A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Yes, there were once mouth-watering perks on riverboat casino; then, Vienna sausages


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.)

“Bet you ate well on Thanksgiving aboard those gamlin’ boats,” was a statement often repeated by curious onlookers concerning the groceries served in the EDR (Employee Dining Room) of the GRAND VICTORIA II, and four other riverboat casinos, during the November holiday.

“I reckon we did,” I’d reply, “if you call turkey loaf with canned gravy, sweet potatoes, peas, and sage dressing that came out of a box ‘good eating.’”

“Bet you ate well on Thanksgiving aboard those gamlin’ boats. The GRAND VICTORIA II.

I’m not complaining. The grub was hot; lots of it – with no cleaning up afterward. All I had to do was swipe in with my gaming badge, fill up the tray, eat, and scrape and place the dirty dishes into the bus tray — and all for only two bucks taken out of the next paycheck.

Those curious outsiders failed to realize that the fancy food and holiday embellishments the casinos famously touted aimed to please the rubes streaming through the front doors with visions of jackpots dancing in their heads. The employees, team members, crew, or whatever they were called, were merely the “hired help.” Which also includes me, the SENIOR CAPTAIN of the 330-foot paddlewheeler where all the casino magic happened.

But that wasn’t always so.

When the mammoth riverboat first paddled into the tiny riverfront town on the Indiana side of the Ohio River across from Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, the Louisiana-built sternwheeler entirely mesmerized everyone unfamiliar with operating such a behemoth within the narrow confines of the Hoosier portion of the river. Consequently, nothing belonging to the Corporation was too good for the Captains and the Chief Engineers. It was like the “suits” feared we would mess up if we weren’t continually being pleased. So, with all the extra attention raining down, we savored our celebrity status while it lasted.

After the final cruise of the GRAND VIC before going “dockside,” sometime in late summer 2001, we Captains assumed more responsibilities beyond the operation and safety of the vessel. (D. Schiller Photo)

If I recall, besides the excellent wages, benefits, and an annual bonus, we enjoyed VIP parking in front of the Pavillion, free meals in the buffet, membership to the pool, hot tub, sauna, and gym, plus generous comp privileges, and a few more perks I’ve forgotten. Unfortunately, as five years quickly passed, we started losing the extras when the continued safe operation of the mammoth riverboat became routine and expected without additional compensation.

First went the VIP parking, and not long after, the annual bonuses went by the wayside. Little by little, the additional privileges faded one by one. But, as I never used the pool, hot tub, sauna, or gym, I didn’t miss them when our badges no longer opened their doors.

After the final cruise of the GRAND VIC before going “dockside,” sometime in late summer 2001, we Captains assumed more responsibilities beyond the operation and safety of the vessel. We became more like managers instead of captains. As I said before, I’m not complaining. The casino continued increasing our salaries for several more years until the property changed owners. Within a couple more years, the new owners eliminated the licensed marine officers and the paddlewheeler’s Certificate of Inspection. Thereafter, the riverboat casino became another floating “warehouse” along the Ohio River. Thankfully, at our separation, we Captains and Chiefs enjoyed a generous severance allowance — enough in my case to purchase the sternwheel Rafter CLYDE and start a new phase in my life that I’ve written about extensively.

Before the GRAND VICTORIA II, the GRAND VICTORIA I was on the Fox River in Elgin, Illinois, about 35 miles west of Chicago.

Before the GRAND VICTORIA II, the GRAND VICTORIA I was on the Fox River in Elgin, Illinois, about 35 miles west of Chicago. The GVI was the first of the Unlimited Tonnage gambling boats I captained. “Unlimited” refers to the personal mariner’s certificate he, or she, needs to crew on board as a U. S. Coast Guard licensed officer. An unlimited license is for a boat or ship of over 1,600 gross tons. As the DELTA QUEEN fits within that specification, I have always held a ticket for unlimited tonnage. In all of the United States, there are only about 12 to 14-hundred license holders for “All Gross,” or “Unlimited” inland vessels. Consequently, the pay scale jumps proportionally with the “heavier” license.

While I’m mentioning perks, besides doubling the salary from my previous casino boat of less than 1,600 GT, the GRAND VICTORIA I offered the Captains a free apartment with telephone and maid service. Included in the package were free meals in the luxurious buffet. And if that wasn’t enough, we each received a $16,000 sign-on bonus — an amount equaling more like $28-thou in today’s nearly worthless script.

The buffet was spectacular, featuring all the steamed lobster claws one could gorge at dinner between trips on the “mighty, but tiny” Fox River. As great as the Elgin fling was, it took just a brief deliberation to accept the Sr. Captain’s slot on the Ohio River, merely 35 miles from my folk’s home in Northern Kentucky – limitless steamed lobster claws, or not.

The PLAYERS RIVERBOAT CASINO in Metropolis, Illinois, near where Ohio meets the “Father of Waters,” the Mighty Mississippi.

Within a span of nearly a quarter-century, I was either the Captain, First Officer, or both on five gamblin’ boats on the Mississippi, Fox, and the Ohio Rivers and the Captain of the EMERALD LADY on the Mississippi Sound at Biloxi, Mississippi. These days the EMERALD LADY is the flagship of BB Riverboats in Newport, Kentucky, the BELLE of CINCINNATI. My other gamblers were the DIAMOND LADY in Bettendorf, Iowa, and the PLAYERS RIVERBOAT CASINO in Metropolis, Illinois, near where Ohio meets the “Father of Waters,” the Mighty Mississippi.

