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The River: Eventful week on river — fire aboard historic NATCHEZ, Belle of Louisville wins Derby race


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.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

A fire aboard the historic New Orleans steamboat NATCHEZ had the river community astir this past Tuesday. Currently, the steamboat lies docked in the Industrial Canal for maintenance. The blaze started after shipyard workers, who had been “torching switchgear panels” in the engineroom, left for the day. According to reports, the workmen neglected to post a fire watch to safeguard the scene where they’d been using cutting torches on the generator panels.

A fire aboard the historic New Orleans steamboat NATCHEZ had the river community astir this past Tuesday. (Nick Weber Photo)

The U. S. Coast Guard is investigating the cause of the incident, and once they post their report, interested inquirers’ questions should receive answers. The NATCHEZ will likely be repaired and returned to service before then. Meanwhile, the paddlewheeler CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, the sister ship to the half-century-old NATCHEZ, will continue to fill in for the larger steamer. Both Louisiana-built vessels belong to the New Orleans Steamboat Company.

The Steamer NATCHEZ came off the marine ways at Bergeron Machine Shop, Braithwaite, Louisiana, in 1975 under the guidance of the late Captain Wilbur Dow and managed by his son, William P. “Bill” Dow. Nearly 50 years later, a third-generation member of the family, Capt. Matt Dow has assumed significant responsibilities within the Crescent City riverboat business.

The diesel-powered, sternwheeler, CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, is a product of the Leevac Shipyard, Jennings, Louisiana. Initially built in 1992 as the gamblin’ boat, the CASINO ROCK ISLAND, the Dows rescued the ornate riverboat in 2018 after it was laid up and renovated the former gambler into a New Orleans-style harbor excursion boat running in league with the larger NATCHEZ.

The paddlewheeler CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, the sister ship to the half-century-old NATCHEZ, will continue to fill in for the larger steamer. (Photo Capt. Matt Dow)

Although I knew that “practically everybody and his brother” were calling Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley, the celebrated steamboatman and retired Senior Master of the NATCHEZ, reluctantly, I telephoned my mentor and former boss to get his take on the fire. He replied:

“I’ve been swamped with the phone ringing off the hook. I didn’t know anything about the fire until the next morning. Later, I learned the boat’s in better shape than what was feared and should be fixed and back on the river as quickly as possible.”

Any disaster on a boat is intensified many times over than a similar incident ashore. After explosions, fires especially instill fear in those on the water. During my many years on the river, I helped fight an inferno that destroyed the towboat LUTHER HURDMAN on the Great Kanawha River at its mouth near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, during the frigid cold of January 1971.

The CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, is a product of the Leevac Shipyard, Jennings, Louisiana. Initially built in 1992 as the gamblin’ boat, the CASINO ROCK ISLAND.

The closest I’ve witnessed a fire that could have destroyed the Steamer DELTA QUEEN happened during the summer of 1965 while I was a “striker” in the engineroom. Back then, the kitchen for the steamboat was below decks, amidships between the two watertight doors. Instead of powering the stoves with electricity, the brutish cast iron cookers burned light-weight diesel oil. Below the deck beneath them were vast storage tanks filled with sizzling-hot, Number 6, Bunker C Oil heated to 140 degrees to readily ignite underneath the boilers to generate steam.

Unfortunately, the bottom steel plate under one of the stoves had worn thin, allowing intense heat to radiate onto the deck causing oily residue atop the dirty fuel tanks to smolder. Making the situation worse, bone-dry, wooden dunnage left inside the steel hull from its 1926 construction added to the potential fire load ready to explode into a catastrophe at any moment.

Fortunately, Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the legendary master of the DELTA QUEEN, chose to fetch his breakfast, that morning, directly from the kitchen instead of going to his table in the Officers Dining Room on the Main Deck aft the passengers’ dining area. Wagner immediately sensed the unusually high temperature of the deck around the oil-burning stove. Upon imminent investigation, the Captain immediately ordered the fires banked within the cookstove and summoned the emergency crew. I learned of the danger when he reported to the engineroom to warn the engineering staff of the hazard. Captain Wagner later revealed he came very close to sounding the General Alarm and commanding the Pilot to land the DELTA QUEEN and put all the passengers and unneeded crewmembers ashore.

Nearly 50 years later, a third-generation member of the family, Capt. Matt Dow has assumed significant responsibilities within the Crescent City riverboat business.

