by Don Sanders
"The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and this is where the stories begin. Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river—from terror to discovery to a way of love and life. The is the first of a long and continuing story." - NKyTribune
"The River" is an ongoing series in the Northern Kentucky Tribune, archived at Steamboats.com with express permission from the NKy Tribune.
The River: In the beginning, the river was a terrifying place for a little boy; in time, it was a way of life
Dec 10th, 2017
See original: nyktribune.com
Where do I start?
The river was a terrifying place for a little boy. Dark, wet, foreboding; full of terrible sights and sounds.
Why did we always sit on those hard wooden benches behind the pilothouse of the ISLAND QUEEN where, inside, strange old men were rustling about? The darkness alone was terrorizing, but when that dreadful whistle blasted, I was petrified.
My Dreamtime Houseboat is the shantyboat of the story. The Incinerator was between the boat and the bridge.
And the time Aunt Mary hung her long legs over the stern of a ferryboat and dangled her feet in the river. That made me sick with fear she would fall overboard and perish. Only when she swung back around as a young boatmen swarmed about her with clean, dry towels did my anxiety subsist.
What could have been worse than the day, sometime during the Second World War at the Sears & Roebuck Store on Reading Road in Cincinnati, when my mom and dad were angry after I begged Grandma Edith to buy me that toy Springfield Rifle. It had the brightly-painted wooden bullet wedded onto the end of the sliding bolt. They forbade me to have it.
Proudly, I marched with the rifle slung on my shoulder to our "machine," as we called automobilesthen. And when I spied an Oriental-looking couple loading their purchases into the trunk of their machine, I yelled, "Look, Japs!" and took aim.
As the slack was taken-up on the trigger spring, the hapless couple stared in terror and disbelief at the toy gun pointed at them. At the same time, Mother, dropped the bag she was carrying and came charging toward me to wrench the gun from my grasp, but not before the trigger released with a loud metallic click as I yelled, "POW"!
The Covington Incinerator as seen from Cincinnati.
The packages of my intended targets flew into the air and onto the asphalt. Quickly, the gun was taken and tossed into the trunk as my embarrassed family and I quickly piled into our seats and the machine sped off.
Instead of heading home, Dad drove around downtown Cincinnati to release the tension I had created. A "ride" usually meant a trip where we could park and "watch the river."
It was cheap family entertainment.
A ride on our Kentucky side of the Ohio River was, most often, a drive to Front Street, now Riverside Drive, where I chucked rocks over the riverbank, trying, but never hitting the water.
This time, however, we were on the opposite side of the river, and soon we ended up in the "Bottoms" where the Public Landing bordered the ominous waters of the Ohio.
The agitation inside our automobile hung heavy like a dense fog on a chilly November morning. Only the presence of Grandma kept the my parent's anger from escalating into a "good spanking"—if there ever was such a thing. In that deadly silence, Dad crested the top of the cobblestone grade of the old steamboat landing, and our machine suddenly began to move at a steep downhill angle on the granite paving stones.
Walter Questa, my father, Jess Sanders, Jr. Grandpa Jesse, Sr., and Grandmother Edith in their side yard at 110 West. 38th Street in Latonia. About 1936.
All I could see before me was the terrifying sight of the Ohio River where a long, gray floating structure, bigger than a building, was linked to the shore by ponderous, black chains. Beyond the structure, that served as a wharf, the pilothouse top and smokestacks of a steamboat tied to the far side could be seen above the wharfboat roof.
As loud as I could muster, an ear-splitting scream erupted from deep within me with such force Dad instinctively slammed the brake pedal to the floor. The machine instantly froze and rocked back and forth on its chassis. Mother's golden blond hair flew forward toward the windscreen. Outside, beyond our vehicle, a negro boat hand was walking towards the wharfboat, but he immediately stopped and jerked his head around at the sound of the commotion above him. In his arms he carried a paper sack. He stared at us and must have wondered what the ruckus was all about, but he soon turned and continued on toward the steamboat tied to the other side of the wharf where other boatmen awaited his arrival and the contents of the paper sack he was carrying. Dad turned the machine around and headed for the Suspension Bridge, and I was spared the agony of riding closer to those angry waters.
At the foot of Main Street, in Covington, where the street ended at the riverbank, stood the Incinerator, a solidly-built structure which rested on impressive limestone blocks high enough above the ground that it was above most flood waters. Two concrete ramps led up to either end of the building where tall roll-up doors allowed the passage of the garbage trucks to come and go; hauling the refuse of the town where it was burned beneath the building in a vast chamber within the limestone foundation.
Those hard wooden benches on the ISLAND QUEEN.
A single, tall brick chimney was the Incinerator's most distinguishing feature. Inside the brick building was a drive-on scale where the trucks were weighed by a small, skinny man who recorded the figures in a narrow ledger book. His name was Walter Questa and he was my grandparent's most loyal and trusted friend who boarded with them and was regarded as a member of the family.
The Incinerator, due to its remote location, was a gathering place where the employees of various departments of the city met and hung out when they were in the neighborhood. Police, public works, and an occasional representative of the fire department might be found "jawing" around the property. Just a few paces east, and upstream, of the tall brick structure was the loveliest of shantyboats that sat elevated on steel oil drums on the shore where only the highest of floods could reach it.
The owners were friends of "Chalk Coon," a foreman in the Public Works Department and a close friend of the family. Three wooden jonboats, with awnings overhead for shade, bobbed in the river below the shantyboat. They were used to to tend the "trotlines" the boatmen set in the river to catch catfish and carp which they cleaned and sold somewhere ashore.
Both the shantyboat and the smaller jonboats attracted my attention, but when I was invited to ride one of the small boats, the old fears of the river returned and filled me with dread and I retreated, instead, to the safety of Walter Questa's tiny office.
Even to this day, many decades later, I dream of the shantyboat high on the hill with the awning-shaded jonboats bobbing in the water, below, and imagine myself floating fearlessly on the river.
It would be several years later, when I was ten, that I would rediscover a new, different world waiting my return to the river.
Greene Line Wharfboat seen from top of the Public Landing.
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.
The River: 1952 started badly but ended up being the year a young boy really connected with the river
Dec 17th, 2017
See original: NKyTribune.com
Nineteen-hundred and fifty-two started abysmally. My beloved grandpa, Jesse, died in February. Soon after, my boyhood home in Latonia was sold and we moved closer to downtown Covington, a move that would eventually wed me closer to the river. In the interim, my separation with the river had been complete until the Spring of that year. Dad now commanded the traffic division of the city's Police Department where their biggest challenge was on Friday nights.
PAL-O-Mine, winter, 1958
Before Interstate 75 mauled the West End of downtown Cincinnati and encapsulated the softball meadows of Willow Run on the Covington side of the Ohio River in cement, north and southbound traffic from Detroit, Michigan to Jellico Tennessee, and beyond, flowed on U. S. Route 25. Most people called this road the Dixie Highway, but to others, it was the "Hillbilly Highway."
On Friday evenings, the road, jammed with bumper to bumper cars carrying Detroit automobile plants workers back to their ancestral Appalachian homes in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, crossed the river on a bridge that shared the same piers with a railroad and was simply called the C&O Bridge.
My father, Jess Sanders, Jr., was a Covington police officer and in command of the Traffic Bureau. Friday was also payday for the police department, so every Friday night, mother, my brothers Dick and Bob, and I would pile into our car and join dad where we found him busy at work on the southern end of the bridge with the men under his charge. Dad was due to end his shift by 9 p.m., but he never got off until well after midnight on Friday nights; not until the last of the long, homeward bound parade had finally crossed the C&O Bridge and cleared the far-most boundaries of our town.
The police had a small segment in the parking lot set aside for them at the Bridge Café and Liquor store, across from the ramp of the bridge. The rest of the parking lot was filled with the automobiles of "colored" men and women from Cincinnati. For it was their paydays, too, and the Bridge Café was a favorite place where they cashed their paychecks from which they spent liberally in the café before returning to their vehicles where their purchases were consumed from small, waxed paper cups provided by the café for that purpose.
Walter and Loraine Hoffmeier, 1952
Nothing was said about the drinking in the parking lot as long as alcohol was imbibed within the confines of the cars; so the parking lot had the frolicking air of New Orleans during Carnival. Rarely was there any trouble outside of an occasional shouting match, or the indignation of a man or woman who found his, or her, mate in the backseat with another, especially as the night wore on as the whiskey flowed. Perhaps the presence of my father and his men was enough to keep the peace, but everyone was there for fun at the end of a week of labor, and trouble with "the law" was the last thing anyone wanted, so generally, the crowd policed themselves.
To my brothers and me, the black men and women drinking and cavorting in the parking lot was frightening, but also exciting, and we dreaded, but also anticipated, Friday nights in the parking lot of the Bridge Café. We did have our father and his coppers to protect us, we felt.
Dad and his traffic troopers spent so much time around the Bridge Café that it soon became their favorite after-work place to stop for a beer, or two, and The Bridge is where, on Friday nights after the traffic had cleared, father bought his weekly case of Wiedemann Beer and a carton of six twelve-ounce bottles of Pepsi-Cola for us three boys.
That was two sodas, apiece, to last a week, and if for some reason any of us displeased our mother, her worst punishment was to open one of the bottles and drink the Pepsi while we watched. This meant that two of us would have to, as she liked to say with delight, "split one." Those words still grate like grinding, broken glass when I hear them.
The employees of the Bridge Café were delighted to have officers of Covington's Finest frequenting their establishment as great sums of money changed hands over the counter and the cashing of payroll checks attracted varying levels of the social ladder—much of it from the lower rungs.
The manager of the liquor store was another "dried-up, little old man" named Walter, and he was destined to inspire me and send me on a course that I have traveled for the rest of my life. His name was Walter, but, generally, everyone called him "Walt" . . . Walt Hoffmeier.
Walt was born on a shantyboat on the Licking River 50, or more, years before he and my father became pals. He and his wee wife, Lorraine, owned a 52-foot, wooden houseboat called the PAL-O-MINE, a boat well-known in the Cincinnati harbor long before the Hoffmeiers bought it at Henry's Boat Harbor several miles upstream from the city.
Captain Jess Sanders, Jr.
One early summer day, in 1952, just a few months after my grandpa died, Walter and Lorraine invited the young cops who directed the traffic in front of the liquor store, and their wives, for an evening cruise on the PAL.
Again, the old fears returned when my mother and father were late returning to grandmother's house where we boys were staying while they cruised on the Ohio. Tears streamed down my eyes as I stood on the bottom rail of the white picket fence that surrounded the front yard of the bungalow on 38th Street as I prayed for their safe return.
Two weeks later, mom and dad were invited to ride the PAL-O-MINE, again, but this time we boys were also invited, and whatever happened on that day changed my life, forever, and I am still riding that magical river spell over 65 years later.
And for better or worse, I have no regrets and fondly recall pleasant summer days when we cruised upstream to Dayton Bar aboard the PAL-O-MINE where a heavy anchor was run ashore and buried in the golden sands to hold the head of the boat.
A stern anchor was cast into the river keep the boat aligned at a right angle to the shore. The water was clear-enough to see for 20 feet, or so, underwater.
And after an afternoon of swimming, beachcombing, and gathering a tall mound of firewood, Walt lit a bonfire and we ate by firelight as the sun sank beneath the hills west of Cincinnati.