These three riverboats were of less than 1,600 gross tons and, thus, allowed smaller licenses. Accordingly, the pay and the benefits were less than the unlimited vessels, but I was thrilled to be a member of their crews, where I met some most-interesting peeps working the boats. Captain Kenneth “Ken” Murphy, Sr., the “Big Captain” on the DIAMOND LADY and the PLAYERS boat, may be called the “Dean of Casino Boats Captains” for not only being the first Master of a casino vessel but also as a mentor and friend to many younger men and women starting anew in the gambling boat trade. The list of those Murph mentored would fill a notebook.

Captain David L. Franklin often told the story about the time he had an appointment in the pilothouse of the PLAYERS RIVERBOAT to audition for a pilot’s position.

Captain David L. Franklin often told the story about the time he had an appointment in the pilothouse of the PLAYERS RIVERBOAT to audition for a pilot’s position. As he crossed over the Merv Griffin Landing Barge to the boat, the aroma wafting from the Grand Buffet nearly made his mouth water. Capt. Dave recalled it was hard to keep the thoughts of all that fine food out of his mind as he answered Captain Murphy’s questions concerning his piloting background. Cap’n Dave was sure, he later confided, that the Senior Captain would certainly invite him to lunch in the buffet after the interview.

When Captain Ken reached out and shook Cap’n Dave’s hand, congratulating him for winning the pilot’s post, as indeed as expected, Cap’n Ken asked Dave if he was hungry. Remembering the delicious delights waiting on the buffet table, Captain Franklin assured his new boss he was “ready to put on the feed bag.”

Capt. Murphy unexpectedly reached into a cabinet drawer and withdrew a tin of Vienna sausages and a pack of saltine crackers and placed them on the table.

With Dave’s assurance he was ravenously ready for lunch, Murphy unexpectedly reached into a cabinet drawer and withdrew a tin of Vienna sausages and a pack of saltine crackers and placed them on the table between them. After pulling the tab on the little weenie can lid, Captain Murphy generously invited the newly hired pilot:

“Don’t be shy, now, Cap’n Dave. Dig on in and eat all those sausages you want.”

“Don’t be shy now,” Captain Dave laughingly repeated whenever he retold the story. “Don’t be shy, now…”

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.

These days the EMERALD LADY is the flagship of BB Riverboats in Newport, Kentucky, the BELLE of CINCINNATI. (Photo Josh Lakin)


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17 Comments

  1. Kristen Colby says:

    I worked on the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN as a Dining Room Stewardess back in the day (eventually transferring to American Hawaii Cruises’ SS CONSTITUTION). The food that I served on the MQ was great, and I waited on several famous people. Although we weren’t a gambling boat, we did do overnight cruises all the way up the Mississippi, from New Orleans to St. Paul, MN and beyond. I made great money which eventually put me through college. So many fond memories, and I’m still friends with many former crew members and passengers today!

  2. Jo Ann Schoen says:

    Another great story! I look forward to them each week.

  3. Connie Bays says:

    Another wonderful story! I loved the part about the lunch of Vienna sausages and crackers! He must have had the most crestfallen look on his face, and Capt Murphy had to have seen it, lol! Capt Murphy sounds like a character!
    Keep the stories coming. Very enjoyable!

  4. peggy sanders says:

    I love that story.:).

  5. Mike Washenko says:

    Great read Cap, making me hungry just thinking about that food. But not the sausages.

  6. Virginia Rhynders says:

    Interesting to learn how the gambling boats worked. Thanks again for sharing, Sir.

  7. Heidi English says:

    Captain Don writes another page turner. Many years ago as a guest at the Grand Victoria I happened to spot a captain on the deck. Alas it was not Captain Don but one of his mates. My friends and I were granted a tour of the pilot House and I have a picture to prove of this adventure. I also have a treasured honorary Captain license which has expired. I was treated like a star it was so much fun and we were granted a free buffet. It truly is sad that the boat isn’t taken care of like they were when Captain Don was in charge.
    Now I understand why it was such a treat for Barb Anderson to bring you a Thanksgiving plate. Thanks for another great read Captain Don Sanders.

  8. Ron Sutton says:

    Interesting Gambling Boat Internals. Even Funnier; Capt. Dave’s Lunch Invitation. Years ago MY Friend, Mentor, and Chief Engineer, and I had a policy of Never Eating on the Ship when Better was Available Ashore.

  9. Nelson Klavitter says:

    Thanks for sharing your great .emories.

  10. Ken McLemore says:

    Another wonderfully informative and entertaining tale from Cap’n Don! You sir, are without peer!

  11. Rob Minton says:

    I have been on several of these boats over the years and figured they were great money makers for their owners. Always love Capt. Don’s stories!

  12. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Thank you,Capt Don, for bringing another phase of river life into living color for those of us that have not experienced it. I deeply regret I was never able to accept your kind invitation to come tour & enjoy the Grand Victoria. I am so sad that they don’t value her & care for her as the previous owners did.
    Please keep these wonderful memories coming. They’re a bright spot in my Sunday.

  13. Phil & Janice Starbuck says:

    We’ve been fortunate to have taken many cruises on the Delta Queen and the American Queen. We love all the riverboat stories you write Capt. Don Sanders.

  14. Donna Sanders says:

    Always great fun stories ! Food for the soul !

  15. Cap'n Don says:

    WOW! Thanks for all the great comments. Some are stories within themselves. Each one is appreciated. Thank you.

  16. Patrick Mullins says:

    Those were interesting days when the state laws required all gaming to be on the water. Having been married in Las Vegas we always did a casino themed anniversary thing, and riding the huge Casino Queen out of East St. Louis (Illinois was the closest experience to cruising on the ADMIRAL. When that boat turned around south of STL you could almost run from one riverbank to the other! We had lost one boat, then with legal land-based casinos we lost another.

  17. Wonderful reading. Thanks

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