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The River: Fifty years ago this week, the DELTA QUEEN departs New Orleans; come along for the trip


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.)

Fifty years ago this week, Tuesday, November 16, 1971, the DELTA QUEEN, under Captain Harry Louden, Master, departed Poydras Street Wharf, New Orleans, at fifteen minutes past noon. Piloting the QUEEN to Memphis were Captains Bob Zang of St. Louis on the forward watch and “Handsome Harry” Hamilton, Louisville, on the back watch. Onboard were 132 passengers and upwards of 75 crewmen and women. Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the regular “Master,” the correct terminology for the “captain” of a vessel, was off the QUEEN and would return after the boat arrived in Memphis.

Fifty years ago this week, Tuesday, November 16, 1971, the DELTA QUEEN, under Captain Harry Louden, Master, departed Poydras Street Wharf, New Orleans.

The DELTA QUEEN operated on fore and aft watches rotating every six hours. The Master stood the forward, or front watch, beginning at 6 AM until noon and then restarting again at 6 PM until midnight. The Inland Mate, or First Mate, myself in this particular case, was in charge of the boat during the hours when the Master was off-watch. In Captain Wagner’s era as the “Grand Master of the DELTA QUEEN,” he trained and entrusted his Mates with supervising all the steamboat’s locks, landings, and departures unless he specifically requested otherwise.

In later years, after the legendary steamboatman no longer reigned supreme on the most fabled steamboat of the latter half of the 20th Century, company management required the Master to direct all the bridgework assignments personally. At the same time, the Mate became relegated to the deck. A particular First Mate on the QUEEN reportedly served aboard some 14 years without handling locks or landings from the bridge wing. Then, after a sudden promotion to Master, a former skipper came aboard to teach the ex-mate the duties he would have learned years before had he worked beneath Wagner’s tutelage — or so the story goes that I heard repeated on numerous occasions.

The Inland Mate, or First Mate, myself in this particular case, was in charge of the boat during the hours when the Master was off-watch.

With the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Gauge reading “2 FT F,” the DELTA QUEEN pressed on against the current of the Mississippi River until the watches changed at Belle Point. 

At midnight, the QUEEN’s logbook read, “Eureka Lt., Mile 194.8; I-10 Highway Bridge, Baton Rogue at 4:10 AM, and Devil’s Swamp, Mile 242.2” where the DELTA QUEEN nosed into the bank for fog at 6:10 AM until 7:45.

It may interest some to know that the first navigation light above the bustling Baton Rogue harbor is Ben Burman Light, Mile 233.9 AHP (Ahead of the Passes). Mr. Burman, a celebrated author of over 20 books regaling the river, was born and grew up in Covington, Northern Kentucky, my hometown. Undoubtedly, a young Ben played on the banks of the Ohio and Licking Rivers. No better conurbation for a youngster loving the river exists to receive one’s formative fluvial preparation than Covington – at least Ben Burman, Dan Beard, and I found this to be true. Indeed there have been more.

Mr. Burman, a celebrated author of over 20 books regaling the river, was born and grew up in Covington, Northern Kentucky, my hometown.

The only berg to outshine Covington for producing river lads may be Hannibal. Missouri — only because a particular native of what he labeled “St. Petersburg” was the first to capitalize on the river theme involving boyhood, log rafts, steamboats, and such, had achieved a corner on that literary market while killing the prospects of anyone else scribbling about the same subject. Otherwise, Ben Burman’s books would hold more prominence in American literature than they do. Meanwhile, I am overstating myself just by associating myself with Mr. Burman and Uncle Dan – and that’s only because of the mutual accident of birth.

At noon, the DELTA QUEEN landed at the old ferry landing in St. Francisville, Louisiana, where the river was rising with 7.0 feet on the local gauge. A decade earlier, I was on the Steamer AVALON after landing at the very same location one bright, sunny morning with nare a cloud in the sky, when the nearby, normally creek-like, Bayou Sara erupted into a tsunami torrent of trees, snakes, and little green turtles. The enraged bayou nearly tore the steamboat away from its moorings had not the engineers started the engines and forcefully turned the paddlewheel to keep the AVALON from joining the immense debris field rushing down the Mississippi. Since then, I’ve always kept a wary eye out for the disposition of Bayou Sara whenever I’m in the neighborhood.