Dad with Dick, Bob and me alongside the PAL, 1952
The River: As a young boy, loving sights, smells and sounds of the river and learning lessons for a lifetime
Dec 25th, 2017
See original: NKyTribune.com
Walter Hoffmeier's houseboat, the PAL-O-MINE, appeared nothing like the mass-produced, molded fiberglass look-alikes of today. The PAL was hand-built from the keel-up, board by board, of natural woods. The hull had White Oak frames with Douglas Fir, the next most durable wood after Cypress, planking.
Overall, the boat measured 52-feet from the overhanging forward deck, beyond the stem, to the last plank of the enclosed back deck. What distinguished this home-built boat from all others, was the raised bow and stern sections and the lower center component of the cabin giving the PAL somewhat the look of a floating castle—or at least it seemed to a ten-year-old boy on first seeing it afloat.
PAL-O-Mine, winter, 1958
When other boats of its style were painted "steamboat white," the PAL-O-MINE was trimmed in two shades of gray. On either end of the boat were ample areas surrounded by stout, steel railings covered from from top to deck in a narrow mesh fencing for the protection of the most inquisitive kids or dogs.
The back deck, protected overhead from the sun and rain by a roof, was where a collapsible table could be set in place that transformed the deck space into the setting for many sumptuous meals brought aboard in the picnic hampers Mother and Lorraine Hoffmeier had carefully prepared beforehand.
The PAL-O-MINE was at home at the Newport Yacht Club, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River upstream and opposite the Cincinnati Public Landing during the era when Newport's soiled reputation for gambling and prostitution was years, yet, from reformation.
The yacht club enjoyed it own notoriety. Once when reading aloud the boat club's name set in bright red, neon letters displayed on the outside of the huge, wooden harbor boat, as we drove across the Central Bridge, my father warned, "Don't let anyone know you know where that place is!"
Headboat of the Newport Yacht Club
But in spite of Dad's warning, I felt immediately comfortable, and at home, the first time I walked across the swaying gangway and stepped aboard the harbor boat where musty smells of stale beer, hemp rope, open bilges, and long-since fried greasy, steaks greeted me.
The harbor was owned and ruled-over with an iron sway by a determined woman named Helen who was as interesting a character as any nautical setting ever produced. She was aided by her brother Dewey. Both Helen and Dewey, as I found over the years, were true and genuine river people of the type not generally understood by the public ashore, but who were held in a notable regard within the river community. It wasn't long before I yearned to find my own niche somewhere within this odd, yet exciting, congregation which found comfort and contentment on the water.
The PAL was berthed at the far, downstream end of a long line of "floats" at "Helen's", as the yacht club was commonly called; a preferred dock space easy to get the heavy, 55-footer in and out of without the added concern of bumping into one of the fancy yachts moored closer to the head-boat, but it was a long way from the parking lot to haul a cooler full of cold drinks and overloaded picnic baskets.
Soon as we assembled on the boat, Walt laid down his orders, "You kids have to wear lifejackets. No running on the boat. Don't throw stuff in the river," and so forth.
Walter and Loraine Hoffmeier, at the lower end of the floats at Newport Yacht Club, 1952
The PAL's single, four-cylinder, gasoline engine was started, lines were cast off, and the boat pushed upstream toward the golden, yellow sands of Dayton Bar, or sometimes all the way to Lock and Dam #36 at Brent, Kentucky, opposite the Coney Island Amusement Park.
Walt habitually left a gift box on the cement wall for the men who operated the lock—and it was sure to contain something especially desirable . . . perhaps, even, a fifth of smooth Kentucky Bourbon.
The PAL-O-MINE was always warmly received at the government lock where the lock men knew Walt by name.
Though Walter normally "handled" the PAL during departures and landings, he preferred to join his guests while the boat cruised, so he handed the steering duties over to Lorraine's nephew, "Swope", a fellow just a few years older than I.
Swope, I concluded, was the luckiest kid alive, and I was determined to learn everything he knew so that I would, someday, be piloting the PAL-O-MINE like him. Swope, it turned, out, was more than happy to start breaking me in on the techniques of steering the boat, and over the course of the next couple summers, I was getting more and more wheel time as he began fading out of the picture.
The PAL, I learned, "handled like an old-time steamboat", that is, when the steering wheel was turned, the stern, and not the bow, swung to one side or the other. Consequently, it was as important to look out the rear pilothouse window as it was the front, to know exactly what the boat was doing. This is an attribute of boat-handling that always seems foreign to novice steersmen, something I have pointed out to new generations ever since.
What I learned most about Walt Hoffmeier, was that if I demonstrated my willingness to work and help him with the boat, he reciprocated by teaching me more about the operation and care of his vessel as well as sharing secrets of a river upon which he was born, grew up, and was growing old on.
Little did I know, then, but Walt's teachings and training would guide me for a lifetime; something he had no intention of consciously doing, but when I opened myself to him, a lifetime of knowledge instinctively flowed from one generation to the next.
Jess Sanders Jr. and Walt Hoffmeier were close friends.
Please do not misunderstand, Walter harbored no special sympathy or affection toward me; if I had not been useful to him, he would not have paid me one iota of concern other than I was my father's son, as he had only the highest regard for my dad.
Overall, it was a fair trade.
For three consecutive seasons, my family was invited to ride the PAL-O-MINE nearly every weekend. My brothers, Bob, Dick, and I were becoming seasoned river boys, something that did not escape the notice of our parents. Houseboating was honest family fun.
Soon, my folks began a search for a boat of our own that ended on the banks of the Great Miami River near Hamilton, Ohio, only 35 miles from home, where repeated visits to the Hamilton Boat Club netted the Grand Prize—the most lovely thirty-eight-foot paddlewheeler named the SHANGRI LA which my parents bought, brought overland by trailer to the Cincinnati Public Landing, launched, and paddled it under its own power to the Covington Boat Harbor, immediately below (downstream) the south pier of the Roebling Suspension Bridge, where they renamed it for themselves, Marge and Jess, the MARJESS.
Could life get any better?
The River: The MARJESS was a 38-foot wooden paddlewheel houseboat, lovely, snug, and fun
Dec 31st, 2017
See original: NKyTribune.com
Paddlewheel houseboats, extinct in the Cincinnati harbor on the Ohio River by the 1950's, were much in favor on the shallow Great Miami River at the Hamilton Boat Club, close to Hamilton, Ohio.
Somehow, Dad got wind of a sternwheeler for sale there, so several weekends found our family at the remote river hideaway populated by other families with a common interest besides boating. All had one, or more, family members employed at the nearby paper mill.
Dad said he had 'an awful' time getting the heavy boat launched off the flatbed trailer.
Noisy, fat, rambunctious geese, standing a head-taller than my two younger brothers, had the run of the place. As the Great Miami was too "thin" for propeller-driven houseboats, stern paddlewheels were the standard choice of propulsion. Our eyes were set on an all-steel boat, and my folks were about to set pen-to-paper when another purveyor slyly revealed his wooden paddlewheeler would sell cheaper. That evening, after the sun had set and the geese were hushed in the darkness, we gathered aboard a cozy, wooden sternwheel houseboat set up on empty oil drums. There by the soft light of kerosene lamps, the artful owner expounded on the virtues of his wooden boat, the SHANGRI LA, over those of the metal boat we previously admired. By the time we climbed down from the boat for the drive home, Mom and Dad were its new owners.
The SHANGRI LA was a 38-foot wooden paddlewheel houseboat hand-built in 1947 following plans made popular in the 1930's. The chain-driven sternwheel was powered by a 35-horsepower, four-cylinder, flat head, gasoline engine from a Durant automobile. A Model T Ford rear-end was mounted outboard on the stern transom where small sprocket wheels attached to the axle drove chains connected to larger sprockets mounted on either side of the paddlewheel. One lone steering rudder was attached past the wheel on a steel pipe fastened athwartships through the heavy, oak cylinder timbers which supported the weight of the wheel. Both the scow-bowed hull and the graceful cabin were wooden and painted as white as any steamboat. Red window and molding trim matched the wheel.
Mom on the boat
What the SHANGRI LA had most in its favor was it was the loveliest of any little paddlewheeler on the river, and it would be many years later until I found the CLYDE., a small sternwheeler similar to the MARJESS I have owned since 2012. Would I find another of equal grace.
Immediately a search began for a new name for the boat, and soon, pages from a yellow legal pad were filled with ideas. Eventually, MARJESS DON-BO-DICK, which included Bob and Dick and I was favored, but it was a mouthful to say and a nightmare for any future sign painter. Prudently, the name was shortened to MARJESS, for the new owners, Marge and Jess. MARJESS it was and would forever remain.
The interior cabin, paneled in vertically arranged boards of knotty pine, was entered by ducking through a short front door and stepping down three steps. Immediately to the right were a brass steering wheel and the clutch and throttle controls for the engine. A tall, round, bar stool was the pilot's chair.
Against the port bulkhead, a long linoleum-covered countertop protected a handsome pine cabinet filled with sliding drawers and ample cupboard space. Set into the after-end of the countertop, a sink with an ornate brass hand-cranked pump provided potable water from a converted hot water tank stowed under the front deck. Beneath the sink, an authentic icebox was cooled by a 25 pound block of ice which required regular trips to the City Ice & Fuel Co. icehouse on the opposite side of the concrete floodwall—a long and treacherous trip for two boys carrying a stout wooden pole on their shoulders packing a heavy block of ice suspended in the middle from a pair of ice tongs.
Meal time in the interior cabin. Cookstove was an electric hot plate but Mom's meals were as sumptuous as any she made at home
On the opposite side of the forward cabin stool a built-in couch with blanket drawers beneath. The back of the couch, attached to the wall by a pivoting socket arrangement, could be pulled up from the bottom and chained to a hook near the overhead, or ceiling; thus forming two bunks. Another couch-bunk combination was just after the icebox. A wooden bench, kept against the starboard bulkhead aft the first couch, was pulled out as a seat for meals served on a table normally stowed alongside the bench. Hooks attached the table to a decorative knotty pine box that formed a cover for the front of the gasoline engine occupying the center, stern-most, space between a tiny starboard side galley and the "head," the only enclosure inside the cabin on the port side of the MARJESS where a Perko-brand hand-pumped toilet discharged its contents into the river. The box was removable to allow access to the engine. On the bulkhead above the engine cover, a handsome oval mirror was set within a spoked "captain's wheel" of about the same size as the brass wheel that steered the boat. On either side of the mirror hung kerosene nautical lamps. All three are now aboard the CLYDE.
By the time school was out that spring afternoon, the MARJESS was bobbing merrily alongside the dock at the Covington Boat Club within the shadow, literally, of the Roebling Suspension Bridge. Dad revealed he had "an awful time" getting the heavy boat launched off the flatbed trailer that brought it overland from the Hamilton Boat Club to the Cincinnati Public Landing, within sight of where it was now moored. It seemed, he related, the long, sloping, granite-paved steamboat landing did not gradually taper-off at the end beneath the waters of the river, as expected, but an unforeseen, sudden three-foot vertical drop-off caught the rear wheels of the trailer and the boat was at a terribly-steep angle before it was finally launched.
Bob, Dick and Don . . . and the poor fish
The heavy, oak beams that supported the paddlewheel apparently hit the river bottom, and once the MARJESS began cruising, it had a tendency to "throw a chain," stopping the motion of the paddlewheel until the engine was shut down and Dad could laboriously guide the greasy chain back onto the sprocket. Consequently, during the remaining life of the boat, it sat at the dock more than it was underway. But, we didn't mind so much . . . just having the MARJESS was enjoyment enough.
