I couldn’t begin to count how many times I heard those words, and each time I did, I enjoyed watching things splash into the water to either sink out of sight or else go sailing away on the current of the river. It was great fun at the time. Without a better system of disposal, that was the way things were done before I appreciated a preferable concern for the health of the waterways.

On Captain John Beatty’s salvage rigs, casting stuff into the river involved larger and heavier items that made bigger splashes. Overboard went unwanted machinery, stoves, etc., but we were careful with steel cables and fiber rope lines that could foul propellers and snag paddlewheels. Tons of heavy items went into the river above the ice piers at Gallipolis on the Upper Ohio when Cap’n John needed to ensure in his mind his hired helpers put in enough hours to earn their daily wage although they were starting a grueling salvage operation the following morning.

On Captain John Beatty’s salvage rigs, casting stuff into the river involved larger and heavier items that made bigger splashes.

“Throw it in the river,” the Captain bellowed… and into the river it went.

Some 60 years ago on the excursion boat, the Steamer AVALON, everything considered waste went into the river including foul-smelling deck sweeping, discarded paper cups, plates, and napkins; cigarette butts, glass soda bottles, steel Burger Beer cans, and whatever else an often drunken and rowdy crowd could contribute besides the boat and crew’s own waste. This mixed detritus was bundled into black plastic bags; sealed, and cast into the turning paddlewheel only to bob back to the surface of the river in their secure plastic lifejackets.

On all the rivers the AVALON steamed, the only one where the steamboat was carefully scrutinized concerning her waste disposal was upon the beautiful Saint Croix River forming the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, southwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Even two-thirds of a century ago, the Saint Croix was designated a National Scenic Waterway, so the AVALON’s method of discarding her garbage took extra-special endeavors by the crew.

Deep within the bowels of the steamboat, nestled thousands of steel cans of Burger Beer placed there in Cincinnati, the AVALON’s hometown. Burger cans afloat on the pristine waters especially irked the guardians of the unspoiled stream.

Burger Beer cans are still rusting on the bottom of the scenic Saint Croix.

Instead of including the beer cans with the rest of the garbage, they were separated. Between his rounds of patrolling the AVALON while most of the crew slept, “Dirty Shirt Harold,” the Night Watchman, sat by the mountainous collection of used beverage containers. With a hand-held “church key” can-opener, he punched additional holes into the Burger cans so they would sink once the crew cast them into the pristine river. Image all the Burger Beer cans still rusting on the bottom of the scenic Saint Croix.

After returning from the U. S. Air Force to the DELTA QUEEN in 1970, I became the unlicensed Second Mate working directly for my long-time steamboat mentor, Captain Ernest E. Wagner.  Among my many duties, especially after Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley left the QUEEN for the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, I was responsible for disposing of the garbage generated by 190 passengers and 75 crewmembers.

That year, 1970, was also the historic “Save the DELTA QUEEN” year when all efforts imaginable were directed toward gaining an exemption from the “Safety at Sea Law” that would permanently tie-up the QUEEN without the exclusion.

The chute had been so much a part of the DELTA QUEEN that the beloved steamboat artist, Dorthea Frye, included the infamous device in a painting that sold thousands of copies over the years. 

By that time, my feelings lay strongly in favor of treating the planet and her rivers more favorably, but as far as waste disposal aboard the steamboat went, it still found its way into the water. I complained to “Big Cap” and to higher-ups at the home office with the hopes that efforts were quietly underway to find better ways to empty the DELTA QUEEN of the tons of trash generated each trip.

On the starboard side of the QUEEN of the “U-Shaped Deck,” adjacent to the engine room, a heavy, steel, portable  “garbage chute,” directed the contents of the waste cans into the river. The chute had been so much a part of the DELTA QUEEN that the beloved steamboat artist, Dorthea Frye, included the infamous device in a painting that sold thousands of copies over the years.

When the Head Office reported concerned passengers complained of garbage going overboard at the chute, orders came from them to dump the waste into the starboard “Pitman Well,” where the mighty pitman arm, connecting the 1,000 horsepower, high-pressure engine to the paddlewheel, traveled in and out. Once in the well, a deckhand manning a firehose flushed the mostly-kitchen dross into the river. Around the same time, someone on-high decided to serve roast duck to the passengers eating in the fancy Orleans Room. The roasted birds were, however, not eagerly received by the paying guests, so garbage-can-loads of baked fowl found their way aft for burial in the Ohio River via the engineroom well.

“Oh, my God,“  Kenny dramatically moaned, “Who the hell filled my pitman well with all those damn ducks.”

The roast ducks’ watery disposal was going well one morning until the crew received the call, “Lock Time,” and they quickly departed with the pitman well still filled with the well-done, roasted birds. By the time the QUEEN was through the lock, it was past 6 a.m. and time to change the watches. The deckhands who had been flushing the ducks out the stern of the steamboat went to breakfast. In the engineroom, Striker Engineer Kenny P. Howe, Jr. was coming on his shift. As soon as Kenny spied the pitman well stuffed with the roasted birds, he let out a cry, “Oh, my God,“  Kenny dramatically moaned, “Who the hell filled my pitman well with all those damn ducks.”

Each additional time I had to “dump the garbage,” doing so became emotionally more difficult. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before a lady passenger snapped photos of a can of crud sliding down the garbage chute and into the river. Dramatically, the pictures found their way onto the evening news of a major TV station. Within days, after apologies were made by the company on the same television network, the chute was forever removed from the DELTA QUEEN. From then on at each shore stop, a 20-yard roll-off, or similar container, awaited for the garbage and the trash. For the remainder of my time aboard the QUEEN, waste materials were never dumped into the river again.

These days, only a fool would say,

“Throw it in the river.”
 
That’s a great step forward. Don’t you think?

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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4 Comments

  1. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Here’s another awesome story by Capt Don tieing the River past and present together. I love how details most of us would not notice are important to him. Please keep these coming.

  2. Ronald Sutton says:

    Navy Charter on an MOC Tanker, they put on a huge waste compressor. The small Galley gang mindlessly put everything into it, garbage, cans, jars, all duly compressed until it was full. Unfortunately, the resulting Brick was way too heavy for a human to lift. After looking at it for a while, we managed to get a wire sling around it, no small feat, and rig a chain fall. Out, with the aid of a Hand Truck, we got it over the side, where it resides somewhere in the South China Sea. Needless to say, smaller bricks after that. We could Not be tracked by a trail of Garbage,

  3. Judy Patsch says:

    Back in the 1950s when I went into the Ladies Room on the AVALON, I got a good look at the Mississippi River by looking down the toilet. Those were also the days of the canvas ‘doors’ on the individual stalls.

  4. This is a brilliant post, thank you for sharing these great tips. I think you are right with the river today the refrain is don’t throw it in the river but it wasn’t always that way unfortunately. I am sure many people will come to read this in future.

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