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The River: Memories still keen from half a century ago, as cruise season 1971 ‘ends on high note’


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.)

Half a century ago this week, on Monday 22 November 1971, Captain Ernest E. Wagner resumed the DELTA QUEEN from his relief, Captain Harry Louden. Though worlds apart in their physical stature, both veteran riverboatmen left no doubt who was in charge once they donned the four-striped jackets signifying command. Captain Harry, a small, slightly-built fellow, often wearing an elfish grin, was overshadowed in size by the colossus Wagner, the regular Captain of the QUEEN. Although the two were opposites, size-wise, each was as effective as the other in achieving their goals as the commander of the stern paddlewheel steamboat and its complement of upwards of 192 passengers and 75 crew members.

Captain Harry, a small, slightly-built fellow, often wearing an elfish grin, was overshadowed in size by the colossus Wagner, the regular Captain of the Queen.

At 6:10 PM the next day, Tuesday the 23rd, Captain Bob Zang, the forward watch pilot, pulled hard on the handle connected by a bicycle-type chain to the three-chimed, gold-plated brass Lunkenhiemer whistle mounted on the smokestack behind the pilothouse. The whistle screeched shrilly in the wintry chill before the gilded walls of the whistle warmed to the heat of the column of live steam. By the time Cap’n Zang released the handle, the thunderous roar had alerted anyone of interest on the Mississippi River. Onshore, above the Waterways Marine wharfboat, the ancient brick buildings on Beale Street trembled under the roar of the rumbling thunderclap as the DELTA QUEEN backed away from Memphis, turned downstream, and aimed her bow toward the general direction of New Orleans.

Shortly before midnight, Captain “Handsome Harry” Hamilton relived Captain Zang while Captain Wagner left me in charge of the steamboat once he retired to his room on the starboard side of the Sun Deck directly beneath the pilothouse. The midnight log entry in Cap’n Hamilton’s hand read: “Wed., Nov 24. Guy Walker Lt. 663.9.” To which I added: “Cold. Lt. Fog. 38°.”

Somewhere along the line, Capt. Hamilton acquired the moniker, “Handsome Harry;” as he rarely, if ever, came on watch unless he was immaculately dressed.

Harry Hamilton was far from the most agreeable pilot to work with a young mate. Few surpassed him, though, when it came to understanding the river, and fewer, still, had his flair for handling a sternwheel steamboat. As a much younger man, Cap’n Harry honed his primary piloting skills aboard the Steamer SPRAGUE when it, the largest steam towboat ever built, was towing petroleum products for the Standard Oil Company of Louisiana.

Throughout his long career as a passenger vessel and towboat pilot, he rarely, if ever, came on watch unless he was immaculately dressed. Somewhere along the line, Captain Hamilton acquired the moniker, “Handsome Harry.” Though never mentioned in his presence, his generation usually identified him with the nickname. After hearing the sobriquet so often, I picked it up, too, and cannot think of the Louisville, Kentucky pilot without tagging him as “Handsome Harry” Hamilton.

At ten minutes after midnight, the DELTA QUEEN passed beneath the highway bridge at Helena, Arkansas, where the Mississippi River Gauge showed “10.1 Feet, Falling.” Next, at 2:30 AM, Fair Landing; then Waxhaw Landing Gauge, Mile 593.0, showing “8 ½ F,” at 5:30 AM. Finally, when the watch changed hands at 6 AM, the QUEEN lay abreast Cumbyville Light, Mile 590, for a run of 73.9 miles since midnight with an overall average speed of 12.31666667 MPH, to be exact.

Greenville, Mississippi, is situated on a 1,400-acre oxbow lake that stays accessible to the Mississippi River year-round called Lake Ferguson. (Photo by Angela Holman)

At 10:45 AM, the General Alarm Bells throughout the boat screamed their shrill warnings:

“FIRE…FIRE… FIRE. ALL HANDS TO THEIR DUTY STATIONS.”

The Log noted, “Fire Drill Held 10:45 to 10.55 AM. Eight sections of hose run out. Emergency Squad Met on Sun Deck. Breathing Apparatus Checked. All Equipment Found in Good Order.”

As suddenly as the Fire Drill ended, more than seven short blasts of the DELTA QUEEN’s whistle sounded followed by a “prolonged,” or long, blast of the gold-plated sounding device. Meanwhile, a corresponding signal rang out on the General Alarm Bells warned of the required Boat Drill from 10:55-to-11:05 AM. The mournful cry also announced “Abandon Ship” and “Man Overboard,” or “Person Overboard” these days in the politically-correct atmosphere of the 21st Century.