Mother immediately began making the MARJESS as comfortably snug as possible. Her "cookstove" was an electric, two-burner, hot plate, but the meals that came off that primitive stove were as sumptuous as any she fixed at home. In those days before air-conditioning was common, we slept beneath wool blankets on nights when folks, ashore, were sweltering.
All sorts of fun was available on the river. Swimming became safer that year after a nationwide inoculation of Dr. Salk's polio began. We tried our hands at fishing, but it was more fun to shoot bottles floating by with BB-gun borrowed from the boat next door.
Again, as with Walt Hoffmeier, I found an opportunity to make myself useful helping someone and their boat chores . . . and that opportunity came courtesy of the "harbormaster" of the boat club, a former steamboatman who lived with his small family in an authentic shantyboat, resplendent with all sorts of river plunder and paraphernalia, that lay tied at the end of the harbor next to our paddlewheeler. To everyone on the fleet, the harbormaster was simply called "Tex," the first professional riverman in my life who began teaching me the rudiments of boats and the river that began a metamorphosis from a casual pastime toward what became a lifelong career.
The River: A young boy finds adventure (and life lessons) and meets some characters along the way
Jan 7th, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
The MARJESS bobbed calmly on the outboard side of the dock at the Covington Boat Harbor when I stepped aboard for the first time, afloat. Nothing belied the difficulty dad had, earlier, launching the paddlewheeler off the lowboy trailer across the river at the Public Landing and getting her to where she was now tied.
The boat harbor was situated immediately downstream of the south pier of the imposing Roebling Suspension; often called the "singing bridge" for the humming sounds that flowed like a siren song from the bridge's expanded metal deck as cars, trucks, and busses passed over it. A concrete "floodwall," tall-enough to protect that area of town from the highest of floods isolated the marina from view, except from the bridge, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.
In Tex's wood yawl with dad
A dusty parking lot was accessed from Front Street by a gravel drive filled with stones suitable for tossing tempted any boy within their reach. A long ramp stretched from the shore to the downstream deck of the "headboat," a box-like, rectangular wooden barge with a one-story, white superstructure atop it that made it seem more like a floating warehouse than a boat. Inside was a cavernous room with a nondescript bar and plastic covered stools. Sparsely spaced tables and chairs were scattered about. Two small rooms, one with MEN, and the other with WOMEN painted on the doors housed toilets that flushed into the river. A brightly-lit jukebox alongside one wall and a pinball machine on the opposite side provided the sole sources of entertainment besides drinking. A quarter bought three tunes on the juke box, otherwise songs were a dime apiece. A game of Pinball was five balls for 25 cents.
Outside, on the downstream end of the headboat, at least five-hundred feet of wooden "floats" buoyed atop the tide by empty, steel oil drums, provided ample dockage. At the farthest end, faced-up to the last float, a dirty, hand-built, shantyboat, complete with all sorts of plunder, some floating, some piled atop the roof, was the home of the "harbormaster," Tex Kitchaching, his wife Joy, and their toddler son with the bow-legs. On the river-most side of the same float, ahead of the shantyboat, lay our sternwheeler . . . a most-handy place to develop a friendship with Tex, a veteran riverman who claimed he "decked" for the Union Barge Line, and, as I soon found, was receptive to a gangly, teenage boy eager to help around the harbor and willing to work for free.
Among Tex's river plunder were two 16-foot wooden skiffs and a smaller jonboat he, himself, built. A lattice fishbox floated partially submerged behind the shantyboat where live catfish and an occasional carp, recently caught on a long trotline, swam about oblivious of the knowledge their fate lie destined for the frying pan inside the boathouse galley. Before long, I was spending more time with Tex than I was with my family aboard the MARJESS.
"Here's how you tie a headline to a post," I was told my first lesson. "Take a bite of line and go, right hand under the left," Tex instructed as he placed the bight, or loop of "line"; never "rope", over the two-by two vertical post on the dock . . . and "do another one over-top that one, " as the skiff was securely fastened. "The line'll break before it'll pull out," he concluded. And so a simple secret, known to practically every riverman, but mostly a mystery to those of the pleasure-boat sect, was revealed and passed on to a young greenhorn aspiring to be like his teacher.
The Headboat of the Covington Boat Harbor
Flying around the harbor in Tex's home-built, 16-foot, wooden yawl, or skiff, built with a pointed, model bow that set it apart from a flat, squared-off scow bow of a jon boat, was a great escape from the confines of the boat harbor. The old Johnson outboard motor drove the heavy boat fast-enough though the wind-whipped waves that a cool, refreshing spray of river water blew over the boat and crew on a hot summer day. From my narrow seat in the further-most forward thwart of the ark, I watched Tex sitting silently with one hand on the tiller as he gazed all around, from sky to water, as if he was viewing the river scene for the first time.
But suddenly, the motor would stop as the yawl coasted alongside a bobbing metal can with a thick, cotton cord attached to it, the first of several floating equally spaced together in a line. Reaching into the water, Tex took hold of the line running from can to can and pulled it up to check for any fish unfortunate-enough to bite down on the smelly bait that lured them to the sharp, steel hooks hanging from smaller lines tied to the heavier cord he called "stringers." He was looking for "fiddlers," Channel Catfish of a certain size. "Them's the best eatin'," he explained.
The more-fortunate fish not meeting the fiddler classification were freed and the empty hooks baited. Tex showed me how to fasten a hook to a stringer without going through the eye of a fishhook in a way it would not come undone. I also learned the way to fasten a stringer to the trot line using a slip knot that was easy to untie and remove from the trotline for servicing. Although it's been many years since I last tied those knots to a hook and trotline alongside Tex, I can still tie them.
Every once in a while, Tex unexpectedly turned the skiff about and made a beeline upstream, about half a mile, to Dot's Boat Club, the next closest marina on the Kentucky side. Dot's usually had a few old coots hanging around the bar and most seemed to know Tex by name. If he was so moved, he might dig deep into his jean's pocket, pull out a handful of quarters, slam a pile onto the bar, and call for a round of beer. Enough quarters could always be found to feed the booming jukebox. Dot's place reeked of stale beer, cigarettes, and summer sweat. It reminded me of inside the headboat at the Covington Boat Harbor.
As I swigged a soda, I watched with a fascination bordering on amusement as an inebriated, middle-aged, overweight couple, barefoot and in bathing suits, staggered to the scratchy tune blaring from the music box. But it was a relief to hear Tex yelling in a voice louder than the music, "Time to get-on home," and so we climbed into the yawl and plowed down-river until the sounds of the singing bridge, overhead, told us we were back.
Tex's Shantyboat with the MARJESS alongside. Dad and boys making a tire bumper.
Covington Boat Harbor operated the bar without a license, so, consequently, the owner, a white-headed, older man named Charley, could not buy directly from the trucks that delivered beer and booze had he operated legally. A matter simply ignored, for whatever reasons, and why my dad never went inside the headboat. It befell upon Tex, as an added duty, to take Charlie's "machine" and drive to a place in nearby Newport that had conspired with the boat harbor to sell them as many cases of Wiedemann Beer, at slightly below the retail price, as the car could carry.
A time or two, I slipped off with Tex who was delighted to have help carrying all those heavy cases to the car, and from the parking lot to a corner of the barroom where they were stacked until Tex or Charley stocked the refrigerated boxes behind the bar with the individual bottles.
The best fun-part of the beer run was the drive, there and back, alongside my river mentor who seemed like the older brother I never had. Tex tuned-in old-time country music on the car radio and sang along with the tunes.
During one of those times he revealed that, when he was a younger man, he wanted to be a country star and play and sing on the radio like his favorite, harmonica playing, Wayne Raney. "Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me" was Tex's favorite Wayne Raney tune. He also mentioned liking the Delmore Brothers. But the craziest thing Tex did during the ride, was, whenever he saw a pretty gal, he would yell, "Hubba-Hubba!" out the window. "Hubba-Hubba!" Tex wanted me to try. "Girls like it when you yell, Hubba-Hubba," he added, but I pretended to be shy and couldn't get up the nerve. Actually it was too embarrassing to be seen yelling "Hubba-Hubba" from an open automobile window.
Later that summer, when we arrived at the Covington Boat Harbor, the shantyboat and all the plunder were gone from the end of the fleet. Tex, his wife Joy, and their little boy with "the rickets" my mother had diagnosed and whose health she had improved with the vitamins samples she had taken from the doctor's office, with permission, where she worked as a medical secretary, were all gone down the river.
Though I never saw Tex, again, and the only momento I have of him is the "Jones Book," a book of maps and aids published in the 1930's by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Many years later, I was telling the story in the pilothouse of Captain John Beatty's CLARE E. BEATTY about my old river buddy, and when I mentioned Tex's last name, the lead deckhand piped-up and declared, "Tex Kitchaching was my uncle." When asked about his uncle's whereabouts, the deckhand disclosed that Tex had eventually gone to prison and died not long after he was freed.
Tex's replacement at the Covington Boat Harbor was another washed-up, old river rat; simply called Mac. Though I helped Mac with a chore, or two, he was more friendly with my father who seemed to want to keep me separated from the sun-beaten boatman who made chairs from water willows growing along the riverbank under the singing bridge he sold for extra cash.
But that was fine, not only did I spend more time aboard the MARJESS at the harbor, but at home, my brothers and I had only recently discovered the pleasures of the forbidden waters of the Licking River as our new playground within an easy walking distance of the house.
The River: Moving 'uptown,' a rambunctious mud-ball skirmish leads to finding Paradise Lost on Licking
Jan 14th, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
Soon after Grandpa Jesse died and we were spending our weekends on Walt Hoffmeier's PAL-O-MINE in early 1952, the family moved to a two-story brick on Sterrett Avenue, four houses off Wallace Avenue in "uptown" Covington.
Wallace was where the elite of the city had migrated to, two generations earlier, from what would be later called the "Riverside Area." There they built palatial homes with spacious yards. Though their children and grandchildren had gradually moved beyond the bounds of the town, remnants of the old guard were still tended by colored yardmen who cared for the lawns, and older Negro women dressed all in white who looked more like hospital attendants than they did cooks and housekeepers.
Paradise Lost Found (Photo by Paul Richardson)
Of a morning, the "help" were seen stepping off the #8 Eastern Avenue bus before they ambled off to their respective places of employment. The small knot of workers were but a shadow of those who once served in, and about, the homes when they were filled those who had moved away. Now, the opulent palaces were populated by but one or two elder owners. The stately home of steamboat captain and coal baron, Captain James T. Hatfield, had only his two spinster daughters living quietly within the frame walls once noted for the gaiety of their father's festivities.
The same year we moved into the neighborhood, Mother began working as a medical secretary, a career step that would eventually find her retiring as a Licensed Practical Nurse. She should have, and could have, been a doctor.
With both our parents working, Bob, Dick, and I became "latch-key kids," but as I was nearing adolescence and had been "watching" my little brothers for several years, our folks felt we all were in good hands with me in charge as long as I followed their command to "Stay in the yard."
But after a while we started playing with kids on the other side of the street whose backyards fell off into a broad inner city valley so vast that the Holmes High School football stadium and adjacent practice field occupied but a part of it. The lower backyards of the homes on Eastern Avenue formed the eastern slope of the depression. At it lowest point the valley was marshy and murky, with gray water standing on the surface of the ground. The neighbor boys simply called the area, the "Swamp."
Map of our area
Immediately, the Swamp became our favorite playground to escape the confines of our monotonous yard. As it was within calling distance of home, our boundaries were extended to include the Swamp. "Calling distance" in the early 1950's meant a spatial range close-enough to home, so that when Mother stood on the front porch and hollered for us, we could hear her call. Cell phones and other such electronic devices were two generations, yet, into the future.
