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The River: Looking for the right relationship with tough Capt. Beatty and learning as much as possible

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. This column first appeared in November, 2018.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Last of three parts

On one fateful day, after the Captain guided the CLARE across the river to the Point Pleasant Boat Store to refill the potable water tanks and take on a few groceries, an urgent “MAY DAY – MAY DAY” emergency broadcast over the marine radio in the pilothouse broke the routine.

“Take in that water hose!” the Captain commanded. “Get ready to let loose… there’s a boat afire just up the Kanawha River!”

Before we entered the mouth of the Great Kanawha River, billowing smoke arose in the distance. But as soon as our vessel rounded the point, a boat was seen engulfed in flames.

All of the crew immediately scrambled into action as the lines between the CLARE and the boat store were thrown off, and Captain John turned the boat around and headed to the aid of the burning towboat. Before we entered the mouth of the Great Kanawha River, billowing smoke arose in the distance. But as soon as our vessel rounded the point, a boat was seen engulfed in flames.

The fire that started in the engineroom of the M/G Transport towboat, the LUTHER HERDMAN, had consumed practically the entire boat by the time we arrived. Luckily, the crew was safe. They even had time to fetch their suitcases which were arranged neatly on the HERDMAN’s tow where we laid alongside and prepared to lend our assistance by running out our firehoses. As our crew stood-by awaiting the hoses to swell so we could begin soaking the fire with river water, word came from someone on the CLARE that the Chief Engineer, who had spent many years on the boat, did not know how to start the fire pump!

Only after Captain Beatty went below and rooted around the engineroom, did we feel water coursing through the canvas hoses. But as soon as they pressurized, every one of the CLARE’s fire hoses burst, and we had nothing with which to fight the fire. Within a quarter-hour, though, the O. F. Shearer & Company’s new towboat, the WINCHESTER, arrived with plenty of hoses to lend, and we attached our allotment to the water mains on our boat and went to work attacking the inferno.

M/G Transport Towboat LUTHER HERDMAN.

Just above the location of the fire, near Mile Two on the Great Kanawha River, a detachment of U. S. Coast Guard stationed there came rushing to the burning towboat. Before long, I found myself as the number two man on a hose handled by a Lieutenant of about my age, but I soon discovered that he was far ahead of me as far as firefighting techniques were concerned. On the DELTA QUEEN, in the early 1970’s, fire drill training meant charging the fire hoses once a week and spraying them into the air alongside the steamboat. The Coastie brought along a variable hose nozzle instead of the straight “suicide nozzles” that I was used to operating. Ironically, the Coast Guard leadership had yet to allow the variable nozzles on passenger-carrying vessels, but when I returned to the DELTA QUEEN after the Kanawha River experience, I kept a variable nozzle in the Fire Safety Locker for use, just in case it was needed.

For several hours, we, and the other boatmen battled the seething inferno until, at last, we extinguished the last flames. After overhauling the smoldering remains of the interior of the LUTHER HERDMAN, the Coast Guard pronounced the fire was out. The CLARE E. BEATTY then took the blackened, steel shell into tow and we carried it across the river to a dock on the Ohio side. By then, it was the middle of the afternoon and so cold that icicles were hanging from my frozen hair and long mustache.

Life aboard a salvage rig isn’t for everyone. The work is dirty, challenging, and dangerous.

During that whole episode, was a single hot cup of joe consumed in the galley of the CLARE. A short while later, the salvage operation was back in full swing; for we had work to complete. The spectacular fire, though exhilarating, yet exhausting, was but an interruption and did not count for a day’s worth of toil.

Life aboard a salvage rig isn’t for everyone. The work is dirty, challenging, and dangerous. Though, as a young man trying to get ahead on the river, I was game for about anything except for being bullied or maltreated. I never cared for either. To this point in my river career, I had worked for two especially-tough taskmasters: Walt Hoffmeier and Ernie Wagner, both of whom gave me the meanest, dirtiest, and most dangerous jobs they had but did so in a way that I learned and was a better man for the experience. But on Captain Beatty’s fleet, I began to feel that I was being singled out; not for what I did know, but for what I didn’t know.

And as I may have said earlier, there was a severe disagreement going on at that time between Cap’n Beatty and the Greene Line Steamers, the owners of the DELTA QUEEN. And I was unknowingly caught in the middle as a young Mate coming off the steamboat and asking for employment in a marine field I had never ventured into before.  

On an especially tense afternoon on the downstream worksite, all this dissension came to a head when I was working a capstan line as I knew how to do so, and the Captain grabbed the line from my hands, shouting:

“You wouldn’t make a patch on a mate’s ass!”

To which I replied, “You wouldn’t make a patch on Cap’n Ernie Wagner’s ass.”

I respected John Beatty’s position as the Captain and as a venerated river veteran.

“If you like Wagner’s ass so much, why don’t you go kiss it,” Cap’n Beatty hissed.

“If you’re firing me, then you have to pay my way back home,” I informed the Captain.

“With pleasure,” he answered.

But still, after such rough talk between us, I respected John Beatty’s position as the Captain and as a venerated river veteran, enough, that I worked until the end of the day without further adversity between us. Besides, we were stuck in the middle of nowhere on a broad river on a freezing day, and where else could I go? 

