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The River: A half-century of steamboat memories, all the experiences, really are just a ‘moment in time’

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.

(Editor’s Note: We are repeating the Captain’s column from May 2021, because his stories never get old, and because he is taking a personal break due to the health of his wife, Peggy, who is in rehab care. Our prayers are with both of them as they work through this challenge. Let’s hope everyone has a much, much more Happy New Year in 2022.)

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The last time I saw John Hartford, he was onboard the BELLE OF CINCINNATI performing one of his last public concerts during a charter boat ride sponsored by the Propeller Club of the United States, Cincinnati Chapter. A few months later, John died.

The last time I saw John Hartford, he was onboard the BELLE OF CINCINNATI performing one of his last public concerts.

As John finished one of his river tunes that many of us in the audience knew the words by heart, he began recalling the familiar names of river friends he, I, and others knew personally. After he spoke the last name, John paused a moment before uttering, mainly to himself, “They’re all gone now…” And then, as though contemplating the briefness of our mutual friends’ lives, he summed up their fleeting, transitory existence by adding:

“All but a moment in time… just one more moment in time.”

Twenty years, now, have passed since John Hartford uttered that insightful sentence summarizing the ephemeral passage of time. The momentary, transient passing of two decades since that night aboard the Cincinnati BELLE is, in itself, a testimony to the validity of John’s summarization that all our existence, no matter its length, is “all but a moment in time.”

John Hartford had a keen way with words even when he wasn’t trying to be clever.

Where am I going with this? “I dun been dere an’ gone,” as an old shantyman once said. All I wanted was to bring forth Cap’n Hartford’s concept of “a moment in time.” Especially as I am sitting on my own cusp of existence where my participation in fluvial adventures is the remembrance of moments past with little more than a glimmer of probability for future experiences.

As John finished one of his river tunes that many of us in the audience knew the words by heart, he began recalling the familiar names of river friends he, I, and others knew personally.

Perhaps I feel this way now that the COVID-19 pandemic is where the river industry is reopening, and I find myself a spectator and not a participant. But, too, I “retired” from the passenger boat trade in 2011 and no longer have my own riverboat, since selling the Rafter CLYDE, to ease those yearnings. Sadly, I am finding myself “missing the action” more than ever since hanging up my steamboat license.

In keeping with John Hartford’s concept of “a moment in time,” let’s slip back half a century to Saturday, 09 May 1971, exactly 50 years ago aboard the DELTA QUEEN as she departed Memphis at fifty minutes past noon on her “First Spring Trip from Cincinnati to New Orleans.” Captain Ernest E. Wagner was the Master with Captains Robert “Bob” Zang and “Handsome Harry” Hamilton piloting. I was the QUEEN’s First Mate standing watch opposite Captain Wagner.

After a twelve-hour stay docked somewhere near the Foot of Beale Street (the Log doesn’t say exactly where), the QUEEN readied for departure. Looking over the official DELTA QUEEN Logbook, I am often disappointed with how vague many of the entries are, especially when I hope to find as much information as possible. There was a reason for this in the minds of the old-time steamboat men aboard the boat that day.

Sadly, I am finding myself “missing the action” more than ever since hanging up my steamboat license. 

The Log was not only a record of the daily navigation activities, but it could also be used as a tool condemning the actions of the Captain, other licensed officers, and the company should the need arise. More than once did the Master remind me that the logbook was “his” and not mine. Once an entry was recorded in the official book, it became an affidavit whose validity could be upheld as evidence in a court of law. Experienced boatmen knew that “the least said was the easiest to mend.”

From the first day I “stood” watch as Captain Wagner’s “Second Mate,” he began teaching me the fundamentals of commanding from the Wing Bridges outside the pilothouse of the DELTA QUEEN. Essentially, the Master was teaching me how to become a “Roof Captain,” as was he. The QUEEN, like most large steamboats, was obliged to employ, according to the U. S. Coast Guard document, the Certificate of Inspection, or COI, “one Master, two pilots, one Inland Mate,” and so forth to include all the manning requirements for the navigation and engineering departments.

The Master, or “Captain,” as everyone usually called them, did not stand a steering watch. Rather, he, and sometimes, she, acted sort of like the “mayor” of the boat and, according to the COI, was “generally in-charge” of the vessel.

Wagner started coaching me in the duties of a Roof Captain as soon as he could.

Although the giant skipper, Captain Wagner, could handle the DELTA QUEEN better than the best pilots, he preferred not to stand two six-hour pilot watches “driving” the boat. Unlike later captains, “Big Cap” trusted his licensed mate to act on his behalf during the next watch when he was off duty and probably sleeping. For that reason, Wagner started coaching me in the duties of a Roof Captain as soon as he could. In fact, after Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley, Cap’s long-time Mate and Alternate Master left the QUEEN, Cap entrusted me with the Mate’s duties opposite his watch. Although I had no Coast Guard-issued license, an off-station licensed pilot “carried” the document and had the ultimate responsibility had I messed up. After a few months of exercising these duties as the unlicensed mate, I passed the Coast Guard exams in June of 1970 and stood watch under the authority of my own “ticket.”

At midnight, 09 May 1971, Captain Hamilton logged passing Norfolk Light. Mile 709.8. Six hours later, at 6:00 AM, the pilot entered “Robson Light Mile 629.0.” According to these entries, the venerable DELTA QUEEN was paddling briskly downstream at 13.466 miles-per-hour over the past six-hour run. Eight mph could be considered average for the QUEEN in still water with no current nor wind acting on the boat.