In those days with memories still fresh of the Second World War and at the same time the Korean War was winding down, playing "Army" was a popular pastime for boys our age. The Swamp became the perfect battlefield. Instead of bullets and bombs, mud balls were the ammunition of choice. For a time we warred among ourselves with me opposing my two younger brothers until our cousin Ray Cooper moved next door and we had equal sides. Our rules of combat included: "No rocks; mud only. No throwing at the opponent's head, and no throwing too hard."
All that warring on the property of others soon caught the attention of Mike Coors, a neighbor-boy, around our age, who lived on the Eastern Avenue side of the hollow; whose backyard encompassed much of the Swamp. Though Mike was the son of the Reverend Morris H. Coors, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, he, too, had a taste for war games. On the hill behind the white, frame rectory where the Coors family lived, Mike dug a deep foxhole large-enough that he and his ragtag troopers had shelter from the barrage of mud balls we rained down upon them.
Dick, Mom and Bob in the backyard at Sterritt Avenue.
Ever-so-often, we heard the sound of a round striking Mike's plastic helmet liner. A charge up the steep hill by our "gang" always drove Mike and his boys inside an open basement door where they sought shelter in an area forbidden for us to enter. Usually this meant coaxing and begging Mike to come back out and play Army some more. "We won't throw so hard," I promised.
On a warm sunny Saturday in early May of 1955, Mike eagerly accepted another challenge to make war in the Swamp. Perhaps he seemed a little too exuberant to get the battle started, but it was fine that our foe was so excited to play. As always, the battle began with an exchange of clay missiles. Before long, the cry of "CHARGE!" rang out from our side as we sprinted toward the enemy fox hole. As if on cue, the Coors army abandoned their position and raced for the safe haven lying within the basement door.
As we boys crested the top of the embankment and onto the flat ground behind the parsonage, an angry roar erupted from beyond the cellar door. Like a swarm of seething hornets, three roughneck, hooligan boys Mike had recruited from around the slaughterhouse area in Helentown, a neighborhood further north, and secreted within the basement, flew at us howling and screaming with intentions beyond the genteel regulations that normally governed our rules of war. So, we brothers executed the only reasonable maneuver possible. . .We Ran!
Palatial homes with spacious yards from bus stop.
Instinctively, we knew that if we ran back into the Swamp we would, as they say, "get the hell beat out of us," so out to the street I ran as Dick and Bob followed. Turning right we flew toward the earthen levee we had watched being built since moving into the neighborhood; overtop we went with our pursuers close behind.
Behind the floodwall stretched an open field ending at the Licking River. Down we went to where we could only turn left or right. Going to the left led toward the mean boys home territory; to the right was a unfamiliar forest of tall trees that darken the shores of the river we were forbidden to go anywhere near.
Choosing the forest we ran towards it and found a narrow path leading through the trees and underbrush, so slender it may have been trampled out by animals. Later, we called these paths, "dog trails." On we ran in hopes of eluding our pursuers, but they doggedly hung onto our footsteps, so determined were they of their mission.
After what seemed a considerable distance, we brothers were tiring, but, too, I sensed our stalkers were falling further behind. At the same time, we were abreast a rift in the earth alongside the trail. "Down here," I whispered, as I dropped off the path, and together we tightly hugged the ground alongside the small escarpment. Moments later, the heavy footfalls of of our adversaries clomped by on the trail above. They were never heard from again. After a reasonable wait we stood up and surveyed the expanse of the beautiful river, below, and the woods surrounding us. It was as though, I was convinced, Paradise Lost had been found!
We promised ourselves that we would return and explore what we just found.
Three Mile Creek Landing, Licking River
After school was out for the day, on Thursday, May 19th, 1955, Dick, Bob, and I, in company with a neighborhood friend, Larry Baldwin, returned to area of the Licking River we had "discovered" only a few days before. This time were left the woods and walked among the broken jumble of flat, sedimentary rocks along the river's edge. A natural outcropping of stone made the perfect campsite and there we built our first campfire.
On a sizeable sheet of shale rock I inscribed with a harder stone, "Claimed by Don Sanders. May 19, 1955," and this claim-marker was placed beneath a sheltering outcrop of limestone until the river reclaimed the inscription during the next highwater.
Thus, my brothers, Bob and Dick, and I claimed a stretch of the Licking River as our own and began series of summers in the sun and a love for the river that continues to this day.
May 19th became our Camp Day, marking the beginning of another summer on the Licking River full of swimming, riding passing "blue logs", diving out of overhanging willows, potatoes roasting in a bed of red-hot coals, and all other forbidden delights that we boys could contrive on those long-ago shores. We were able to keep our Licking River escapades from our parents until I was well into my thirties when Bob spilled the beans, and even those many years later, my dad was upset that I had led my little brothers into such a dangerous territory.
Looking back, it seems we spent our entire youth swimming and frolicking on that ancient waterway, besides our times on the MARJESS, but I left town on the steam excursion boat AVALON in June of '59; so simple arithmetic tells me it was just four summer seasons, including 1959, spent in the sun, but to the young, four seasons can seem forever.
The River: A new era of adventures with hard work, lasting influences and ten-penny nails
Jan 21st, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
Winters are wicked on the Ohio River. So as autumn grew colder, the MARJESS paddled upstream to Andy Fisher's Southern Ohio Marine, an exclusive, private marina with the equipment and facilities to remove our boar from the water and store it ashore for the impending season of ice and snow. "Cap'n Andy,"' as we liked to call Mr. Fisher when he wasn't within earshot, was a man of about the same size and build as my dad, though a few years older. Both seemed to always have the stub of an unlit cigar clenched between their teeth on one side of their jaws. They were of a serious, no-nonsense breed. Had my father an older brother, Andy Fischer could have been he.
Young Don aboard the MARJESS 'on the hard' at Andy Fisher's Southern Ohio Marine)
Our paddlewheeler sat "on the hard" at Andy Fisher's throughout the following spring and into the beginning of summer while Dad was working extra hours at night and sleeping during the day, as policemen often had to do to make ends meet. Mr. Fisher was withholding summer storage charges on the MARJESS as long as the boat was prepared for launching within a reasonable time. So Mom and I packed buckets, rags, paint, and brushes to the boat and started getting it spruced-up.
As money for lunches was scarce, each day my modest collection of silver dollars was volunteered for bread, lunch meat, cheese, and a soft drink apiece. A dollar bought a lot in those days, and by the time the last ounce of silver was rung-up in the register at Charlie's delicatessen, the MARJESS was ready for the water.
Andy Fisher's mechanism for getting boats in and out of the river was a homemade cable car contraption that ran on railroad tracks embedded into a steep concrete ramp going from the boat storage yard and down to the Ohio River. Once the MARJESS was positioned onto a cradle attached ahead of the trolley, "Cap'n Andy" carefully guided our boat down the incline and into the river, deep-enough, until it floated free.
Don's mother, Margaret, on the boat at the Marina.
We wintered two seasons at Andy Fisher's, but after our last launching, the MARJESS paddled smartly past the Covington Boat Harbor to a new marina half a mile downstream below the C&O Railroad Bridge where our friend Walter Hoffmeier was starting a new harbor he named for himself: "Walt's Boat Club."
It would be the beginning of a new era of river adventures.
"Walt's" wasn't yet much of a boat harbor; just several newly-constructed floats and a tall, gangly, floating dock on the stern-most end of the fleet, where, because Walter was charging my folks the "family price," we were relegated to tie. But the fledgling marina was alive with activity. Walt being the persuasive supplicator he was, convinced truck-driving patrons of the Bridge Cafe, which he managed, to divert portions of their cargoes to the boat harbor site.
Soon truckloads of rubble from the "Bottoms" of old Cincinnati being torn down for a highway called the Third Street Distributor were dumped over the riverbank to enlarge the tiny parking area. Rafter beams of clear yellow poplar cut from first-growth forests before 1848, all over 20-feet in length, were hauled to the site and shoved "down the hill" where they would become the frames for new floating docks. Loads of unseasoned, random-width red oak planks came from another source and were destined to become the decking atop the poplar frameworks. Empty steel oil drums to buoy the docks afloat the water were bought for a quarter apiece—delivery included. Rolls of steel cable, recently removed from elevator shafts in tall buildings of downtown Cincinnati, arrived courtesy of an elevator company connection to tie the growing line of floats together, end to end, as a rigid unit.
Any Fisher's way of getting boats in and out of the river.
Amongst all the hubbub of activity, Walt assigned my brothers and me to our first task. Provided with a carpenter's hammer, a block of wood, and a small steel pry-bar each, we were shown how he wanted the ten-penny nails removed from a jumbled mountain of lumber dumped helter-skelter about the property. A set of sawhorses supported the heavy boards, laid nail-side up. Each spike was hammered on the pointy-end until they were driven through the board that was then flipped over so the flat nail heads protruded upward. Close to each nail was placed the block of wood. With the metal bar resting atop the block and the nail head grasped firmly within the "V-notch" of the tool, a steady pull on the pry-bar dislodged the nail that was placed on the ground exactly where Walt had specified.
By the time they were all removed, a steel cone of nails, some two-feet high and weighing over 100 pounds was created. The boards once cleaned of nails, were neatly stacked for subsequent use.
As load after a load of rubble was dumped over the embankment above the harbor, I noticed all sorts of scrap metal mixed-in with the fill and began extracting what I could scrounge and piled it aside. By the end of the day a handsome heap of scrap, higher than my head, was waiting for a truck to lug it off to the scrapyard. The next weekend when I returned to the harbor, my mountain of junk was gone.
CBH Headboat. MARJESS paddled smartly past the Covington Boat Harbor.
"Where's my scrap?" I demanded.
"Wasn't yours . . . was mine," Walt answered.
"Then give me half the money for collecting it."
"Didn't get any money—traded it, " he informed.
Walt had the mountain of metal hauled to Missell's junkyard, and instead of selling the metal for money, he traded evenly, pound-for-pound, for bolts and nuts, angle iron, and other steel odds and ends that became the fittings and fasteners for the new floats under construction. Most of the nails previously removed from the planks found their way into boxes and cans until they were eventually straightened and reused to fasten the oak dunnage decking atop the poplar docks.
Walter, I quickly realized, was the supreme "recycler" before the word was invented. When I began Can-Do All-American All-Aluminum Recycling Company on Covington's Old Towne Plaza in 1980, a portrait of Walter Hoffmeier was displayed in the show window of the shop with the caption, "He Taught Us How."
Walt's boat harbor was just several newly-constructed floats.
Meanwhile down by the water's edge, the new floating docks were taking shape by the skilled hands of craftsmen-friends of Walt's who were "volunteers," as was everyone else working at the harbor. Later on, when I was helping Walt full-time after school each day, I asked him, "How much you gonna pay me?" " Pay you?" he snorted, "Yer gettin' yer supper, ain't ya?" Immediately the subject was dropped, for I would rather be working at the boat harbor for my supper than hanging around the house, back home.
The clear yellow poplar beams taken from the attics of ancient buildings in the oldest neighborhood in downtown Cincinnati, "the bottoms", and hauled to Walt's measured nearly 20-feet in length, 24 inches wide, and a full four-inches thick. Four full-length beams running lengthwise formed the main longitudinal supports of the floats, while others were sacrificed and cut into shorter lengths to create the lateral members.
Those planks my brothers and I had worked on, earlier to remove the nails, became the frames for four steel oil drums in each end of the dock structures. The drums were not affixed permanently to the framework, but were confined inside the frames by their buoyancy, alone, in such a way that should an oil drum fill with water, it would detach itself and fall away to the river bottom without dragging down the float with the added weight of the sinking drum.