The celebrated J. M. WHITE, perhaps the most palatial steamboat ever to paddle the Mississippi.

Across the Mississippi, in a secluded section of the river, the bones of the celebrated J. M. WHITE, perhaps the most palatial steamboat ever to paddle the Mississippi, rises on occasion whenever the water is shallow. Captain Clarke “Doc” Hawley is the only person alive I know who has trod those hallowed decks. If I had one bucket list adventure to achieve before finally heading to the River Styx, walking on those sacred planks of the WHITE would be on the top rung of that registry.

As the midnight shift began on Thursday, November 18, 1971, we passed Ft. Adams Light, Mile 311.7. The Log recorded the notes I added: “Mild, clear… 70 degrees.”

At 7:45 AM, the QUEEN landed at the Foot of Silver Street in Old Natchez-Under-the-Hill until 5:10 that afternoon. In those days, the DELTA QUEEN often tied off across the river in Vidalia, Louisiana, depending on the elevation of the river level. At low gauge readings, the cement at the bottom of the landing was such that getting the steamboat’s 50-foot swinging stage between the edge of the main deck and the shore was often tricky. The easiest solution dictated landing on the Vidalia side and busing the passengers and crew back and forth. Two hours after departure, the boat paused at Ashland Light a short while for rain and fog before continuing to Whitehall Field Light, Mile 402.3, at Midnight.

SPRAGUE’s hull was “thin as tissue paper,” I often heard, but we still delicately landed the DELTA QUEEN alongside.

Friday, November 19, 1971. 6 AM: “Ran on a slow bell past powerplant, Mile 433.2, since 5 AM. Cool, Windy – 52 degrees. 8 Feet on the Vicksburg Gauge. Alongside the SPRAGUE from 8:40 AM until 4:40 PM.”

The retired Steamer SPRAGUE’s hull was “thin as tissue paper,” I often heard, but we still delicately landed the DELTA QUEEN alongside. No one wanted to be responsible for puncturing the old hull and putting the largest steam towboat ever built on the bottom of the Yazoo. Several times I placed the two steamboats side-by-side and never experienced a problem. Eventually, after I departed from the DELTA QUEEN, she was required to land on the shore below the SPRAGUE.

Eventually, “Big Momma,” as some affectionately called the supersized steamer, burned and broke up around the Port of Vicksburg, where, to this day, parts and pieces of her still litter the shores of the Yazoo Diversionary Canal.

Unfortunately, the Mississippi River cut off the historic river town in 1876, leaving the city high and dry until the Army Engineers dug the canal and diverted water from the Yazoo River into the former channel of the Mississippi. As a result, Vicksburg, once known as the “Gibraltar of the West,” was again wet.

To this day, parts and pieces of the SPRAGUE still litter the shores of the Yazoo. (Photo A. Morang, 2015)

On Saturday, November 20, 1971, the QUEEN took on “stores and water” at Greenville, Mississippi. The Log failed to record whether the boat went into Lake Ferguson, a cutoff lake of 1,400 acres bordering the city front. By 5 PM, the Mouth of the Arkansas River, Mile 582.2, lay off the port bow.

At midnight, Sunday, November 21, the two pilots changed places behind the “sticks” while the boat breasted the current at Island 67 Light, Mile 619.9, on a cool, clear night with 54 degrees registering on the thermometer outside the door on the roof behind the pilothouse. At 7 AM, Helena, Arkansas, hosted the DELTA QUEEN until Captain Hamilton blew for departure at twelve past noon. By 5 PM, an hour before watch turnover, Mhoon Gauge showed “3 FT R,” or “three feet and rising.”

Midnight, November 22, 1971, found the DELTA QUEEN at Ensley Light, Mile 723.5. An hour and 45 minutes later, on a cold, clear evening of 39 degrees, Handsome Harry eased the QUEEN alongside the equally thin hull of the Waterways Marine wharfboat at the foot of Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee.

In a large, bold script, I penned the last entry:

“END OF TRIP. Captain Harry Louden, Master Off. Captain Wagner, Master, Back On.”

Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the regular Master, was off the QUEEN and would return after the boat arrived in Memphis.

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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2 Comments

  1. 50 Years ago. Capt Don has has real talent for taking Us along, what it was Like Aboard.

  2. Cap'n Don says:

    “Just a moment in time,” as John Hartford used to say. Thanks, Chief Ron, for your comment.

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