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The River: Remembering the eventful day that the CLYDE became mine, and, yes, I’d do it all over again


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.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Thursdays are my “writing days” when I sit at my computer and fret over what to draft for the upcoming river column in the NKyTribune. This week’s a cinch. No sweat. The material for Sunday’s scribble is preordained, for it was a decade ago today, on Saturday, 16 June 2012, that I encountered one of my most memorable days on the river.

On the 17th of May, a month earlier at the Great River Marina, Alma, Wisconsin, I sat at the oak galley table of the sternwheeler CLYDE, a 53-foot replica of the 1870 rafter of the same name, and scrawled my John Henry on the signature line at the bottom of my check. Within minutes, the paddlewheeler became my property after the boat’s builder, Ed Newcomb, signified by completing the paperwork necessary for the ownership transition. Watching the arrangement was Everett Dameron, a friend from Covington, Kentucky, our hometown, and my sole companion and crewman for the upcoming 1,300 delivery from Alma to Aurora, Indiana, by way of the Upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

On the 17th of May, a month earlier at the Great River Marina, Alma, Wisconsin, I sat at the oak galley table of the sternwheeler CLYDE, a 53-foot replica of the 1870 rafter of the same name, and scrawled my John Henry on the signature line at the bottom of my check.

Between the time I took possession of the CLYDE and when we finally shoved off was 26 days, including a journey, by my faithful pickup truck, I still drive at the time of this writing, to the Tennessee River at Decatur, Alabama to retrieve several items off my other boat, the SUN*FISH. Several important pieces of equipment scrounged from the SUN*FISH, quite possibly saved the CLYDE and crew.

When Ev and I arrived in Alma on the 4th of June with a 15-foot rental truck chock full of gear, including the 13-foot aluminum skiff, BUSTER, a stout 75-pound anchor, and 100-feet of one-inch nylon anchor line, the CLYDE was, as recorded in the Logbook, “patiently awaiting her crew for the long trip to her new home some 1,300 miles away by water.” Without the line, anchor, and BUSTER-the-Skiff, we might not have gotten the CLYDE to Aurora on time.

“The only thing we didn’t use was a pop-rivet gun, and when I tried to use it not long ago…. it was broken,” I remember commenting after the trip. On such a voyage of uncertainty, everything conceivable was packed aboard the 15-foot U-haul and carried northward to Alma.

Soon after a hearty breakfast of flapjacks and robust steamboat coffee, on Tuesday, 12 June 2012, calliope expert Jonathan Tschiggfrie and CLYDE’s builder, Ed Newcomb, showed up for the departure of the paddlewheeler on her epic excursion downbound to the Ohio River.

Soon after returning to Alma, my insurance agent notified me that our underwriter gave us just 30 days of coverage. So instead of a leisurely odyssey home retracing routes I’d taken on the Steamer AVALON and DELTA QUEEN, it turned into a race before the insurance underwriters canceled CLYDE’s coverage.

Meanwhile, the river was nearing flood stage resulting from heavy rains before we returned. Consequently, we were to experience several days’ delays. Nevertheless, the Great River Marina turned out to be the perfect place to enjoy cool nights and pleasing company around the harbor. Looking back, our stay there was one of the most enjoyable events on the voyage.

Soon after a hearty breakfast of flapjacks and robust steamboat coffee, on Tuesday, 12 June 2012, calliope expert Jonathan Tschiggfrie and CLYDE’s builder, Ed Newcomb, showed up for the departure of the paddlewheeler on her epic excursion downbound to the Ohio River. Jon would follow the start of our adventure from along the shore, while Ed planned to ride to Dubuque to show the fledgling crew “the ropes.”

Everett Dameron, a friend from Covington, Kentucky, our hometown, and my sole companion and crewman for the upcoming 1,300 delivery from Alma to Aurora, Indiana, by way of the Upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. 

At the end of the first day, the CLYDE found herself at Pettibone Boat Harbor, some 51.1 miles downstream from Great River Marina.

By noon on the second day, 13 June, CLYDE passed Lancing, Minnesota; the farthest downstream the boat had ever been on the Mississippi. But, as noted, “every turn of the wheel makes history for the pretty sternwheeler.”

On the following day, 14 June, at 2:15 pm, CLYDE entered the ice harbor at Dubuque, Iowa, exactly where the Iowa Iron Works built the CLYDE’s namesake in 1870. Ed departed the CLYDE leaving Ev and me on our own.

A note from that time: “At any moment, we expected eviction from the unfinished harbor. Instead, while using our CLYDE as a reference model, docents at the museum (National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium) instructed visitors about the original CLYDE, built at this very place as the first iron-hulled steamboat on the Upper Mississippi River.”

Without the line, anchor, and BUSTER-the-Skiff, we might not have gotten the CLYDE to Aurora on time. 

Early the next morning, 15 June, the CLYDE slipped out of the ice harbor past the slumbering M/V TWILIGHT, the late Captain Dennis Trone’s swift passenger steamboat-lookalike, and eventually through the open swing span of the historic Sabula Railroad Bridge.

