A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Cap’n Jack remembered for his many years on the river and his death on a shantyboat


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 a part of a long and continuing story.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

“Guess you heard they found Cap’n Jack’s body – or what remained of it — on that so-called ‘shantyboat’ of his last week.” “Who?” “Captain Jack… Jack Beehman. He was a big man on the river not too many years ago. He started decking right out of high school and worked for Ernie Wagner on the DELTA QUEEN before moving on to towboats for several years before the gamblin’ boats came out. ”

“Nope– didn’t know him personally, but I heard talk of him. What happened?”

Capt. John L. “Jack” Beehman, Jr. was born just two months and a few days before the Cincinnati Coney Island sidewheel excursion steamboat, the ISLAND QUEEN, exploded and burned on the Monongahela River at the foot of Wood Street in Pittsburgh.

“They say he probably got too old and too tired of it all — and from the way they found him, he looked like he could’a kilt hisself. So the world likely passed him by. It happens all the time.”

Capt. John L. “Jack” Beehman, Jr. was born just two months and a few days before the Cincinnati Coney Island sidewheel excursion steamboat, the ISLAND QUEEN, exploded and burned on the Monongahela River at the foot of Wood Street in Pittsburgh. Jack’s mother, Anna Belle Hartley, met her future husband, John Langdon Beehman, Sr., on the dancefloor of the ISLAND QUEEN a summer earlier, not long after being discharged from the Army. Anna Belle adored the Coney Island boat — especially the orchestra with the Big Band sound and the slick, brightly-polished dancefloor. John often thought of working on the river and becoming a pilot. But once he proposed to Anna Belle, though, those dreams were placed on hold though not forgotten.

Young Jack grew into adolescence fueled by tales his parents told of the graceful sidewheel steamer where they met and danced to the airs of the Clyde Trask Orchestra. The Beehmans even acquired an awkward fiberglass outboard motorboat that broke down every time they took it for a spin on the river. Within days after Jack’s high school commencement, he applied for a deckhand’s position on a sleek towboat shoving neatly-painted barges full of petroleum products from the refinery at Ashland, Kentucky, to ports deep within the south.

Although Jack stashed a packed suitcase beneath his bed, ready for a moment’s departure, a reply to his application failed to appear in the return mail. Frustrated, Jack Beehman soon found himself on the Cincinnati Public Landing, not far from where the old Coney Island steamer once boarded passengers for the amusement park a few miles upstream. Nearby, toggled to the heavy steel ringbolts embedded deep within the cobblestone grade, lay a different steamboat, the DELTA QUEEN, the last of the overnight passenger-carrying paddlewheelers on the river.

Anna Belle adored the Coney Island boat — especially the orchestra with the Big Band sound and the slick, brightly-polished dance floor.

When Jack first came into the world during the Summer of 1947, the DELTA QUEEN was new to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The sleek steamer had recently arrived in the Queen City after a long and arduous journey from far off California via the Panama Canal around the same time Anna Belle lay painfully berthing baby Jack at the General Hospital in Clifton, an affluent neighborhood of Cincinnati.

Close to the shoreside of the long ramp, known as a “stage,” stretching from the forward bow area of the DELTA QUEEN to the cobblestones, a standup sign warned, NO VISITORS. Jack ignored the warning and wandered onto the boat’s bow where an older man, obviously a crewmember as denoted by his white shirt with a set of shoulder boards bearing one thin stripe, stood in response to the intruder’s sudden appearance.

“Yeah — Whatta ya need?” the watchman wondered.

“Ya lookin’ for any help on here?” Jack answered.

Frustrated, Jack Beehman soon found himself on the Cincinnati Public Landing, not far from where the old Coney Island steamer once boarded passengers for the amusement park a few miles upstream. (Photo courtesy of Shelby “Butch” Louden)

The crewman immediately brought images of Popeye-the-Sailorman from the cartoons with his craggy face and protruding chin although a toned body spoke of years of hard labor. “Popeye” immediately began scanning the newcomer from ashore to determine whether he would make a fit crewman before replying.

