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The River: Reflecting on many years on the river, I hope others will say ‘I love hearing that whistle blow’


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

“Tell me what you liked or didn’t like about the river,” was a question tossed my way recently. “Hmmm….. That’s a lot to ponder,” I thought. I didn’t have an answer right away and paused for reflection before I answered.

But like my son Jonathan enlightened me when I apologized to the little tyke for being away for so much, “Well, dad – somebody’s got to make our money.”

Surely, I must have loved being on the water, or else I wouldn’t have spent so many years out there. Of course, it was easier and more desirable to be away from shore when I was younger with no family of my own. But like my son Jonathan enlightened me when I apologized to the little tyke for being away for so much, “Well, dad – somebody’s got to make our money.” So if I had to be an absentee father, at least I was doing something I enjoyed.

Although I never did much worthwhile on dry land, I took to the river when I was ten. Of course, it helped that I had a strong work ethic even at that tender age, and I made myself worthwhile to the owner of the PAL-O-MINE, a 52-foot houseboat belonging to Walt Hoffmeier, a friend of my father. He tolerated my presence as long as I remained helpful. My Great Depression-era parents and grandparents taught me well, and I stayed in Walt’s good graces aboard the PAL and, later, at Walt’s Boat Club until I left home to go steamboating at age 17. I’ve written all about my escapades in earlier columns and urge those interested to read all my stuff in the NKY TRIBUNE starting on December 10, 2017.

A select few living Harlan Hubbard-like lifestyles choose to stay on the fringe where they can pick and choose what intensity of participation suits their situations best.

Castaways often make the best river folks. Some remain isolated and don’t become involved in the mix of fluvial fellowships. For example, a select few living Harlan Hubbard-like lifestyles choose to stay on the fringe where they can pick and choose what intensity of participation suits their situations best. Some may find a fraternity of like-minded souls afloat and remain content within their newly discovered social order. To others, however, the river is little more than the source of a lucrative income, where they dutifully count their days upon the water until the time comes to return to feel the soil beneath their boots again. Generally, though, most folks find a happy mixture of the above and become content with their lives on the river – or at least it seems so more now than it did when I started boatin’ some 70 decades ago.

While diddling with the computer, word arrived that the historic 1877, 12-inch, brass, three-chime Crosby whistle I blew for some 16 years aboard my last commercial command, the GRAND VICTORIA II, was back in the hands of its former owner, Captain Troy Manthe. Troy received ink in my May 1st column after his recent acquisition of the Steamer JULIA BELLE SWAIN and the diesel-powered sternwheeler SPIRIT OF PEORIA. Seeing the beautiful whistle, again, brought back memories.

When Captain Manthe handed over the command of the GRAND VIC II (GVII), formerly the QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS / FLAMINGO, he related that the celebrated whistle came from a 19th Century steamboat, the CHEROKEE. Captain Fred Way’s PACKET DIRECTORY, 1848-1994, lists nine steamers named CHEROKEE. The patient date stamped into the base of the Crosby three-chimer is “Jan 30, 1877.” Seven of the nine steamers no longer operated by 1877, and of the two remaining boats, the CHEROKEE built in 1873 for the Cincinnati and New Orleans trade and the 1888 CHEROKEE running from the Queen City to Memphis, seem the most likely candidates.

The historic 1877 Crosby whistle I blew for some 16 years aboard the GRAND VICTORIA II, was back in the hands of its former owner, Captain Troy Manthe, seen here with Captain Alan Bernstein. (Photo Courtesy of Cap’n Terri Bernstein.)

The mere mention of the name invokes the words of an old roustabout tune: “Cap’n, Cap’n, What’s that I see? Ain’t nothing but the CHER-O-KEE.”

Aboard the GVII, special care dictated blowing the giant whistle lest low air level alarms rocked the engineroom and enraged the engineers on watch. But with some experience, a salute on the Crosby sounded nearly as melodic as any signaling device on the river, including the more famous three-chimed Lunkenhiemer blown aboard the DELTA QUEEN.

The celebrated Bluegrass and steamboat musician John Hartford was an incredibly dedicated fan of the CHEROKEE whistle. During the last year of John’s life, I called him at least once a month. Besides our usual chats, I introduced my friend to the GRAND VIC’s Bridge Mate and Alternate Master, Captain Sandra Clark, one of the GVII’s most talented young navigation officers and a self-taught violin player. The highlight of our telephone calls was blowing a whistle salute for John.

When Captain Manthe handed over the command of the GRAND VIC II (GVII), formerly the QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS / FLAMINGO, he related that the celebrated whistle came from a 19th Century steamboat, the CHEROKEE.

“Cap’n Don’s going to blow the whistle for you,” Sandra would announce over the telephone to the most celebrated musician on the Mississippi River System. The long phone cord stretched onto the port wing bridge. That said, Cap’n Sandra held the phone toward the whistle while I put the 12-inch Crosby hooter through its paces, waking every baby in both Rabbit Hash and Rising Sun at Mile 506 on the Ohio River.

As the last whisper echoed off the hills surrounding the river, Captain Clark handed back the phone in time to hear John Hartford exclaim, “Wow! I sure love hearing that old whistle blow!”

The GRAND VICTORIA II ceased cruising three months after John Hartford passed away in June 2001. The licensed marine officers, including Captain Sandra and I, received our “walking papers” in late 2012. Since then, the casino continues to operate aboard the vessel with her bronze whistle all but silent. With the acquisition of the historic three-chimer back in Cap’n Manthe’s hands, echoes of the thundering voice once heard since the 1870s on the inland waterways will again thrill and delight those within earshot whenever there’s a tug on the whistle cord.

Perhaps someone else will say, “Wow! I sure love hearing that old whistle blow!”

The patient date stamped into the base of the Crosby three-chimer is “Jan 30, 1877.”

The GRAND VIC’s Bridge Mate and Alternate Master, Captain Sandra Clark, one of the GVII’s most talented young navigation officers and a self-taught violin player.

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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5 Comments

  1. Jeff Miller says:

    Great history Captain Don, thanks.
    Would love to hear that whistle blow one day.

  2. Michael Gore says:

    I don’t believe there is any sound that can evoke distant or start new memories better than the sound of steam performing its aural magic in those whistles. My earliest childhood memory of hearing a steam whistle was the daily sentinel calls from a hometown distillery announcing the working shifts and the noon time. First time I heard the DELTA QUEEN’s whistle, I was hooked and soon after, became the proud owner of the LP albums, “Whistle Echoes, Volumes I and II”. A long steam whistle salute to Capt. Don and his stories! Can’t you just hear those echoes…those echoes?!

  3. Jessica Yusuf says:

    Another entertaining and informative column! Much appreciated.

  4. Cap't Don says:

    Thanks for the comments. It won’t be too long before Cap’n Troy gets that celebrated whistle cranked-up, again. He’s invited me to blow it on steam when it’s ready. Perhaps I will. Apparently, I’ve harbored a misunderstanding about the size of the diameter of the “CHEROKEE” whistle. I thought it was a “12-incher,” but those more knowledgeable about the size of Crosby whistles tell me a whistle of that size would take Superman to haul it around like Troy was doing in the photo featured in the column. Hopefully, the illustrious Captain Manthe will remeasure his new acquisition and put to rest any doubt about its girth.

  5. Jo Ann Schoen says:

    Late getting this read as I’ve been on “an adventure” to the far North, which included some viewing of old boats and riding of newer boats. But nothing like riding the DELTA QUEEN and hearing whistle blow. I look forward to hearing the whistle from the CHEROKEE blow some day too!

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