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The River: Diamond Lady paddled toward certain fate; now found in receding waters at Memphis

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 and it first appeared in January 2019 and is reprinted in honor of the discovery of the DIAMOND LADY in the shrinking water of the Mississippi River behind President’s Island in Memphis.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

When I joined the DL’s crew just before the first anniversary of the day I watched as Vanna cut the ribbon on April Fool’s day in 1991, gambling was booming on all three of the Quad City casino boats. Besides the DIAMOND LADY at Bettendorf, the PRESIDENT, a historical sidewheeler on the National Register of historic places, was working out of nearby Davenport, Iowa. Across the river in Rock Island, Illinois, Jumer’s CASINO ROCK ISLAND, one of the most lovely of all the casino boats built, was treating Illinois passengers to “unlimited gaming” while Iowa had an ill-conceived $200 loss limit per cruise.


At first, the no-holds-barred style of gambling on the east side of the Mississippi seemed not to affect the boats on the west bank adversely, but soon I noticed a decline in the number of patrons promenading aboard. And when I overheard two Blackjack dealers lamenting about getting turned down for a car loan when the lender found they were casino employees aboard our boat, I knew there was trouble. Before all the concerns became daily newspaper fodder, an atmosphere of panic gripped the workers who bet their futures on the DIAMOND LADY.

As early as the end of May 1992, Steamboat Development, our parent company, announced in a news dispatch that “the last Iowa cruise for the two boats (DL & EL) will be July 5.” Steamboat further publicized plans to “take its two Mississippi River gambling boats south to Mississippi to escape Iowa’s betting restrictions and to try to stem multimillion-dollar losses.”

Between the announcement and the established last day, the company was in a free-fall, business, and employee-wise. Where earlier, the DL was going out with a full complement of paying passengers, as the deadline for cruises neared, most of the few arriving busloads were seniors shuttled from Chicago, some 175 miles to the east, enjoying a free roundtrip coach ride, a free buffet, and ten dollars in complimentary cash. Most of the riders, I heard, slept both ways on the bus, gorged the buffet meal, and then cashed-in the ten dollar comp and kept the money. There was even talk in the papers that disgruntled employees planned on dropping bricks on the boat as it passed under the Centennial Bridges on its way out of town.

The PRESIDENT, a historical sidewheeler on the National Register of historic places, was working out of nearby Davenport, Iowa. (Courtesy of Judy Patch.)

Our deckhands were jumping ship so quickly that the U. S. Coast Guard paid us a surprise visit and held a headcount to make sure we weren’t padding our muster rolls and claiming we had a full complement of hands when we were short-handed. Before the Coasties left after finding everyone accountable, they warned us on the threat of losing our licenses, not to pad the roster, even if the company asked. Never, I must add, did anyone above me ever request that I do anything illegal. Perhaps a disgruntled crew member fed the USCG what today is called “fake news.” No more was ever said, one way or another, but we cautiously made sure we had a full staff aboard whenever we sailed.

Even I came under suspicion by some unhappy employees who were about to lose their livelihoods. Many were about to have their automobiles repossessed, and others would soon be unable to afford their homes or apartments once the boat ceased operating. A silly rumor surfaced alleging that as I came to the boat from Mississippi, and that the casino business turned for the worse soon after my arrival, I somehow, had an influence on all the misfortunes locals were experiencing relating to the shutdown of the boat and its subsequent plans to move everything to Biloxi, Mississippi, about a three-and-a-half drive from where my family awaited without me. The rumor was so unfounded that it was no more than a whisper and faded as quickly as it appeared.

Once the casino ceased operations, the Marine crew began preparing the DIAMOND LADY for the long trip. The first stop would be Pascagoula, Mississippi for some structural watertight bulkheads additions in the hull of the LUCKY SEVEN ticket barge the DL would be pushing ahead of her. Afterward, we planned to meet our sister boat, the EMERALD LADY, and arrive in Biloxi, together, in a grandly orchestrated entrance of the first two gambling boats in that city on the Gulf Coast.

Jumer’s CASINO ROCK ISLAND, one of the most lovely of all the casino boats built.