At noon, the DELTA QUEEN eased in below the levee at Greenville, Mississippi, for a six-hour visit. Greenville, situated on a 1,400-acre oxbow lake that stays accessible to the Mississippi River year-round called Lake Ferguson, has the best aquatic worlds for recreation, fishing, and commerce. At 6:00 PM, the QUEEN departed Greenville and “Entered Mississippi River – Downbound at 6:45,” as recorded in the logbook.

Holly Ridge Gauge noted, “1 FT F at 11:10 PM.” And ten minutes before midnight, the log again recalled: “Rounded-to. North Bound at Baleshead Towhead Upper Light, Mile 490.0.” At 1:20 AM, Thursday, Nov. 25, “Louisiana Bar Light, Mile 491.0. Landed for the night. Clear, cool, 42°.”

At 6:45 AM, Captain Wagner directed his pilot, Cap’n Zang, to back away from the landing and head south towards Vicksburg, where the DELTA QUEEN landed alongside the Steamer SPRAGUE at noon until 6 PM.

Capt. Wagner moved the boat over to the Natchez side and landed at the foot of Silver Street.

Of interest to some may be the schedule of the DELTA QUEEN in 1971, where the emphasis was focused on the underway cruising time of the steamboat while the passengers were out and about and could enjoy time communing with the river. Hence, the QUEEN was often nosed into shore late at night and tied off while her passengers were generally asleep and unaware of the disposition of the vessel. Then, at first light, the boat resumed its way, paddling along the river to the full enjoyment of those aboard marveling at the sights and sounds along the mighty Mississippi.

These days, many, if not most, of the overnight river cruisers emphasize their shore tours where oversized busses haul the passengers from one stop to the next. Meanwhile, the boats and their crew make their way to the next landing, where the coaches meet them packed with weary tourists who sleep through most of the time the boats are traveling throughout the night. When the guests are up and fed, the vessels have already tied off where the motor vehicles await them for another round of shore tours. Or as Captain Albert Sidney Kelley often proclaimed, “It ain’t the ol’ Greene Line.”

After the DELTA QUEEN left Vicksburg, an interesting comment in my handwriting noted, “Captain Zang and Hamilton cleaned the pilothouse window without assistance.” What bothers me about this notation is, even after the passage of half a century, did either pilot, especially Cap’n Handsome Harry, whine to Captain Wagner that the pilothouse was not adequately maintained? I do not recall any repercussions, but I can hear the pilot bending the boss’s ear to put the “whammy” on someone. In this case, that someone would have been me, the First Mate, whose responsibilities included making sure the large windowpane in front of the pilot station was clean and inviting to both the pilots’ liking.

Bayou Sara at St. Francisville, Louisiana (Henry Lewis)

At 6:50 PM, the steamboat entered the Mississippi River from the Yazoo Diversionary Canal and headed downstream towards New Orleans. Please see last week’s column, Sunday, November 14, 2021, for more details, explaining the origin of the Yazoo Diversionary Canal and why Vicksburg, once the “Gibraltar of the West,” became high and dry after the American Civil War until the canal made Vicksburg a wet, water town again.

On Friday, November 26, 1971, midnight found the DELTA QUEEN at Ashland Upper Light, Mile 379.1. By 1:30 AM, Captain Hamilton and I dogged off the QUEEN at Vidalia, Louisiana, across from Natchez, Mississippi. The log noted that the weather was “cool and clear,” with a temperature of 40 degrees.

At 7:30 AM the following morning, Captain Wagner moved the boat over to the Natchez side and landed at the foot of Silver Street. By then, the weather had changed to rain with 11 ¾ feet, Falling, on the local gauge. By departure at 12:30 PM, the day had grown mild and partly cloudy with 67° on the pilothouse thermometer, according to the logbook entries recorded in Captain Wagner’s script.

As further evidenced by the log entry in Captain Wagner’s writing, he was literally “off-watch” at departure time. However, for various reasons, the Master often stayed on duty past watch change and worked with the aft-watch pilot while I went below to take charge of the crew where I always enjoyed running the deck while “Big Cap” gave the orders from above. Although everyone who worked for Captain Wagner has their own stories concerning their relationships with that illustrious steamboatman, I cannot imagine anyone loving the “Wagner experience” any more than I. But if asked, I’m sure those who shared similar encounters with him would respond much the same as me.

The DELTA QUEEN at Poydras Street Wharf. (Photo by Historic Images)

“PT. BREESE LIGHT 314.0 – 6 PM,” and at 11:30 PM, “Rounded-To Fancy Point (260.9).”