By noon, the sternwheel steamer was at Island 82 Lower Light, Mile 545.7, for 83.3 miles run during the forward watch giving the QUEEN an average speed of 13.883 mph. For the casual reader, my interest in calculating the speed of a lumbering steamboat to such a fine degree possibly had to do with the fact that I left the DELTA QUEEN in September 1965 for the U. S. Air Force. After returning in January 1970 as the unlicensed 2nd Mate, I possessed an FAA License as a Commercial Airplane Pilot. Consequently, I applied my aviation-style calculations to the steamboat to give myself a better understanding of its performance.


Goodrich Light, Mile 466.9 at 6 PM (13.133 mph). At 8:15 pm, the entry read in all caps: “LANDED – VICKSBURG, MISS. ALONGSIDE STR. SPRAGUE” Then: “DEPARTED STR. SPRAGUE 11:45 PM.”

Anyone who has visited Vicksburg by steamboat knows that arriving around sundown at 8:15 PM and departing only three hours later represents quite a chore of getting the boat up the Yazoo Diversionary Canal, landing alongside the paper-thin hull of the SPRAGUE, with possibly a shoreside tour. More likely, though, the passengers attended the melodrama “Gold In Them Thar Hills” aboard the SPRAGUE. Then after reboarding, departing, turning the QUEEN around in the dark within the canal, and hurrying downstream in the narrow, barge-choked Yazoo to enter the Mississippi at half-past midnight for the run to Natchez was more than enough for a three-hour layover. Just typing all this makes me weary, but I was young, eager, and couldn’t get enough steamboating except for more of it.

At 6:30 AM, Monday, May the 10th, the DELTA QUEEN landed at Vidalia, Louisiana. Passengers and crew with interests in historic Natchez on the opposite shore were bussed over and back. The concrete ramp at the Foot of Silver Street on the Natchez side presented a problem with landing at Old Natchez-Under-the-Hill, so it was easier on the hull of the aging steamboat to tie up across the Mississippi and bus people back and forth.

On the QUEEN’s bow, however, the white VW “bug” awaited to carry the Captain, or other officers, with official duties in Natchez rather than utilizing the bus. According to their whims, the Volkswagen gave the users more convenience to come and go, which the bus didn’t. Big Cap always reserved the bug for the last trip of each landing to cross the highway bridge to Natchez and pick up an evening newspaper and a handful of dark Ibold Cigars at the Eola Hotel.

During one landing the year before, the VW failed to return to Vidalia in time for Big Cap to make his paper and cigar run. He was fuming by the time the car returned just minutes before the ancient bronze bell rang, and the three-chimed Lunkenheimer whistle blew for departure.

Out of the bug tumbled two young DELTA QUEEN employees, one, El Bigote, the handsome Purser, and the other, Miss N. the prissy Gift Shoppe Girl.

“Where you been, Bigote?” the Captain demanded.


“Uh… Miss N. wanted to pick flowers. So we stopped so she could pick some.”

“PICK’N FLOWERS?” the enraged giant Captain demanded. “PICK’N FLOWERS?”

Hearing the Purser’s excuse for returning the VW, so late Captain Wagner missed his usual ride to indulge his newspaper and cigar habit, all he could do was fume and spit out tiny pieces of the only dark Ibold Cigar he had left.

At 20-past-noon, the DELTA QUEEN was underway and heading for New Orleans. Bayou Sara and Baton Rogue passed before midnight. Wadlington Light, Mile 214.0 at 12 AM, Tuesday, May 11, 1971; then Donaldsonville, LA at 3:15 AM, and U. S. Engineer’s Gage, 4’ S, at 3:15 AM.

The final logbook entry for the First Cincinnati to New Orleans Trip for 1971 read, again in all caps: “Tuesday, May 11. LANDED NEW ORLEANS – POYDRAS ST – 10:30 AM. BOW OF BOAT AT DOOR 54.”

Many who read this account from the official DELTA QUEEN Log will probably say, “Wow… all that happened a long time ago.”

But let me assure my readers, from those three days in May 1971, exactly half a century ago, were, as John Harford so accurately expressed, “just a moment in time.” If any youngster doubts this, when the next 50 years pass, remember what you read here. Though I won’t be around to share your experience, I guarantee you will say to yourself,

“That Captain So-and-So wasn’t lying… these last 50 years actually were ‘but a moment in time.”

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. Jeff Miller says:

    I’m very grateful for each column you pen for readers to share in your “moments in time”.
    The vivid descriptions culled from your memories place us all right there with you for the many adventures you entail.
    All the more poinent as I round the last bend before retirement. Absent the sharp memory you possess.
    Thanks again Captain Don.
    God Bless

  2. Christopher Wirtjes says:

    Captain Don I thank you for your wonderful stories….or facts actually. So enjoyable. Thank you sir!

  3. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Capt Don yet again brings to life river history & river folks while highlighting the amazing way time flies.. I’m so glad he can explain how
    &:why things were done so the ‘youngsters’ who are working now & missing many of these traditions can understand how their jobs have changed. I’ve lived some of what he details & yet I learn too. I can’t wait to read or re-read his next installment. Prayers for Peg & Capt Don.

  4. I am right with 50 or more Years Memory being like Yesterday. My Memories of New Orleans date from the 1961 Maritime Strike. Moved to Metairie in 1965 for a shore Job.

  5. Luv your stories . Thanks

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