Rubble from the 'Bottoms' of old Cincinnati was dumped over the riverbank below the old house.
Once the framework of an individual float was launched and buoyant, random-width oak boards were hand-carried from where they were stacked "on the hill," down to the water's edge, loaded aboard the KIRK—the most artfully-constructed jon-boat I have ever seen, even to this day—and were rowed over to where each plank was placed crossways on the skeletal dock so that one edge of the oaken deck was even with one longitudinal poplar beam with just an inch, or so, of overhang. But the opposite side of the float was overhung by whatever the random lengths of each individual planks were.
Next, came the ten-penny nails we had pulled earlier from the pile of planks. These nails were rusty and bent; on any other construction project they would have been discarded and new nails purchased. However, the reclaimed nails only needed a little pounding as they lay on their sides on the hard oak and they were almost good as new. When straightened, they worked well once a technique for driving them through the green wood was established.
Soon, driving the awkward, rusty nails through the rock-hard oak became my specialty, but I did it matter-of-factly as just another chore needed doing that earned me my supper, eaten at that time in the cellar of an ancient house on top of the hill where an old lady, the grandmother of a Covington policemen lived. The house was without a toilet or running water, and, as I quickly learned, one had to be especially careful standing outside the house, for, without warning, she would raise a window and empty her slop jar into the yard regardless of anyone standing below.
Floats under construction; new docks taking shape.
Directly across from the ramshackle cottage facing on West Second Street, later renamed Highway Avenue, lived a man about Walter's age who was highly regarded as an outstanding "cabinetmaker," a rank above a general carpenter. One afternoon as I was pounding the old nails straight and driving them home through the oaken boards, the old gentleman stood over and scrutinized me as I worked. Knowing his reputation with woodworking, I did my best to drive each nail true through the hard, resisting planks. Without saying a word, he observed a while and then shuffled off to find Walter before returning home.
Later, Walt shared the conversation he and the old craftsman had concerning my work. Old Craftsman: "I can't believe that boy over there is straightening those old rusty nails and driving them through that hard oak." Walt: "Well, I told him . . . He better be!"
Eventually a home-like, roomy headboat replaced the ramshackle cottage that was soon demolished to make room for more parking. In time, over 600 feet of the oak and poplar floats stretched downriver from the headboat, but it would take a couple of years, perhaps longer, for that to happen. And in the course of those years, I was busting myself to remain welcome at Walter and his little wife Lorraine's supper table. She was some fine cook, but the benefits her husband offered were why I was really there—mainly, everything boiled down to the freedom I had spending as much time as possible on the river.
Many years later, I summarized what those early days with Walt meant: "Walter Hoffmeier had a decisive influence on a kid who'd never been much good at anything in particular until he met that skinny, hard-cussing, taskmaster who taught him carpentry, painting, and river skills. Most of all, he taught a boy what was expected of a man if he wanted to hold onto on a job though the wages paid were a evening's supper and the opportunity to be on the river working in every sort of weather, on all stages of the river from a lake-like pool to raging floods and crushing ice."
Eventually a home-like headboat replaced the ramshackle cottage.
As I grew older each passing year, my rather-strict parents allowed me to spend more time at the boat harbor helping Walter. School got out at 3:15 in the afternoon and four-o'clock found me getting off the bus at the top of the hill.
A number of chores were waiting as I stepped aboard the headboat where there was never a lack of work to do. Cold river winters found us as busy as we were on balmy, summer days. Ice was a special hazard to the marina and to Walter's and our houseboats, which were kept afloat there instead of taking them out for the winter.
Before Markland Dam was built, the old-style dams could be "thrown" so that the movable sections, called "wickets," rested on the river bottom making the river a wide-open, free-flowing stream without fabricated obstructions holding back water or, worse, ice. Ice flowing down the river became a monstrous, grinding bulldozer plowing everything in its path. During one such bitter winter when ice threatened the harbor, Walter allowed the entire marina, including the headboat and our houseboats, to be beached out onto the shore as the level of the water fell with the wickets down at Lock and Dam # 37, below us, where we were safe until the grating, frozen river passed by. Once the ice was gone and the wickets were back in place, the water rose and refloated everything again. To this day I remain awed with Walter's ingenious system of saving the boats, floats, and headboat. Something he learned, he later revealed, from the shantyboating days of his youth.
Beached out—ice was a hazard to the marina
As in all episodes of life, those idyllic days seemed like they would last forever. But on one hot spring day, just before graduating from high school, I was working high on the riverbank attaching a steel cable to a "deadman", an anchorage the harbor would be needing when the newly-constructed high-lift lock and dam below us would raise the Ohio River some 14 feet, when the telephone bell mounted on the outside of the headboat loudly rang.
A few minutes later, Walt called over, "Get your ass in here and get cleaned-up. Your old man's coming to get you!" "Where's he taking me," I asked? "He's taking you to college . . . " My heart dropped into my stomach.
Though I headed, later that day, to an open house for graduating high school seniors at Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College, one of my life's most exciting summers still lay before me when I started "decking" on the AVALON, a steam-powered excursion boat that traveled from one end of the Mississippi River System to the other.
So, when I began steamboating at age 17, I already had seven years of river experience and training that quickly caught the attention of Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the AVALON's Master, who continued the education that Walter had begun.
At summer's end, after returning from my first season on the steamboat, I enrolled at Eastern. By December, as 1959 closed without me around the harbor to do the heavy work, Walter suffered a stroke shoveling a truckload of ashes onto the walkway and soon died.
My father felt he could no longer keep the MARJESS without my help, and it was sold and trailered to Williamstown Lake, south of the Ohio River, where it soon sank and later burned.
MARJESS was sold and trailered to Williamstown Lake where it soon sank.
The River: Memories stirred like river mud—of Patty Boy, of camps, of long swims, of new wonders
Jan 28th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
During the summers of our youth, my brothers Dick and Bob and I spent much of our time swimming and playing on the Licking River or at Walt's Boat Club aboard our family's paddlewheel houseboat, the MARJESS. On one of those now-distant days, our father brought home a disappointedly older, overweight beagle dog, but after he began running and playing with us boys, the dog soon trimmed up and became our constant companion. And it was in those times, between when the dog first found a new home with us and the middle of that summer, we realized how much we really loved this old dog named Patrick.
Patty Boy, the river dog
We just called him "Patty Boy" and he turned out to be a natural river dog who loved following along with us to the Licking River. While we swam, Patty Boy watched from the shore. On especially hot days, Patty waded into the river until the cool water was around his neck, but not once did I actually see him swimming. He was the best dog we ever had, at least I have always felt that way.
Patty naturally loved the MARJESS, too, where he found his own special place on the outboard side of the boat, back by the paddlewheel, where no one else was allowed to go. There he had his own private domain. Anytime he wanted to go ashore, he just went. Sometimes he would chase a rabbit on the riverbank, as chasing rabbits was a beagle's nature. On the scent of a rabbit, his baying became a melodious song heard down the shoreline, across the water, and back to the boat.
After the first season at our Licking River camp, we naturally became curious to find what new wonders lay further upriver. On one such day, we boys set out along a very narrow trail through the woodlands overhung with branches and through thickets of tall ragweed. Past the old city dump, later filled in to become a baseball park, the path was interrupted by a wide open area surrounding the Ashland Oil Terminal where oil barges were unloaded into huge metal tanks high on the hill above. We never lingered in the exposed opening very long for fear terminal workmen would see us and think we were up to no good, as most kids hanging around the facility usually were.
The Licking River near camp (Tom Schiffer photo)
A little further up the river another field opened that would be, we figured, a cinch to traverse, but once we were halfway across, a terribly-loud commotion behind us caused us to look around. Two mammoth Saint Bernard dogs with stout, steel chains fastened about their necks that connected to hefty, concrete blocks, were charging at us so swiftly the cement blocks bounced behind the beasts like rubber toys.
We ran for our lives toward the safety of the woods before us. Eventually, we sensed the dogs were slowing down. After plunging into the overgrown grove, far enough away from the edge of the open field, we saw to our relief, the Saint Bernards were unable to venture into the woods dragging the cinder blocks behind them. We were safe. After that first encounter, enough distance was reckoned between us and the giant dogs to make a game of out-running them as the heavy cinder blocks bounced behind until the pair of jumbo pups were exhausted and abandoned their pursuit. After a time, the Saint Bernards grew to recognize us and ceased to give chase . . . much to our disappointment.
Going further up the river, we came to the embankment of the L&N Railroad tracks that crossed the Licking River on a very high bridge. On one side, closest to the outside of the bridge, a wooden walkway with a handrail provided safe passage to pedestrians. Patty Boy, we found, was terrified to walk across the high bridge. So I picked him up and carried him in my arms across to the other side.
Down another steep embankment and a short distance upriver was another bridge that had no accessible way to get onto it on either side of the river. A rusty, massive iron pipe running from the deck of the bridge, down and alongside a cement pier, disappeared into the ground. A pool of clear water bubbled from beneath the earth in line with the submerged pipe that carried the drinking water supply from the reservoir at Ft. Thomas, across the Licking River on this bridge, and to the City of Covington on the west side of the river. The riverbank and the area around the "Water Bridge," as it was called, was overgrown with trees and thick underbrush.
The Pipe and Railroad Bridges. The mouth of Three Mile Creek."
Lying on the ground near the bubbling spring, actually, a leak in the pipe somewhere deep underground, was an extra section of iron pipe at least ten feet long, several inches thick, and with at least a two-foot inside-diameter that lay uphill with one end of the pipe higher than the other. We quickly learned that when a wood fire was built inside the lower end of the spare section, the difference in height of each end of the pipe caused a natural draft like a chimney, and it wasn't long before a hot fire turned the iron nearly cherry-red. As soon as it got that hot, we dipped from the spring with cans lying about and threw the cold water onto the outside of the hot pipe, instantly creating a great column of steam rolling upwards higher than the tops of the trees. The pipe and steam-making process became our "boiler."
Though the boiler had no practical purpose, it was just fun to do in spite of all the work required to make it happen. "New Camp" soon became the name for our recently acquired territory.
Beneath the twin bridges, a white-water rapid, known as "Three Mile Riffle," roared with a thunder heard a long distance away. Here, in the 1830's, next to the mouth of Three Mile Creek, a dam was under construction on the river. Due to economic problems within the Federal Government, however, the dam was never completed. When John Augustus Roebling was building his engineering marvel, the now-famous suspension bridge on the Ohio River between Covington and Cincinnati, great limestone blocks were removed from the dam and barged to the bridge site, just over three miles north, where they were incorporated into the structure of the south pier of the bridge. Whenever the water level of the Licking River was low at the riffle, we could walk on the smooth basement stones of the foundation of the old dam left in place and not taken for the construction of the pier.
River Rapids, a white-water rapid similar to 'Three Mile Riffle'
Looming high above the New Camp territory rose the solitary prominence of "John's Hill." During the Civil War, Wiggin's Battery, also known as John's Hill Battery, a Union artillery fortification, was dug into the hillock to protect the Cincinnati area from possible incursions by Confederate forces approaching north along the Licking. During our own occupation, we climbed a particularly tall tree atop the hill and sat in awe amongst the highest limbs where the tall buildings in downtown Cincinnati, some three miles away, were in clear view.