“Stay right here, and I’ll see,” Popeye eventually informed Jack after conceding he looked physically capable of becoming a member of the deck department and that he was neither intoxicated nor high on drugs and alcohol. Within 15 minutes, another officer appeared, but this time one was wearing four stripes, standing well over six feet tall, and weighing more than 200 pounds introduced himself.

Red Lunsford — The crewman immediately brought images of Popeye-the-Sailorman from the cartoons with his craggy face and protruding chin although a toned body spoke of years of hard labor.

“Wagner’s the name,” the giant man said as he extended a huge paw and began pumping Jack’s hand up and down. “If you’re looking for work, I need a good deckhand. So if you’re back here with your suitcase before four o’clock, the DELTA QUEEN’s leaving for New Orleans, and you got yourself a job.”

And so, Jack Beehman began a long, and for the most part, rewarding career on the river. Within a year and a half, he “sat for” and was awarded his Unlimited Inland Mate’s License. His Master’s ticket for “All Gross Tons” followed as quickly as he acquired the required time for the government credential. Jack scored a 96.5 overall average over five exams. “You don’t have to get all 100s on your tests,” his U. S. Coast Guard examiner chided. But Jack Beehman wanted perfect scores on all his tests and came close to achieving them. So when someone asked, “Why?” he answered, “Why the hell not?”

Admiral Officer stops to chat — The only woman Jack ever truly loved was a redheaded gal he met when she was cooking on one of his gambling boats.

Captain Jack Beehman steamboated on the DELTA QUEEN a few years until he ran into differences with the head management in the main office. Later, he was offered a slot with a towing company on the Lower Mississippi River piloting a towboat hauling coal, grain, scrap iron, and general cargo. He stuck that out until the casino boats started operating in Iowa in the early ‘90s. Jack became the captain of five gambling vessels. Still, he spent nearly 20 years on one before that casino went “shoreside,” laying off the licensed crew and selling the boat to international mobsters in Southeast Asia.

Along the way, Cap’n Jack married a couple of times, but both marriages only lasted long enough to have a son by the first arrangement and a daughter by the last. Neither of the children lived with their father, who saw them no more than a very few times during their childhood. The half-siblings ever met, Jack once disclosed in a moment of reflection, but he recalled hearing they found successful lives as adults.

After the casino business fizzled for the majority of the river industry, Cap’n Jack found himself a ramshackle houseboat he called his “shantyboat” and lived a life apart from most of society. (Print by Harlan Hubbard.)

Captain Jack’s health was reasonable for his age as he had quit drinking and the occasional cigar while still young enough that the quitting helped. He’d seen, he remembered, too many of his buddies “drink themselves into early graves.” The only woman Jack ever truly loved was a redheaded gal he met when she was cooking on one of his gambling boats. He recalled that their relationship never quite worked out, and she eventually died of lung cancer from chain-smoking while still a relatively young woman.

After the casino business fizzled for the majority of the river industry, Cap’n Jack found himself a ramshackle houseboat he called his “shantyboat” and lived a life apart from most of society except for an occasional kayaker or backpacker stumbling upon his remote residence.

According to Capt. John L. “Jack” Beehman, Jr.’s brief Last Will & Testament, no funeral services will memorialize his 75 years on this earth. The Sunflower Creek Volunteer Fire Department torched Jack’s shantyboat and its contents soon after removing his remains. Cap’n Jack’s cremains awaits disposal according to state regulations and the availability of a boat to carry his ashes to where he wanted them scattered on the waters of a particular river.

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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One Comment

  1. Michael Gore says:

    Thanks, Capt. Don for a beautifully written story albeit a sad story when viewed through our own pilothouse windows of life. Perhaps Capt. Jack was happier and more content than most with a life of less-is-more. May his children and theirs beyond find understanding and appreciation of this river soul!

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