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The River: Recalling the good times and great storytelling of iconic pilot Captain Albert Kelley

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

(The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders is sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life.)

Although I may have said it before, boat people are often surprised to hear from onshore relatives of a crewmate they worked with on the water. So again this week, I was amazed when Louisville resident, Tommy Kelley, posted on the Facebook page, SAVE THE DELTA QUEEN: “My great-grandfather Albert Kelley was a pilot on the DELTA QUEEN. So I guess that’s where I got my love for boats.”

I was amazed when Louisville resident, Tommy Kelley, posted, “My great-grandfather Albert Kelley was a pilot on the DELTA QUEEN. (T. Kelley Photo)

The mere mention of Captain Albert Sidney Kelley’s name always makes me sit up straight and give the speaker, or writer in this case, my closest attention. Captain Kelley and I shared many hours in the pilothouse of the DELTA QUEEN, starting as far back as 1965 when I began working on the boat as a relief Watchman for Jimmy Powell and Bruce Edgington, soon after my college graduation.

In those days, unlicensed crewmembers toiled from the beginning of each season, usually starting in late winter or early spring, until the boat tied up before the waning days of the year. If anyone requested a day off, they had to have someone trusted-enough to work in their place or else quit and hope management hadn’t filled their slot before returning to reclaim the position. So, as Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the Master of the QUEEN, had promised a berth on the crew, he took the occasion to ease me onto the payroll while giving the two older fellows some badly needed time away from the boat.

Once Jimmy and Brucie returned from their short sojourns; fortunately for me, a slot opened in the engineroom as a “Striker Engineer” on the timesheet signed by Chief Cal Benefiel. In like manner, while I was “striking,” whenever I needed days away from the vessel, my brother Robert E. “Bob” Sanders replaced me greasing, wiping, and swabbing the cross-compound condensing steam engines and all else encompassing the “bailiwick” of Chief Cal as he fondly labeled his territory within the engineering realm of the DELTA QUEEN.

Captain Albert Kelley and I shared many eventful days on duty. 2nd Mate Don Sanders, Capt. Albert Kelley, and Capt. Tommy Utter. 1970.

But while I was still “punching the clock” on my appointed rounds throughout the steamboat for the elder Watchmen, my duties included the pilothouse where Captain Al Kelley occupied the front Pilot’s slot on Captain Wagner’s shift. Later that year, I left the river for a four-year stint in the U. S. Air Force. At the end of my military obligation, I returned to the DELTA QUEEN in January 1970, where Captain Wagner asked, “Do you want to return to the engineroom, or do you want to go on deck?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, I requested the deck department to work directly for the Master. Once around the pilothouse on a steady basis, Captain Albert Kelley and I shared many eventful days on duty until I tested and received my Inland Mate’s license and transferred to the back watch opposite Captain Wagner and Pilot Kelley.

Albert S. Kelley was born in Oldham County, Kentucky, on November 5th, 1896, according to a 1957 interview conducted on the Greene Line Wharfboat, Cincinnati, by John Knoepfle for the University of Illinois at Springfield, Norris L. Brookens Library, Archives & Special Collections.

The grandest steamboat operating on the Ohio was the sidewheel packet running in the Cincinnati and Louisville trade, the CITY OF LOUISVILLE.

“I remember,” Captain Kelley told Mr. Knoepfle, “when I was a boy I used to go down to the river… and watch the boats go by and always imagined I would like to be a pilot… so it finally came about, and I got my chance, and well — here I am.”

Cap’n Kelley, also known to his peers as “Bow Wow,” or “Cap’n Bow Wow,” for his peculiar habit of suddenly bellowing a boisterous “BOW UHWWWWOOoowwww…,” sounding like a dog howling. After one of his earlier pilothouse pals started calling him “Bow Wow Kelley,” the name stuck. Although I heard the hound-like howl on various occasions and recalled hearing the elder gentleman addressed as such by those closer to his age, I never felt entitled to participate in such an informal relationship with the quintessential riverboat pilot.