Except for the time my brothers and our cousin Ray Cooper swam through the white water rapids, while I, the eldest, stood lifeguard over them, New Camp was not our swimming hole, but it was an area where we explored the surrounding neighborhood and built fires, for fun, in the boiler. Rather, we swam downstream at Old Camp, but swimming there was made difficult when walking over the broken, tilted slabs of limestone rocks until we discovered, about a hundred-feet upstream, an outcropping of smooth, blue shale that crumbled into small, soft pieces where it met the water. This was a near-perfect beach and immediately became our swimming hole we dubbed, "Shale Camp."
When we brothers began playing on the banks of the Licking River, I was the only one who could "swim," and I use that word lightly, but on hot, humid days our curiosity first enticed us to wade knee-deep in the river, and before long, we stripped off our clothes and immerse ourselves entirely in the cool, spring-fed water. We learned to hold onto logs with one arm and paddle with the other. With practice and by trial-and-error, we eventually became excellent swimmers and survived into adulthood with few, if any, narrow escapes on the river.
John's Hill has since been ripped apart for fill material.
The muddy shore on the opposite side of the river had to be easier on our feet, unlike the shallow Old Camp side where we had to wade across rocks—even shale can be sharp—to reach swimmable depths. Over on the far shore, a few feet from the brown, clay bluffs, the river dropped off straightaway to twelve or fifteen feet in depth where cold springs kept the water cool on the hottest of days. Until we became proficient swimmers, the far shore we called the "Ohio side," was reached from the "Kentucky side" with the help of a handy log. After a couple of seasons, all of us could swim the width of the Licking River underwater.
Cousin Ray, who was like another brother, swam for the prestigious Coca-Cola Swim Team after honing his aquatic skills on the Licking. The clay banks were also perfect for building "mudslides"—long, slippery paths that ran down the inclined shore and ended with a plunge into the river. The slides were kept slick by a constant splashing of water onto them by the ones awaiting their turn. The outer layer of mud that made the mudslides possible had been laid down after the last spring flood overtop the leaves and sticks of the previous autumn. Painfully, we soon found that the thin coating of slippery mud was rapidly worn away from all our sliding, and the skeletal remains of last summer's' greenery turned the slide into a sharp bed of thorns.
A new mudslide was quickly fashioned alongside the worn-out one and the fun continued until long shadows stretched across the narrow river from the "Kentucky side" and told us it was nearing time to go home before our parents got off work and arrived before we did. During all those years, they never knew about our Licking River escapades, and only found out when Bob betrayed our oath of secrecy, and even then when I was in my 30s, our father gave me a stern lecture for subjecting my younger siblings to the hazards he imagined we faced two decades earlier. Dad could be a stern man.
Old Blue Log
Now and then an ancient "Blue Log" bobbed by on its lazy, ponderous way to the sea. Logs by that strange name began their drifting on long-before episodes of high water and then were stranded ashore after the water receded, sometimes for years, until another flood fetched them afloat and continued their downbound journey seaward until they were again beached and the process repeated itself year after year. Logs of this sort were always of a generous girth as skinny logs would have rotted and disintegrated seasons earlier. Between times afloat, these logs became the home to legions of various orders of wood-boring insects that built a woody apartment complex within the soft, moist interior. After many seasons buoyed on the water and exposed to the sun and earth elements while reposing on the shore, the doddering logs, once magnificent tree trunks, became so waterlogged that, in the same manner as icebergs, only a small portion of the overall mass was above the surface of the water as one drifted leisurely by.
Many long years of seasoning gave them a bluish patina and hence, their name. We relished the enjoyment of climbing aboard and sharing a Blue Log with the insect tenants that came out of their apartments to crawl over our legs. But whenever the party turned ugly and they began biting, a simple roll of the log ended the ruckus as the attackers were washed away to the delight of awaiting sunfish and minnows. The ole Blue Log's ride toward the sea was merrily shared until it drifted far enough away from camp that we respectfully turned it loose, swam to shore, and walked back to where we belonged.
Those were just a few of our days on the Licking River, and like the song said, "we thought they'd never end" . . . but they did. Not only did those glorious, halcyon days of summer end, but nearly six decades have come and passed since any of us last played at Camp or swam in the invigorating waters of the Licking River. Since our last immersion in that stream, Three Mile Riffle and the basement stones of the ancient dam lie deeply submerged beneath the backwaters of Markland Dam. John's Hill has since been ripped apart for fill material for the construction of Interstate 275, and where we played at "New Camp," an attractive park built and operated by the City of Wilder, named "Frederick's Landing," is where my sternwheeler CLYDE visited on two autumn weekends, on recent, consecutive years.
Happily, the last time the CLYDE was at Frederick's Landing, brother's Bob and Jeff and their wives Shirley and Betsy joined my youngest son, Jonathan, and me aboard the paddlewheeler for a sentimental cruise on the timeless Licking River.
Jeff, Bob and me aboard the CLYDE at Frederick's Landing Park.
The River: Steamboatin' on the excursion boat AVALON, a tradition dating back to the 1800s
Feb 4th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
As the head of the Traffic Division for Covington, our hometown, my father, Jess Sanders, Jr., made sure the excursion boat, the Steamer AVALON, had ample automobile parking along the riverfront each time the steamboat came to visit to haul a boatload of locals to the Coney Island Amusement Park, above Cincinnati on the Ohio River, for "Covington Day". For those eager to go to "Coney" by steamboat, this was a tradition going back to the late 1800's; long before the AVALON was built. In consideration for his services, Dad received several thick yellow pads of complimentary passes good for free admissions to ride the AVALON. Though he was always given more passes than we ever used in a year's time, our family took advantage of the tickets and made several cruises annually.
LaCrosse, 1950's. The Steamer AVALON as it looked in the 1950s
Whenever the AVALON was playing Cincinnati, its home port, the skipper was Captain Arthur J. "Red" Schletker. Cap'n Red, as he was better known, relieved the regular master, Captain Ernest E. Wagner, who took off whenever the AVALON was home. My dad quickly became friends with Captain Schletker who invited my father and me to ride in the pilothouse while Mother enjoyed the riverboat ride astride a comfortable couch on the starboard side of the Texas Deck, by the chimney, while my two younger brothers explored the rest of the boat. Dad occasionally steered the AVALON, but he preferred sitting on the "Lazy Bench," and that allowed me some steering time. But mostly, we just listened to Captain Red tell of his many years on the river as both the Chief Engineer and the Master of the U. S. Lighthouse Service steamboat, the U. S. GREENBRIAR, while pilots John Emory Edgington or Lawrence "Bo" Allen kept the AVALON in the marks.
We owned our own sternwheeler, the MARJESS, a forty-footer built in 1947 on the Great Miami River, that my parents bought in 1955 and had hauled to the Ohio River on a flatbed trailer. But, actually, we started on the river three years, before, on the PAL-O-MINE, a 52-foot, wooden houseboat owned by Dad's friend, Walter Hoffmeier, who was born on a shanty boat on the Licking River in the early 1900's. Seeing what joy the family gained from the PAL, my parents made what was a major financial investment, and borrowing a thousand dollars, they bought the sternwheeler SHANGRI—LA and renamed it for themselves—Marge and Jess.
The biggest buyer of Burger Beer was the AVALON
About a couple of years after the MARJESS was introduced to the Ohio River, Walter started a boat harbor he also named for himself, Walt's Boat Club, in West Covington. My folks, being strongly over-protective, kept me on a short leash and the only source of amusement and entertainment I was allowed after school hours away from the house, was earning my supper at the boat harbor under Walter's stern supervision which suited a river-hungry lad just fine.
Eventually graduating in the lower half of the Class of 1959, and free of that burden, my sights were set on working on the river, but in those days, decent-paying jobs on towboats shoving barges were cherished and it took connections to land one. Captain Red, my only river contact, disappointingly revealed he had no pull within the towing industry that would help me land a job, but he promised inroads to employment on the AVALON, something I had not considered, but working on the steamboat would, at least, be a beginning. So I agreed to meet him at the AVALON which lay tied below the Greene Line wharfboat on the Cincinnati Public Landing.
Amol Warner, the Chief Steward of the AVALON, was finishing the last dregs of his breakfast coffee seated at a wooden picnic table in the deck room, a broad open space forward of the Engine Room. Captain Red introduced us and added, "He's a good boy . . . sober . . . his father is Jess Sanders who got us the parking when we landed in Covington . . . " and so forth.
Mr. Warner appeared interested-enough in me but seemed the type who would not have been so cordial without Captain Red's presence. Near the end of the interview, the Steward asked again for my name which he wrote inside a pack of half-empty matches.
Crew Early 1950. Such a jolly crew. I reveled in anticipation of becoming one of them.
"Be back here in the morning before eight o'clock," he said before turning back to his coffee. Captain Red had fled elsewhere during the interview, and I stood a few feet away from Mr. Warner to take in the excitement happening in the deck room that had transformed it into a circus-like arena of sorts.
Cincinnati was called "the beer capital of the country" before Prohibition killed off most of the breweries in that beer-guzzling city of Germanic origin. One of the few surviving brew houses was the Burger Brewing Company, and the biggest buyer of their product, Burger Beer, was the AVALON.
Thousands of cases of Burger, "bottled" in steel cans, were stored in the hold below the Main Deck; directly-aft of the AVALON's boilers. On this particular morning, Burger trucks were off-loading case-after-case of canned beer onto a long metal ramp equipped with steel rollers that stretched from the cobblestones, ashore, to the side of the steamboat where everyone able was assembled to lend a hand with the precious cargo. Deckhands, cabin boys, off-duty strikers, and even a few "band boys," union musicians in the AVALON's house band, The Rhythm Masters, worked with a sense of anticipation fueled by the understanding that once the cases of brew were snugly tucked into the holds, cold cans of Burger, presently chilling in large steel tubs of ice, would be generously lavished onto all participants who shared in the work.
Capt. Arthur J.'Red' Schletker
As usually was the way, as I later learned, several cases were secretly broken open and cans of warm beer were guzzled out of sight of what lax supervision may have been present. All-in-all, it was a joyous exhibition of labor gladly shared, and in the excitement of witnessing such a jolly crew, I reveled in my own anticipation of becoming one of them.
Without warning, the intense activity suddenly stopped and the area exploded with thunderous cheers and shouts as a giant of a man came unannounced into the room. He stood six-feet and several more inches above the deck and looked to weigh at least some 250 pounds, but, overall, he was fit and well-proportioned for his size. The colossus wore tan slacks and a flowered, Hawaiian-print shirt, and judging by the excitement and the widespread commotion that filled the room, the man was endeared to all. Even the glum Mr. Warner seemed excited to see him.
A broad smile stretched across the face of the big fellow who went directly to the table where Mr. Warner was seated and took two large spoons; put them together in one great paw and began beating and clicking them together, up and down, between his free hand and the broad side of his body in such a rhythmic way that music suddenly filled the air to the joyful shouts and applause of all assembled there. A deep tone arose from within the man as he began singing in tune to the tapping of the spoons, and I could hear the words . . . "Katie went to the well . . . "
"Who's that big guy," I asked the closest person standing nearby.
Looking puzzled, he turned and answered, "Man . . . don't you know? . . . That's Captain Wagner!"
Captain Ernest E. Wagner was not only the charismatic musical master of the AVALON, the demonstration witnessed in the deckroom also proved that he was the one person in full command of the forty-five-year-old steamboat. Soon after all the excitement cooled down and the murmur of industry replaced the revelry and the loading of the Burger resumed to the pitch it had been before the unexpected arrival of the Captain, I crossed the swinging gangway, or Stage, to shore and walked the ancient cobblestones to the top of the landing and glanced back at the AVALON.