Twin tow-knees welded to the sharp model bow of the DIAMOND LADY allowed the casino boat to shove the two-story ticket barge ahead of the paddlewheeler. Both were filled from top to bottom with everything the fledgling southern operation would need to sprout from its Iowa roots. However, everything identifiable with the Bettendorf casino, such as brochures, pamphlets, posters, and all other printed materials – even the items sold in the gift shop with DIAMOND LADY logos and names were loaded into 40-yard dumpsters and hauled off to a landfill.

A portable metal shredder arrived from Las Vegas and chewed-up the unique slot machine tokens, and what remained were no more than small chunks of metal bound for Mr. Goldstein’s scrap yard. I have often wished that I had salvaged some of the DIAMOND LADY stuff as keepsakes of a memorable boat, but little remains other than that acquired before the purge. My only memento of note is a beautiful, shiny blue coffee mug with the boat’s name and likeness inscribed upon it that I just gave to Captain John H. Vize’s cup collection.

The next to the last day the DIAMOND LADY was in Bettendorf, efforts were underway to unfasten the ticket barge from its moorings to the city front. Things were progressing slowly without a competent leader to coordinate the combined efforts of the company employees and the crew of the small towboat LONE STAR, belonging to Blackhawk Fleet, another Bernie Goldstein operation until, unannounced, a taxi pulled up amidst all the confusion and out stepped a well-dressed Captain Ken Murphy carrying a single suitcase in tow.

The LUCKY SEVEN ticket barge the DL would be pushing ahead of her.

Captain Ken, who had just arrived from the airport, immediately accessed the situation and stowed his grip on the deck of the ticket barge. Seeing me, he ordered:

“Hey, old boy… get yourself a pair of gloves and stick close with me.”

Like an orchestra leader conducting a symphony, Captain Murphy assumed leadership of the operation while I was alongside him following his every command as others fell into step with his directions. The Blackhawk Fleet fellows knew Murph and were only too glad to finally have a leader aboard who knew what he was doing. And in the space of a couple of hours, the barge was untied from the shore connections and wired into place ahead of the DIAMOND LADY. All those going on the long boat ride were told to be aboard and ready to leave town the first thing the next morning.
When one of my deckhands asked what I would do if, like them, I would be losing my job once the boat reached Biloxi and chose not to stay with the boat, for whatever unexplained reason, I replied that I would become a pirate. I went on to describe my choice of having to be a Buccaneer for lack of other employment. And by a strange coincidence, inside my suitcase, I carried a baseball cap with a mustached bust of a freebooter with the name “PIRATES” embroidered in gold thread beneath him.

Within a half-hour, one of my boys displayed a pirate flag he’d made from a black cloth sack he found below. And before we traveled much further downstream, my lot of sad fellows transformed themselves into a crew of high-spirited privateers and remained so until the DIAMOND LADY tied up for the last time at Biloxi overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and they chose not to stay with the boat and returned home to Iowa.

Amidst all the confusion and out stepped a well-dressed Captain Ken Murphy.

By the time the morning fog lifted, the strange looking tow was easing away from where it had been waiting for daylight. Again, Captain Murphy showed his boat-handling magic when he effortlessly eased the ungainly-looking arrangement into the large chamber at Rock Island Lock & Dam 15; proving that both the DIAMOND LADY and the bulky LUCKY SEVEN were manageable in a tight situation.
As the boat and barge paddled underneath Centennial Bridge, many former casino employees crowded along the handrailing, and instead of bricks raining down, as was feared, the well-wishes and farewell greetings from our unemployed brothers and sisters bade us farewell as the DIAMOND LADY paddled into the unfathomed waters of uncertainty ahead.

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.

The barge was untied from the shore connections and wired into place ahead of the Diamond Lady. (Ann Zeiger Collection)

Iowa had an ill-conceived $200 loss limit per cruise. $20 voucher. (Capt. John H. Vize collection)

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  1. Michael Gore says:

    A sad sight in Memphis of a sad ending for a once vibrant riverboat. Rivermen and riverboats come and go, yet the rivers abide. (Adapted from Ecclesiastes 1:4). Thanks, Capt. Don and NKY Tribune for another insightful look into this otherworld called The River.

  2. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Oh my, I’d forgotten about the DL moving the barge down to Biloxi. Another tale well told as we feel the emotions of the loss & uncertain future. Will you tell us of the addition of the EL to the fleet? Thanks for resharing this – reminding us that per John H “time & the river kept a rolling on by”.

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