After the end of the day, and the CLARE returned to the fleet below the ice piers, the Captain called me to the pilothouse where he handed a signed receipt written in red ink on yellow legal pad paper which read:

“Paid to Don Sanders. $250 for ten days work at $25 per day.”   

Without further ceremony, one of the boys rowed me ashore with my suitcase, my receipt inscribed in crimson ink the color of blood, and my money (including an extra ten dollars for bus fare home). Though I had never been incarcerated, I felt that day, as my feet first trod on free soil, how being released from the penitentiary must feel!

Four years later, I was the first Captain of the P. A. DENNY Sternwheeler based in Charleston, West “By God” Virginia.

Four years later, I was the first Captain of the P. A. DENNY Sternwheeler based in Charleston, West “By God” Virginia. At the conclusion of the 1976 Bicentennial season, the DENNY lay docked at the Point Pleasant Shipyard where the paddlewheel was scheduled to be lifted off and the bearings replaced. Also docked at the yard was Captain John Beatty’s CLARE E. BEATTY. The CLARE was there for the night before heading downstream and home to Warsaw, Kentucky after attending the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta, as had the DENNY the day before. My crewmen were on Cap’n John’s boat having a good time while I was enjoying a Bluegrass music tape in the DENNY’s pilothouse.

“Where’s Don?” asked Captain Beatty to no one in particular.

“I heard you two had a falling out a few years ago,” answered my deckhand Nelson Jones, a scion of a notable West Virginia river and coal family who owned the shipyard among many other holdings.

“Well,” remarked the Captain. “It’s time to do something about that.”

As the banjers plinked and the fiddles screeched inside my pilothouse, the music was abruptly interrupted by a mighty set of footfalls followed by lighter pairs of feet. With a WHAM against the bulkhead, the wheelhouse door flew open and there stood the bulk of Captain John Beatty clad in his signature, wool lumberjack shirt. Behind him was my crew staring with eyes as wide as saucers and looking like a bunch of owls on a stump.

“Don, I want to apologize for the way I treated you,” began Captain John Beatty as he held out his great paw of a hand. “I must have been a son of a bitch to work for.”

Looking over the Captain’s shoulder, I made sure all my boys were listening and attentive before I answered:

“Yes, Sir… You sure were,” I replied as I took Captain John’s hand in mine and we pumped them together, up and down, in unison.

Some say I am the only man Captain Beatty ever apologized to for the rough treatment he was known for dishing out. And some might think Cap’n John and I had a “love-hate” relationship, but that’s not true, for I never hated the man. But, others might say we had an “on-again, off-again” friendship, as we got off to such a rocky start.

“I heard you two had a falling out a few years ago,” answered my deckhand Nelson Jones, a scion of a notable West Virginia river and coal family.

Over the years, after Captain John’s apology, I worked for him many times, but as a pilot instead of a deckhand. Together, we had great river adventures together, and I got to know him for the man he indeed was – a pure genius in many ways and an unparalleled boatman of the highest standards.

Still, Captain Beatty was the same old Captain Beatty. Such as the last time we worked together after Mrs. Beatty called and said the Captain needed me on the Lower Mississippi River to help him bring Beatty’s Navy back home to Warsaw after an unsuccessful salvage attempt when the moving sandy bottom of the river prevented his anchors from holding, and he had to reluctantly admit defeat. Though I figured the trip would last for only a few days, it wasn’t until a month later that the CLARE and the BEN FRANKLIN and all of Cap’s floating gear, including the minesweepers and both the BIG JOHN and HERCULES cranes, arrived back at Yankee Landing.

While I stood behind the Captain as he maneuvered the head of the tow into the Kentucky shore, the deckhands were reluctant to get a headline ashore; so I volunteered to give them some help. Out on the lead barge, I grabbed the eye of a line and leaped into the overhanging branches of a nearby tree and ran the headline ashore. After the fleet was secured, my ride was waiting, so instead of piling my smelly laundry into my suitcase, I removed the slip off my pillow and used it as a laundry bag with the intention of washing and returning it.

Some months later after I forgot all about returning the borrowed pillowcase, I heard through the “river grapevine” that the good captain was telling everyone who would listen, that I “stole all the linen off the boat.”

Some things never change…

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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  1. Jessica Yusuf says:

    Thank you for another enlightening and entertaining peek into life on the river!

  2. Michael Gore says:

    Oh, the ups and downs of life on the river! Thanks, Capt. Don for artfully taking us to each of these theaters of real and raw river life. While certainly entertaining and educational stories for bank folks, boat folks can feel ’em in their bones!

  3. JUNE WILEY says:

    Another great story Captain!! Thank you for sharing such good reading!!

  4. Tom O’Dell says:

    Thanks Captain for a great historical and pictorial history of events. My Father-in Law Lewis Woodall was pilot on the Luther Herdman that day that it burned. Fortunately all the crew were safe. I drove my Mother-in-law up Old US35 to pick him up. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Herdman at the Kanauga landing. He was a fine man and Father-in-Law to Captain Bob Bosworth.

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