The crew worked more harmoniously, now, in a cadence that hummed to the rhythm of their Captain's presence.
The route to the bus station was along the sidewalks traveled by lost generations who once trod between these same buildings whose images had been photographed in the Cincinnati daguerreotype of 1848. The musky smells wafting from open cellar doors and broken windows were similar scents familiar to steamboat travelers before the Civil War and into the 20t h Century until trains and, eventually, busses and cars replaced the steamboats and travelers to distant cities no longer crowded these banquettes. After a short bus ride across the Suspension Bridge and into downtown Covington, I stopped at the EFKO Army Surplus Store where a stout, large footlocker was procured. Another bus ride took me closer to home.
Lugging the heavy locker, I found the front door open and my parents in the living room talking, but seeing my large parcel, they stopped in mid-conversation and inquired if I was "going somewhere". When told that I was set on reaching Omaha, they asked how I intended to get there. "On the AVALON," I cheerfully answered. At that, they both began loudly refuting the intentions that I had so carefully formulated earlier.
Mother, I remember, was shouting, "OH, NO YOU'RE NOT!" But in spite of their combined efforts to dissuade me, I made my way to my room and packed the huge footlocker with all that I figured would be necessary on my steamboat adventure scheduled to begin early the next morning.
The locker was filled with more things than would be needed for a rough life on the steamboat; even the beautiful Elgin watch Grandmother Edith had given me for graduation was packed. Downstairs, by early morning, both my parents were waiting and primed for another battle over my intended departure, but after tears from Mother and hard scowls from Dad, I was surprised when he told me to put the bulky chest into the car; for he was giving me a lift to the landing where the AVALON lay waiting for a new day and the beginning of my steamboating adventures. The ride from the house to the steamboat was solemn, for this was the first time I had gone against my parent's wishes, and apparently, I had somehow, won!
Once again I found Mr. Warner seated at the breakfast table where he was the morning before, but this time his attitude was hostile and belligerent when I informed him I was reporting for duty as a Cabin Boy as he had promised. "I don't know you . . . . we're filled up . . . no jobs . . . "
"But, I was here yesterday . . . you wrote my name on your match pack . . . Captain Red brought me . . . Captain Red, Captain Red . . . ," I pleaded.
Ed Smith, steamboat fireman.
The repetitious mention of Captain Red Schletker's name apparently jogged the Chief Steward's foggy memory though he had used the remaining matches in the pack he wrote my name on and, surely, several more match packs had been consumed to light the long chain of cigarettes he smoked in the past twenty-four hours. Instead of inviting me to grab a plate and eat my first meal with the crew, he grumbled: "Go up front and I'll be with you when I'm done."
So I followed Mr. Warner's orders and went to the forward end of the Main Deck and sat on the wooden bench on the starboard side facing away from the river. Glancing up, I looked toward shore, and still parked on the cobblestones, was my father. Dad sat in the car glaring back with cold, hard stares. I vowed that whatever happened, whether or not Mr. Warner was going to hire me, I was not going back across the Stage lugging that heavy army locker to return, defeated, to my father's car.
Instead, I would wait until he left and then go back home on the bus.
Making matters worse at that very same time, two black men, obviously veterans of the steamboat, came walking around the corner on the port side of the Boiler Room, and I could overhear what they were saying: "Who's that white boy," one asked. "Dunno," the other answered, "but he won't last long." They were Ed Smith and Bubba Chinn, AVALON Firemen who soon became two of my most beloved friends, ever, on the river. Many years later when I was Captain of the DELTA QUEEN and they were the QUEEN's firemen, I asked if they remembered their conversation about my steamboat career possibilities that first day on the AVALON; they did, both confessed.
Several more agonizing minutes passed before the Chief Steward appeared and told me to grab my belongings and follow him to my newly-assigned room, and after stowing my gear, I made my way to the grand staircase to head up-top to the concession stand. Looking toward shore, I was relieved to discover my father had departed.
Capt. Ernest E. Wagner on the AVALON
The most exciting summer of my youth had finally begun! The AVALON steamed to Coney that afternoon with a boat full of Ludlow, Kentucky passengers; mostly mothers and their children. And with a Moonlight charter ride that night when the boat returned to the Public Landing after dropping off the Ludlow folks, it was well into the early next morning before the concession stands closed and the cabin crew was free to retire. After all the revelers were ashore, the AVALON pointed its bow downstream for Louisville.
Captain Red was piloting on the back watch, the six-hour hitch between midnight and six-am, and instead of getting some sleep, I sat with him within the black silhouette of the pilothouse and listened to the creaking of the great wooden steering wheel as it spun to the pilot's commands until he warned me, "Better get some rest."
Outside, on the starboard side of the wheelhouse, a comfortable-looking couch with soft cushions was more inviting than the top bunk in a tiny, sweltering, metal cubicle alongside the boilers shared with three other sweating men, so I laid there where the sounds of the pilot wheel, heard through the open sash, quickly lulled me to sleep . . . until shouts in the night startled me back into reality: "What're you doing down there, boy? I almost peed on you!" It was the pilot about to relieve himself through the open window, and where I lay had obviously been the target of past micturations.
Returning below decks, my face felt greasy and looking into a mirror, a face masked with black soot from the smokestacks that had been blown-down during the night, stared back. My rudimentary steamboat education had already taught me two invaluable lessons: 1. Rest after a long, hard day's work, and, 2. Never sleep under a smokestack below an open pilothouse window on a dark night.
The River: Steamboatin' on the Steamer AVALON in summer of 1959, and what a glorious summer it was
Feb 11th, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
By morning, the AVALON was well on its way toward Louisville, and "Big Cap," Captain Wagner, was supervising the overall cleaning of the steamboat as it deadheaded down the Ohio River. The concession stands were scrubbed and shined, and the Skipper, personally, led the deck crew in stripping, scrubbing and waxing the dance floor.
My assignment was cleaning the aft steel stairways from the Boiler Deck to the Hurricane Roof, and working as I had been taught at home and at Walt's Boat Club, the results were such that my boss, the Chief Steward, Mr. Warner, seeing my enterprise, hailed Captain Wagner and brought him over to where I was engaged: "Look what a great job this kid is doing . . . ", as the outcome of my efforts obviously pleased them both.
The AVALON at Louisville, 1959
Later that day, when I approached the giant captain and requested a transfer to the deck department, he had already seen an example of my work, so he gladly exchanged me for a deckhand who wanted to be in the Steward's gang.
The heavy footlocker left the hot room on the starboard side, close to the boilers, and was dragged to Room 12 at the after-end of the line of rooms on the port side; away from the boilers where the walk-in reefer box that shared a common wall with the room helped cool the deckhands' sleeping compartment. Room 12 remains my favorite on the Main Deck, even now that the boat is still operating and renamed the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE. The venerable steamboat will be celebrating its 104th anniversary this coming fall, nearly sixty-years since from that glorious long-ago summer of my youth.
After racially-segregated "colored" charters and open, all-white rides in Louisville, the steamboat made its way down the Ohio playing a few places, but mostly she passed-by the many small towns on her way to the Upper Mississippi River where my first introduction to the Mighty Mississippi was a tremendous roar heard beneath the Landing Stage where I was sleeping, projecting over the water and beyond the front of the bow, as the AVALON rounded the corner at Cairo Point and the blare of the swift current as it rushed past the bow was enough to startle me awake.
Arrival at St. Louis, several years before the Gateway Arch was built.
Turning to Watchman Harry Ricco who was also sleeping on the Stage, I asked, "Is that the Mississippi? "
"Yep, that's her," he answered, and after listening awhile to the thunderous uproar of the powerful stream, I fell back asleep.
The next day was our arrival at St Louis, several years before the Gateway Arch was built.
Here, again, during those times of racial separation, the AVALON catered to all-colored trips as the local excursion boat, the Steamer ADMIRAL, normally excluded negroes as passengers. The all-black trips were generally some of the best organized and most well-behaved rides we had anywhere we went on the river.
Up the mighty Mississippi River, the AVALON traveled all summer; stopping in towns and cities along the way with new and exciting names I had heard only in books, on the television, or in movies. Alton, Illinois, the first town the AVALON played above St. Louis, was where the grand, deep tones of the steam whistle frightened mothers and made their kids howl in terror.
The Skipper personally led the deck crew in stripping, scrubbing and waxing the dance floor.
There, I was delegated to stay ashore to catch the lines when the boat returned from a late-night cruise, and instead of finding a beer joint, uptown, or hanging around the Greyhound bus station looking for available strays like the older deckhands usually did, I found a hidden place on the riverbank and curled up and slept until the thunderous whistle announced the arrival of the returning steamboat.
Hannibal, Missouri was where the boyhood adventures of the author, Mark Twain, played out in the guise of Petersburg . The characters, Tom, Huckleberry, Jim, and Becky Thatcher . . . were all concocted names Twain contrived to disguise those guilty of the errors recorded in his books that served, forever, to ruin the writing ambitions of future river authors. The kiss of death for an aspiring writer of steamboat and Mississippi River tales is to be tagged, "the new Mark Twain."
Above Hannibal, on the Illinois side, the AVALON spent a couple of days at Quincy where I scrawled the initials of my own boyhood gang of river boys into the cement pier of the highway bridge: LVA for the "Licking Valley Association", an imagined band of Licking River roughnecks comprised of myself, two younger brothers, and a cousin. Quincy, in those days, was home to a number of bawdy houses and the matrons of the bagnios enjoyed afternoon breezes cruising aboard the steamboat on the Mississippi whenever their busy work schedules allowed.
Old-time Steamboat Pilots steering the AVALON
At each landing, I learned where the ties, fixtures to secure the heavy lines, were hidden; how to secure the headline to a tree or a ringbolt using toggles and shackles, and when and how to use one or the other. I learned which way the lead of a spring line went and which horn of a kevel the line went to first.
Captain Red showed me, early-on, what the "bight" of a line was, and to be aware of the potential for death or destruction by standing in one. He and others taught me how to keep on the "dry side" of the line and not go past the middle of the Landing Stage unless someone was standing on its heel. The further up the river the AVALON went, the more I became comfortable and at ease with my deck duties. Before and after each ride, we deckhands ran up-top to clean the boat of Burger Beer cans, Wagner Cola bottles, cigarettes, paper cups, napkins, and every other sort of debris that party-goers could leave behind in two and a half hours.
The boat had to be sparkling before the next group of rubes crowding the riverbank hurried aboard filled with expectations of drinking, dancing, or cooling off in the river breezes. Some came with the anticipation of finding a stray playmate . . . others arrived spoiling for a fight.
The Rescue Boat stowed on the stern by the paddlewheel.
The historic Lock and Dam Number 19, at Keokuk, and the ruins of the Mormon settlement at Nauvoo were held in wonder by myself and a couple other newcomers to the Upper River. We listened in awe to yarns told by old river pilots like Captains Ray Fugina and Roy Weathern, and further inflated by veteran AVALON deckhands, former Golden Gloves boxer Jackie Armstrong and Joe-from-Pomroy on the Upper Ohio River who always stayed to the end of the season to collect the year-end bonus, or Watchman, William "Big Bill" Willis who looked much like the popular television comedian, Jackie Gleason, and claimed he was a graduate of New York University.
Big Bill enjoyed flaunting his higher learning over the rest of the crew which was received with mixed feelings . . . mostly he was referred to as an "educated fool" by his lesser-schooled crewmen.