“Sat., Nov 27. Above Fancy Point – Below Irwine Light at Midnight.” The QUEEN made a foggy landing at St. Francisville at 1 AM with 6.0, Falling, on the river gauge. By 11:30 AM, once all the passengers returned aboard from the usual plantation tours, the stage-plank came off the ferry landing in a deafening cloud of steam roaring from the hoist engine exhaust port. Soon, the DELTA QUEEN was underway toward its final destination, less than a day away. 

Whereas last week’s story accounts for the trip from New Orleans to Memphis, this week’s version is the opposite, with the DELTA QUEEN returning to the Crescent City. For more details of specific adventures I experienced at St. Francisville, please reflect on that narrative. First, however, I will say that I remembered the time Bayou Sara “ran out” and nearly flushed the Steamer AVALON toward the sea along with rafts of trees and a menagerie of snakes and turtles. For the first time revealed, I fondly recall a delightful memory of the afternoon Deborah Anne “The Fish” Fischbeck borrowed a pair of bicycles soon after the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN landed below the St. Francisville ferry landing. We peddled several miles up the bayou in tandem, where we shared a hamper lunch Fish fixed in the galley and packed along. Still, despite the memorable, tranquil occasion, I remained constantly vigilant for rumblings further up Bayou Sara. Fortunately, the bayou remained on its best behavior without spoiling our delightful outing.

Capt. Jim Blum organized a return trip to the Queen City of Cincinnati via the Souther railroad’s SOUTHERN CRESCENT from New Orleans. (Photo by Robert Duncan Sr>

The noon watch change found the DELTA QUEEN passing Fancy Point, again, at Mile 260.9 on a sunny, warm day with 65° on the thermometer behind the pilothouse. Once past the hairpin-shaped bend at Wilkinson Point, the river straightened its course, and the Baton Rouge harbor lay ahead. Finally, at 2:40 PM, the QUEEN slid beneath the Interstate-10 Bridge with just over 134 miles to go before the end of the 1971 steamboat season. An air of excitement mixed with sentiments of sadness seemed to permeate the steamer as each revolution of the paddlewheel brought the cruise closer to a conclusion.

At 6 PM, the steamboat slipped silently past the WHITE ALDER Memorial Light, Mile 195.2. Less than three years earlier, the U. S. Coast Guard buoy tender, WHITE ALDER, collided with a ship in Bayou Goula Bend, going to the river’s bottom, killing 17 Coast Guardsmen. The loss remains to this writing one of the worst tragedies in Coast Guard history.

At 8:30 PM, Sunshine Bridge at Donaldsonville, Louisiana, Mile 167.4 passed overhead as the DELTA QUEEN averaged only 11.1 MPH once out of the stronger current above the upper end of Baton Rouge.

From here on, mainly recorded in my hand:

The roster: Cruise season ends in New Orleans, on a high note.

“THE END OF THE TRIP AND THE END OF THE 1971 SEASON.

“Sun Nov 28. Most of the crew paid off. Departed Poydras Street Wharf for Avondale Shipyard at 1:00 PM.”

At 2:30 PM, the Pilot, Capt. Handsome Harry Hamilton made the last entry for the 1971 Season: “Arrived Avondale Shipyard, Wet Dock #2.”

After everyone but a small group of volunteer deckhands hurriedly departed the DELTA QUEEN at the Avondale Shipyard, the QUEEN hastily received a cleaning of the crew quarters below the Main Deck. According to one report, the deckhands found enough potent cannabis to fill a sizeable shoebox. Once divided among the workers, the stash sufficiently lasted throughout the entire layup, or so one of the deckhands later disclosed.

The end of the 1971 cruise season was, I recall, the same year Captain Jim Blum organized a return trip to the Queen City of Cincinnati via the Southern Railroad’s SOUTHERN CRESCENT from New Orleans. Although I would have certainly enjoyed the reverie and camaraderie aboard the classic passenger train, I remained committed to the DELTA QUEEN, diligently ramrodding the all-volunteer cleanup crew.

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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3 Comments

  1. Jo Ann Schoen says:

    I’m so glad you have the log book(s) and share with your following the adventures of the DELTA QUEEN. Though I’ve not been on this stretch of river, I certainly feel like I have after reading this fine article. THANKS again!

  2. Connie Bays says:

    Thanks for another wonderful story about life, and work aboard the beautiful Delta Queen Steamboat. I love reading your stories and look for them every week! Keep them coming! Great reads!!!

    • Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

      Thank you, Capt, for bringing back great memories. I didn’t get to the lower Mississippi until 1975 when my college pal & her brother & I did the New Year’s Eve cruise New Orleans to Natchez & back.. But as I read your tales the towns & people aboard come back to me as if it was yesterday.. I can’t wait for the next installment..

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