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The River: Miscellaneous reflections of a life fully lived on the river — gathering rosebuds while I may

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 is part of a long and continuing story.

(Editor’s Note: We are repeating some of the Captain’s favorite columns, this one from 2019, because his stories never get old, and because he is taking a personal break due to the health of his wife, Peggy, who now home from rehab and in his care. Our prayers are with both of them as they work through this challenge.)

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune


Captain Jesse Paul Hughes (1875-1973)

Cap’n Jesse lived nearly a century, and I only remember him as an older man. Cincinnati premier river buff, R. Dale Flick, I know for sure, was close to him in Cap’n Jesse’s waning days, but my only personal involvement with the iconic Ohio River Master and Pilot was in the summer of 1972 when I was the Captain of the DELTA QUEEN, and we were landed nose-to-nose with the BELLE of LOUISVILLE at the Louisville waterfront.

Aboard the BELLE, moored above the QUEEN, sitting quietly alone on the rounded wooden benches which, some say, came off the ISLAND QUEEN, was the legendary Cap’n Jesse, himself. All around the forward area of the BELLE, the boat was alive with loud talk and excitement as passengers and crew members from both vessels mixed and exchanges greetings.

In all that humdrum, I saw Captain Jesse sitting by himself staring straight ahead and looking like an ancient steamboat artifact on display. Not knowing if the old gentleman would respond or not, I bent close to his ear and whispered,
“Captain Jesse, would you like to go aboard the DELTA QUEEN.”

Instantly, the ancient captain vigorously shook his head up-and-down in agreement and shot up from the hard bench. Off he went, nearly at a gallop, with me holding onto his arm trying to keep up with the centenarian as he flew across the BELLE’s landing stage, down the cement tarmac, and onto the bow of the DELTA QUEEN before his caretakers knew their charge was absent.

Within moments of discovering the elder captain was missing, across the stage of the DELTA QUEEN flew Captains C. W. Stoll, Doc Hawley, and Roddy Hammett in hot pursuit! As they approached Cap’n Jesse and me intending to repossess their ward, I assured my friends,

“He’s fine. Just leave him be. Captain Jesse only wants to be back aboard the DELTA QUEEN one last time.”

Some years later, his daughter thanked me for taking her father aboard the steamboat that meant so much to him – one final time.

Steam Towboat IRONSIDES / W. K. FIELD & Capt. John Emory Edgington (1870-1966)

The steam towboat IRONSIDES was built in Pittsburgh in 1869 and ran under that name until 1913. She was taken into the Monongahela River Consolidated Coal & Coke Company of Pittsburgh which, formed in 1901, and was better known as the ‘Combine.”

The sixty-some steamboats the Combine operated in its twenty-years of service were recognized by the letters “RC.” for “River Coal,” or “River Combine,” painted on the sides of their boat’s pilothouses, as seen in this classic photo of old IRONSIDES taken in front of the Cincinnati Public Landing.

In 1913, the IRONSIDES became the W. K. FIELD. By the next year, she was the oldest operating wooden towboat afloat on the Western Rivers.

In 1922, the W. K. FIELD was in command of my old friend and crewman, Captain J. Emory Edgington, photographed, here, by Capt. Jim Swartzwelder, Pittsburgh, at the steering wheel of the Steamer AVALON; sometime around 1960, or ’61. The venerable steam towboat operated until 1927 – a span of some 58 years.

Captain Edgington was 89, and I was 17 when I started steamboating with him on the excursion boat, the Steamer AVALON. Whenever the elder pilot wanted a letter “posted,” or his “grip” carried to the bus station when he was ready to leave the boat, he always asked for me. I still feel honored that such an illustrious steamboatman requested my assistance when I was such a young fellow.

Awaiting Coal-Water

Pittsburgh was the starting point for the Combine steamboats and their precious cargoes of Pennsylvania sweet coat loaded into flimsy wooden barges. Once “coal-water” was promised, the steamers made ready and rode the crest of the rise all the way downriver as far as New Orleans if there was sufficient water.

Quite often, the Combine pilots would be many miles away from the Combine fleet “lookin’ at the river” where the water was low enough to get an idea of how the channel would look once there was enough depth for the loaded coal barges.

The men kept in touch with “back home” at every chance they had by mail, telegraph, and even telephone messages. But as soon as word came to “get back as quickly as possible; a rise is coming,” they grabbed the nearest, fastest train for Pittsburgh. By the time the pilots arrived, their towboats were, quite often, already fired-up, in-tow, and awaiting them.

As one old gentleman recalled, ” I had to drop my grip in the hallway under the pilothouse and didn’t get to unpack it until the next day.”

It could be that frantic to “catch the wave,” so to speak, when coal-water came.

Reflections On the Tag End of Life.

The old-time steamboat men tried to tell us young bucks how swiftly the years would fly, but we laughed, unable to comprehend the passage of the seemingly long years ahead. In what appeared but a moment in time, the youthful face in the mirror drooped, grew gray, and looked tired.

Even the poets published their warnings on soft paper pages:

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Old time’s a’ flying… and the flower that blooms today, tomorrow will be dying.”

And, “Youth is nimble full of grace. Age is lame of tardy pace.”

That day of reckoning soon arrives for all those blessed to survive the trials and tribulations of youth and grow into their “three scores and ten” years. Be warned! Grab those rosebuds; quit wasting precious moments – “for the flower that blooms today, tomorrow will be dying.”

Or as Captain Albert Sidney Kelley so often reminded, “They tried to tell us…”

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. Joy Scudder says:

    Your recollections of Captain Jesse brought tears. Thanks, once again, for your stories, Captain Don. Happy New Year to you and yours.

  2. Connie Bays says:

    You’ve had such a full and eventful life. I can’t imagine a world without you in it. We all have to travel that path one day, but I hope for you it’s still far away. The world needs your stories, your advice, and your direction. Here’s to you breaking that 100 year mark! You were so kind to Capt Jesse! I know that was the highlight of his day, and it was so nice of you to give him that! I enjoyed your story, as always. Keep them coming!

  3. Ginnie Rhynders says:

    It’s always good to revisit your fine stories. Enjoy them just as much the second time around. Please take care of yourself as well as your Peggy

  4. June Wiley says:

    Always such a pleasure to read your stories Captain….and the story of your inviting the old captain aboard the DQ was SO Special….Thank you so much. And yes those years now seem to have flown by even for those of us married to a seaman and sailing on their steamboats through the years……Now I am alone with my memories as my steamboater is sailing the MQ in heaven…..and waiting for me to join him!! God Bless you and your family…and cherish every moment together!!

  5. Appreciate the tales as an 89YO former Boy wonder in My 20’s. Time did pass. I retired before I joined the ‘Working Old Timers.’

  6. Pete OConnell says:

    Capt I’ve found the rosebuds have blamed and are about to wither on the steam but yet to fall. I’ve enjoyed your tales and experiences that you’ve shared.
    Keep them coming….

  7. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Oh thanks, Don, for sharing the stories of the men I knew when I first rode in the pilothouse of the Delta Queen. My Dad ,then in his 50s with snow white hair he’d had since his 30s, looked like a young man & when Capt Clarke C “Doc” Hawley joined the pilothouse assemblage ,he looked a kid. You bring them to life. I could feel Csot Jesse ‘ s excitement as you offered him that last visit. Prayers for Peg & you.

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