According to Wagner, “That smoldering fire underneath the cookhouse stove was the closest I come to sounding the alarm bells and putting everyone off the DELTA QUEEN.”

Better news came from the “Great Steamboat Race” at Louisville this past week. The 107-year-old steamboat, the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, became the winner of the aquatic contest 59 years after racing began at the Falls City in 1963. The first steamboat race, one that I attended after hitchhiking from Richmond, KY, happened on a miserably cold last day of April 1963.

The DELTA QUEEN won the first competition over a 14-mile course. However, this year, the hometown boat wore the victor’s gilded antlers after defeating her competitors, the AMERICAN COUNTESS and BB Riverboat’s BELLE OF CINCINNATI.

Following proper steamboat racing etiquette declaring that “there are no rules in steamboat racing,” the Louisville COURIER-JOURNAL newspaper reported:

 “… even though it physically finished last, it was the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE that emerged victoriously because it was the only authentic steamboat in the race.”

Other than these two events and word that the SPIRIT OF PEORIA arrived safely and lay alongside her new sister boat, the JULIA BELLE SWAIN, in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, all is quiet on my end of the river. So let’s not get too excited and try to keep it that way while I appreciate the hush of tranquility.

Right: The 107-year-old steamboat, the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, became the winner of the aquatic contest 59 years after racing began at the Falls City in 1963. Photo by Madison Berry.)
Left: The first steamboat race, one that I attended after hitchhiking from Richmond, KY, happened on a miserably cold day last day of April 1963

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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8 Comments

  1. Michael Gore says:

    From horror to cautiously comforted is the news about the Str. NATCHEZ this past week. Thankfully, no one injured or worse and that the boat’s injuries promise to be healed quickly. Chilling is reading about the long ago “near-miss” of the Str. DELTA QUEEN being so close to a much worse inferno! Hurrahs to the last-first finisher, Str. BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, in the Great Steamboat Race! Thanks, Capt. Don and NKyTribune for keeping all abreast of river boating’s ups and downs!

  2. Joy ann scudder says:

    Captain Don, thanks for another great historical view of these beautiful steamboats. Congratulations to the crew of the Belle of Louisville.

  3. The deadly ‘Contractors Torch’ has been responsible for Fires aboard Ships and Boats beyond Count.

  4. Jo Ann Schoen says:

    I had never heard the story regarding the near fire on the DELTA QUEEN. I’m sure Captain Wagner was always double, triple sure to watch for any indication of such an event after what he had endured! But then again, that is why the crews care trained and there was always a watchman making rounds at night. Your story telling is always the best!!

  5. Cap'n Don says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Ironically, JoAnn, the two old Watchmen, walked over the deck where the fire was smoldering below and never sensed anything was amiss. Captain Wagner’s decision to fetch his breakfast directly from the kitchen saved the DELTA QUEEN. Cap seriously considered firing both of the old fellows, Bruce Edgington was one, but it was the beginning of the end for the idea of making the Watchman’s job an “old folk’s home” for aging steamboaters.

  6. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Thanks,Capt Don for the update on the Natchez. Reading that you got reassuring news from Capt “Doc” makes my heart rest easier.. I too had never beard the ” cook house close call”. The DQ definitely has her guardian angel that moved “Big Cap” to go fetch his own breakfast. After the IQ , I’m sure he had heightened instincts.. Thank heavens they worked that day.. Has the DQ ever gone to shore & unloaded passengers for an emergency? Congratulations Belle of Louisville!

  7. Harry Barry says:

    I loved the “Natchez” since the day it was launched with its big magnificent Lunkenheimer, 3 whistle chime whistle from the J&L Steel mill in my hometown Pittsburgh, PA. The fire makes me gag. I have heard of many steamboat fires caused by incompetancy and or carelessness from welders. A very stupid welder fire loss was the gorgeous French liner “Normandy”, in N.Y.C. It was a huge ship, a work of art.

  8. Regarding Capt. Wagner’s Breakfast Choice, How many times has Coincidence or Just Plain Luck been a Major Factor in the Difference Between ‘Close Call’ and a ‘Major Casualty?’ Good News on the Natchez, I have not seen how they Walled off the Diesel Generators. Used to judge our Speed from the Vibration of their Air Cleaners. Glad damage was slight and confined to Machinery Spaces. The Bog Ole Priceless Engine OK.

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