Approaching Pelican Island, the stench informed us of the aquatic birds long before the CLYDE came abreast of the isle. Lock 13 came and went but not before the angry lockmaster scolded me for my boat dripping oil into his lock chamber. That was the first that I knew the starboard paddlewheel motor leaked hydraulic fluid. My greatest fear was that the lockman would call ahead and tell his counterpart at Lock 14 to prevent us from using that lock. Thankfully, he didn’t, and the CLYDE tied up for the night at a small dock at LeClaire, IA, above the TWILIGHT’s home facility, the former steam ferry, the CITY OF BATON ROUGE, a steamboat I often rode while I was a deckhand on the Steamer AVALON whenever we played the capital city of Louisiana.

Saturday, 16 June, started early. Cloudy, warm, with showers. Ev and I were up by 0430 as I had a paddlewheel part to patch. By 0830, I completed cribbing two  2 X 4s onto a couple of rotten Wheel Arms radiating from the center wheel shaft like the spoke on a wheel. The “helpers,” as I called them, lasted until fresh White Oak timbers replaced the rotted Arms in Aurora, over a 1,000 river miles from LeClaire.
 

At any moment, we expected eviction from the unfinished harbor.

CLYDE’s Log reflected:

“*0830- Wheel finished – prepared to depart down.
*6 gal # 2 diesel fuel added to Day Tank.”

Instead of continuing downriver directly to Lock 14, the U. S. Corps of Engineers instructed the CLYDE to detour through LeClaire Canal and use smaller Lock 14A. “Ev steered an excellent course,” the logbook noted. Once through 14A, the CLYDE entered the main channel running through what had been the Moline Rapids with “rocks as big as houses” outside the buoy line. Lock and Dam 15’s backwaters at Rock Island, IL, drowned the rapids, but traversing the area is still a danger to laden barges and deep draught vessels trespassing outside the aids to navigation. The CLYDE, drawing no more than three feet of water, was in little danger. Still, the prudent boatman must respect the government aids in such places as a former whitewater rapid with stones more immense than the CLYDE, itself, waiting patiently to remove the bottom from any careless or unwary vessel. 

Approaching Lock 15 at Rock Island, from above, the lock chamber lies tucked in below the point abreast of the Colonel Davenport Historical Home. With the river running directly for the dam and a stiff breeze blowing in the same direction, the CLYDE tended to drift toward dangerous waters falling over the largest roller dam in the world instead of venturing toward the lock. After flipping around at least three times, the CLYDE finally co-operated and entered the large chamber. Lock 15 is one of the few locks on the Upper Mississippi with a completed auxiliary chamber.

A 50 mph rain squall slammed the CLYDE and drove the paddlewheeler onto a mud flat.

Once inside the lock, Judy Patsch, a well-known steamboat buff, crewmember, and all-around “river lady,” anxiously awaited on the wall of L&D 15 to see the CLYDE.

Leaving Lock 15 behind, CLYDE passed under Centennial Bridge and the dreaded swing span of the railroad bridge below, a bane to many a towboat pilot.  Past the bridges, the paddlewheel seemed to turn slower, while the steering became sluggish. Then, suddenly, the next logbook entry screamed:

“Trouble… BIG Time.
* Engine HOT – Quit 1350.
* On hook (anchor) 1405.”

After the engine overheated on the main course of the river and we dropped the anchor, it was soon apparent that the CLYDE was in the main channel of the Mississippi. Seeing a nearby entrance to Andalusia Slough, we waited until the engine cooled sufficiently to restart and limped on minimal power into the slough expecting the current to slacken. Surprisingly, the current ran even faster within the narrow confines of the slough.

Once inside the lock, Judy Patsch, a well-known steamboat buff, crewmember, and all-around “river lady,” anxiously awaited on the wall of L&D 15 to see the CLYDE.

At that same time, a 50 mph rain squall slammed the CLYDE and drove the paddlewheeler onto a mud flat. After the storm passed, help came in the form of the first of those who suddenly appeared when assistance was greatly needed, folks Ev and I called “CLYDE’s Angels.” Without asking, a powerful ski boat gratefully pulled the sternwheeler off the mud flat. Otherwise, with a falling river, the CLYDE may have spent the summer there, high and dry.

LOG:
16 June 2012
* Pulled off by ski-boat – dropped hook again.
* Hydraulic fluid in tank at 3″. Ed called, and confirmed, “Low”.
* Hydraulic fluid in center bilge…
(Note: CLYDE NEVER caused an oil spill. This hydraulic fluid stayed aboard in the bilge until after the journey ended and was safely recycled.)
* Here to Stay…At least for a while.
* Put out oil lamps from MARJESS – burned bright all night.
* Exhausted. Went to bed later. 

Such was my day a decade ago, this past June the 16th. Would I do it all over again if I could?

Of course, yer dern tootin’ I would. 

Pulled off by ski-boat – dropped hook again. Here to Stay…At least for a while.

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.

Click here to read all of Capt. Don Sanders’ stories of The River.


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2 Comments

  1. Michael Gore says:

    Excellent accounting! “Oh, we had some hair-raisers-it wouldn’t be towboating otherwise…”, said Capt. and river author, Richard Bissell in his book, “The Monongahela” (1952). To broaden the beam on that, hair-raising’s going to happen given enough time with any kind of boating!

  2. Everett Dameron says:

    Captain Don, how about joining me on a much shorter trip up the Ohio this Fall on My Escape. She is undergoing some engine work now to ensure she is in fit shape for a fun trip. A leasure trip, not a race, we’ll go as far up as intrest us, and a leisure flot back down to Warsaw.

Reply to Everett Dameron Cancel Reply