Although the Ohio River town of Westport, Kentucky, is recalled in the 1957 interview, there is no mention of Bethlehem, Indiana, on the northern shore just above Oldham County. In a tale explicitly spun for my benefit as the DELTA QUEEN was downbound near Bethlehem, Captain Al carried me back to his sunny, summer childhood days on the very shores we were abreast:

“I grew up on my family farm at Kelley’s Landing on the Kentucky side of the river, not far from the little town of Bethlehem, over on the Indiana side. The grandest steamboat operating on the Ohio was the sidewheel packet running in the Cincinnati and Louisville trade, the CITY OF LOUISVILLE. She had a sister boat, the CITY OF CINCINNATI, but my favorite was the one name for Louisville, Kentucky — just downriver several miles from the farm.”

Before the ink was dry on his license, the now CAPTAIN Kelley stepped into the pilothouse of the old sternwheel packet, the KENTUCKY. (Painting by Harlan Hubbard, Str. KENTUCKY)

“The CITY OF LOUISVILLE,” he continued, “usually left Louisville upbound for Cincinnati around 2:15 PM and came by Kelley’s landing sometime around four o’clock. Whenever my mother was having fish for the evening meal, she’d send me down to the riverbank with a stout, sturdy, willow basket to wait for the steamboat to pass. That boat was so huge, and so fast, she’d suck the water right off the banks whenever she went by and strand fish all along the shore. I made sure I placed the basket high enough above the river that the rebounding waves didn’t get it when the water came rushing back after the CITY OF LOUISVILLE passed. Then, while all those fish were flopping around, I’d run down and toss enough of ’em up to fill the basket with an ample amount for dinner. Naturally, I watched the elegant steamboat until it went out of sight, and then I’d lug that heavy basket back to the house filled full of fresh fish where we’d clean ’em and Mother would fry ’em up for dinner.”

As Captain Kelley often recalled, he started his long career on the river as a “Cub Pilot” aboard the CITY OF LOUISVILLE. In the Knoepfle interview, Kelley states that he began steamboating on May 4th, 1916, steering for pilots Capt. Charles Brasher, Sr. and Capt. Ed Mauer. Steersman Kelley stayed with the palatial steamboat until it “went under the ice,” along with its sister boat in the dreadful Winter of 1917-1918, an event my Grandmother Edith Sanders watched from her kitchen window near the foot of Greenup Street on the Covington side of the river.

After the record-breaking ice destroyed his steamboat, Kelley joined the U. S. Navy and served his country for nearly four years before returning to the river in 1923. Once back on brown water, he finished his cub pilot apprenticeship and earned his first issue of a federally-controlled pilot’s license.

Surprisingly, the issuing officer at the Louisville Steamboat Inspection Office was Capt. Ed Mauer, his former mentor, and instructor from the CITY OF LOUISVILLE. Before the ink was dry on his license, the now CAPTAIN Kelley stepped into the pilothouse of the old sternwheel packet, the KENTUCKY, formerly the LEVI J. WORKUM, built at Madison, Indiana in 1907 to haul whiskey from a distillery at Petersburg, Kentucky to Cincinnati.

I was surprised to find that KELLEY also steered pilot watches on the double-cabin sidewheel Steamer CINCINNATI.

Captain Kelley reflected on the Steamer KENTUCKY in the interview and recalled: “The KENTUCKY was famous in that she was slow. She never made any fast time, but management said she made more money than any other boat they ever had. The KENTUCKY was a very cheap boat to operate, and she was a faithful boat… though she made more money than any other boat, she probably ran away more business because she was so slow… Ha, Ha, Ha.”

The Captain also added that the KENTUCKY was so slow she would drop downstream while crossing from shore-to-shore when the river was running at a moderate chip with 40-to-45-feet of water posted on the Cincinnati Gauge.

Cap’n Kelley’s next boat was the ANDES, built from the wreck of the LOUCINDA, another steamer destroyed in the same ice that cut down the CITY boats in 1918. “Cheaply built, with no skylight, etc., that ran from Cincinnati to Madison and owned by the Lousiville & Cincinnati Packet Company,” was how WAY’S PACKET DIRECTORY describes the ANDES.

Commodore Frederick A. Laidley, the owner of the Louisville & Cincinnati Packet Co., lived on East Second Street in Covington, my hometown. His impressive mansion still stands as an architectural jewel of the city. Captain Kelley often entertained me with stories of the Commodore who had, as Kelley noted, “a pointed beard on his chin like a billy goat that flapped whenever he talked.” When the Pilot mimicked the Commodore, he would place the top of the heel of his right hand beneath his chin with his fingers extended to simulate the Commodore’s goatee. Then, as Kelley told a story in his former boss’s tone of voice, he waggled his fingers to imitate the flapping beard. My favorite Commodore Laidley story went like this:

“I hire two people on my steamboats,” said the Commodore with his “beard” wiggling. “I hire the Captain who takes care of my boat… and I hire the Purser who takes care of my money.”

Captain Kelley may best be remembered as one of the DELTA QUEEN’s most iconic pilots.

Among the many famous Ohio River steamboats of the first half of the 20th Century, Captain Albert Kelley piloted the packet JOHN W. HUBBARD, the illustrious QUEEN CITY, and the excursion boats PRINCESS and AMERICA. I was surprised to find that KELLEY also steered pilot watches on the double-cabin sidewheel Steamer CINCINNATI, constructed in 1924; later sold to Streckfus Steamers of St. Louis and rebuilt into the PRESIDENT excursion sidewheeler.

On May 5th, 1931, Captain Kelley began his long career with the Greene Line Steamers, Inc. of Cincinnati as a pilot on the TOM GREENE with his partner in the pilothouse for some 16 years, Capt. Charlie Kirby. Altogether, the pilots were “pards” for more than 20 years. Kelley also piloted the CHRIS GREENE and the GORDON C. GREENE before Captain Tom Greene bought the DELTA QUEEN in 1946 and brought her around from California, through the Panama Canal, to the Mississippi River System the following year.

Captain Kelley may best be remembered as one of the DELTA QUEEN’s most iconic pilots. Aboard the QUEEN, I was privileged to work with him for several seasons. Kelley was possibly still piloting after I left the DELTA QUEEN near the end of the 1972 season… I’m not certain after almost 50 years without researching the logbooks. The veteran steamboat and U. S. Navy man died on April 24th, 1976, and rests in the Evergreen Cemetery in Louisville… or is it Evergreene?

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. Thomas Kelley says:

    Absolutely a wonderful tribute to my great grandfather Albert. Thank you so much for sharing this history with us!

  2. Bob Sanders says:

    I loved my watches as Striker Engineer when I relieved you on the Delta Queen, Brother. I loved to go out on the fantail and, after greasing the paddle wheel by turning the cranks as the grease screw flew by on the pitman, I would law back in the big coil of stern line, like an over-sized beanbag chair, and watch the river pass by. Six hours on snd six hours off around the clock, I quickly learned, left no time for anything but to work and sleep. I loved standing at the control post and actually running the great steam engines, responding to the bells snd indicator signals from the pilot house. I was taught to never let the pitman stop “ in-line.” lest it be impossible to get the great paddle wheel moving again. Great memories. Thank you for another wonderful recollection

  3. Cap'n Don says:

    “It ain’t the Old Greene Line…” Capt. Albert S. Kelley

  4. Ronald Sutton says:

    From above, Engine, the recips I sailed on the Lakes had Bypass Valves to jog the Engine, case it got Stuck ‘on Canter.’ Used to hear from the old timers about ‘Six and Six.’ Have done it a few days at a time, but an entire River or Lakes season must have been Brutal. Fascinating story of Capt. Kelley.

  5. Mary Sward says:

    As always, your column, or the comments, jogs my memory. When learning the Delta Queen in my quest to become Riverlorian, engineer Seth Harris let me do a number of tasks in the engine room, including, as Brother Bob mentioned, greasing the paddlewheel–a process, I suspect, much different in 2005, since it involved pretty much no hands-on work for me. I was privileged to reverse the engine, answer the EOT (a thrill!), oil the Pitmans, oil the bearings, and anything else Seth could come up with. But, as mentioned before, my favorite job was my week as a watchman. I could have stayed in that job forever.

  6. Debi Yount says:

    I love these stories… I am from Madison, IN. My grandfather was born in 1884 in Trimble Co, KY. When he was about 12 years old he rode a ferry to Bethlehem, IN to live…he was on his own due to illness in his family. My goodness, the stories he told.

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