Harry Ricco, who signed-on at Pittsburgh several seasons earlier, especially enjoyed fetching and running errands for the Captain. A year later, one of Ricco's stunts would land him in memorable trouble with Captain Wagner, but for now, his experience as a seasoned boatman made him invaluable to the steamboat. My association with Harry, a Night Watchman, was as the oarsman on the rescue boat, a wooden jonboat that served to find and act as a platform to pull jumpers out of the river. Ricco was the man-in-charge of the little wooden jonboat who sat on the stern thwart manning a steering oar while guiding me toward the victim as I rowed with my face looking aft and, consequently, could not see where the boat was heading.
The kiss of death for an aspiring writer of steamboat and Mississippi River tales is to be tagged, "the new Mark Twain."
Above Cassville, Wisconsin, that summer, Ricco and I were in the rescue boat on a dark, swift, river looking for a jumper. I wore a round, navy-style Bosun's "high-pressure" cap I had found in an Army/Navy outlet in Louisville not long after I first started on the deck.
We were about a half-mile downstream from where the AVALON was shoved into the bank loading a group onto the boat from Cassville. The steamboat was already half-filled with sodden citizens from Guttenberg, Iowa, an upriver, neighboring, rival town, and the two groups did not mix well together—especially after alcohol was added. The intake of a nearby power plant caused a strong draw towards it that I could feel as I rowed in the darkness lit only by distant lights ashore and Ricco's flashlight powered by two half-spent batteries.
"Don't hear nothin' . . . " , I whispered to Ricco, "Wanna' go back?" Ricco intently studied the waters ahead . . . "I think I hear something . . . get in closer." Carefully, the jonboat pulled nearer to the sucking water intake. While searching the river ahead, Ricco's dim flashlight caught the faint sight of a man being drawn closer to the inflow of the power plant. A feeble voice cried for help, but soon we were alongside and brought aboard a frightened, foolish, young man who would live another day. A friendly yacht saw our lack of progress stemming the Mississippi's current and towed us close to the AVALON where, after turning loose, I rowed the boat and the three of us alongside and into the glaring light of a thousand electric light bulbs where the cacophony of a thousand yelling, shrieking, and cursing revelers were carrying-on over the throbbing music of the Rhythm Masters Band playing enthusiastically to an appreciative audience.
On the wet bottom of the jonboat, a half-empty glass, quart-bottle of Wagner Cola was spinning around and round.
Suddenly . . . .the hot, summer evening was filled with a thundering explosion and a brilliant flash of searing, white-hot light! The Bos'n's cap flew into the darkness and was never seen again. My left shoulder hurt worse than I had ever felt such pain, before, or since.
Above us, sweating faces peered over the side of the steamboat laughing and spitting at us . . . and on the wet bottom of the jonboat, a half-empty, glass, quart-bottle of Wagner Cola was spinning around and round.
The man whose life we had just saved, chortled and proudly proclaimed, "Them's my buddies . . . " In spite of the searing pain, I slammed the ungrateful fellow onto the bottom of the boat and held the steely point of the pike pole, the tool that minutes before had plucked him from the unforgiving jowls of the water-intake, against his throat and kept it firmly in place until the jonboat reached the shore and he was in the custody of a local policeman stationed on the landing to deal with such miscreants.
My wounded shoulder ached for a week, or so, but fortunately, the bottle found my shoulder . . . had it smashed into my neck or head, my future would have been concluded on that far away summer evening—half a century ago.
The River: Steamboating on the AVALON, the last tramp excursion boat, with excitement in St. Paul
Feb 18th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
Lambert's Landing, in St. Paul, Minnesota, was the AVALON's northernmost home for two hot summer weeks. Afternoon rides were generally filled with mothers taking the kids for a boat ride while the dads worked.
1906 Lambert's Landing, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Evening Moonlite trips were for the young adult crowd. Without a liquor license, the steamboat allowed bottles of alcohol to be brought aboard, but non-alcoholic mixes, ice, and beer were turned away. The AVALON made a tidy profit selling mixes in the infamous glass bottles, and ice was peddled by the paper bucket-full; all for over-inflated prices. Burger was the only beer sold onboard.
The trips had all been orderly, for the most part, and the Watchmen only incarcerated but a few over-exuberant revelers in the gorilla cage jail behind the steam engines where the searing heat was certain to render the most inebriated guest the sobriety sought by the most ardent supporter of the temperance movement.
On a particular evening, Red Wilke, the First Mate in charge of the deck, that year, replacing Captain Clarke C. "Doc" Hawley while Doc was on the bigger DELTA QUEEN getting service time experience for an Unlimited Master's License exam he was taking after the end of the season, ordered me to stay ashore during the Moonlite trip to be handy to catch, and tie-off, the lines when the AVALON came back from the ride; a normal procedure relished by the deckhand assigned the duty.
1937 Steamboat CAPITOL. "Lambert Landing, at that time, had a broad, flat, concrete esplanade between the river and the highway built not very high above the pool stage of the water."
Lambert Landing, at that time, had a broad, flat, concrete esplanade between the river and the highway built not very high above the pool stage of the water. After catching the lines from ashore as the last turn was taken on the sternline, I stepped down onto the fantail of the boat. As I did, the esplanade immediately turned green with shards of broken glass as countless Wagner soda bottles crashed onto the cement promenade where I was securing the lines only minutes before. Blackey-the-Watchman, his white shirt stained red with blood, came dragging a battered man down the back steps toward the jail, yelled, as he passed, "Get up to the post office and call the police!"
The landing was full, by then, with people driven off the boat—some were fighting, but many others were struggling to get away from the brawlers as fast as they could. Without a cap or uniform to identify me with the boat, it was easy to pass through the crowd and up the steep hill on Jackson Street to a coin-operated telephone inside the post office lobby.
Sirens quickly announced the arrival of the police, and following them were fire trucks, paddy wagons, and soon, ambulances appeared to haul off the wounded. Returning to the landing, I easily slipped back aboard by way of the fantail and onto the boat. By then, all combatants were off the boat and landward. The crew was found on the roof, watching, as the battle raged on a safe distance away. For the first time, I witnessed police dogs in action as firemen manning hoses were blasting streams of water against the battling crowd.
"Lake Pepin, a naturally-occurring lake, is the widest part of the Mississippi River undammed by the hand of man."
The next night, a report of the violent struggle that started on the AVALON was broadcast on the Huntley-Brinkley Report, the NBC television network's flagship evening news program. Everyone in America, including my parents, watched as they sat down to their evening meal. As soon as the AVALON office opened the next morning, my father phoned and demanded my return home, but after assurances that I had survived unhurt, and with the confidence of getting Captain Wagner to promise he would "look out for my safety," my folks let the issue drop.
A few days later, the AVALON departed St. Paul, much to the relief of the officers, crew, and the St. Paul community. The boat received the blame for the riot that was later found to have been an opportunity for rival gangs to rumble, but whatever was said about the origin of the commotion, plunging tickets sales spoke the loudest. So, early of a morning, the AVALON slipped the bonds that bound it to Lambert's Landing and headed down the Mississippi toward the St. Croix River.
Wearing a circular Detex watchclock hanging from a leather strap slung around his neck, Harold Donelson, the Night Watchman, patrolled the AVALON from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. He doubled on the dance floor when rides overlapped the hours he was on the lookout for fires and other abnormal occurrences that presented a danger to the boat and crew during those late hours when most of the company was sleeping.
AVALON at Cape—"The AVALON was the last tramp excursion boat"
Harold's room was one of the steel boxes alongside the boilers where soaring interior temperatures could boil a kettle of fish. So he slept underneath the pilothouse in a cramped space close to the spinning pilot wheel that came through a slot in the deck, overhead, close to his head, as he slumbered while the rest of us worked in the sunshine. Harold's uniform, like the other watchmen, Harry Ricco, Big Bill Willis, Blacky, and Whitey, was a white shirt, black trousers, and a high-pressure boat cap. But, because his shirts had been worn for many years, and though they were sent off to the cleaners every time a laundry truck hauled off the linen and the officers' cleaning, his shirts had, over the years, turned a dingy yellow; the color of old ivory piano keys. At one time, my mother, Anna Margaret, seeing the condition of his uniform shirt, and thinking it unclean, called Harold, "Dirty Shirt Harold", and the name stuck.
Even in those days, long before the Clean Water Act came into law to regulate the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States, the St. Croix River was already a National Scenic Waterway, and as such, presented a problem to the AVALON for the disposal of garbage, sewage, and other wastes while cruising the beautiful, protected river. The standard practice for all commercial and pleasure boats was to toss, pump, or otherwise dispose of all forms of feculence into the water. Therefore, we continued in the traditional manner of waste disposal on the lovely St. Croix, only we had to be craftier than we did on unprotected and unpatrolled waters. All the Burger Beer cans, not thrown overboard by high-spirited passengers, were carefully collected during clean-up for Dirty Shirt Harold who, between patrols, punched additional holes into each steel can that quickly went to the bottom of the river as soon as they were dumped over the side after dark and out of sight and sound of prying eyes.
From Prescott to Stillwater, the bed of the lovely St. Croix River was lined with metal cans imported from the Cincinnati brewery. For perspective, it would be another eleven years before the more-elegant DELTA QUEEN no longer disposed of her waste in this same manner. Otherwise, the St. Croix River was stunningly pristine, and though it was our duty to elude the protective eyes of the Wisconsin and Minnesota conservation officers, I remember that resplendent river having some of the loveliest scenery, anywhere, on any rivers the AVALON traveled that summer.
Port Main Deck—Room Twelve, my room shared with three other deckhands, was on the Main Deck.
Passing Prescott, Wisconsin and turning south, the AVALON departed the scenic St. Croix River and visited towns along the Mississippi, again. Red Wing, Minnesota, named for Hupahuduta, the Sioux chief, "The Wing of the Swan Dyed Red," but to most people, Red Wing was better known for its Red Wing Shoes. Downstream, the AVALON passed Lake City and into my favorite stretch of water on the Upper Mississippi River, Lake Pepin. Pepin, a naturally-occurring lake, is the widest part of the Mississippi River undammed by the hand of man.
By this time, the AVALON was some sixty miles below St. Paul. Impressive Maiden Rock, on the Wisconsin side, was where the Indian maiden, Winona, leaped to her death rather than marry a suitor she did not love. On a windy day, Lake Pepin was the closest I had been in what I imagined to be ocean-like conditions. The bow of the steamboat was built low to the water with little freeboard, so plywood splash-boards fitted around the nosing to thwart small waves from washing over the head of the boat compensated for the flaw. But, the vast swells on Lake Pepin buried the bow, crashed against the sliding doors, and threw sheets of water onto the structure of the steamboat as far up as the concession stand windows on the Boiler Deck. What a sensation it was to stand behind the protective glass of the hefty doors as the full force and fury of the lake crashed against the bow while the spray broke over the superstructure of the AVALON as it plowed its way through the whitecapping waves.
Below Lake Pepin, enchanting Alma, Wisconsin, "Best town on the river . . . by a dam site," refers to Lock and Dam # 4 straddling the center of the two-mile-wide by two blocks deep town that emptied-out to fill the AVALON with fun-seekers from within and from villages and farms all around Buffalo County. More than fifty years later, I became closely-associated with friendly Alma when I found the sternwheeler CLYDE, a faithful representation of the type of raft boats that brought enormous rafts of virgin Wisconsin pine down the river to sawmills as far south as St. Louis. Alma, in its heyday, boomed with the lumber industry when thousands of men were there assembling the great rafts of logs. Those timber racks were guided down the Mississippi River by steam-powered "rafters" like the original 1870 CLYDE, the first iron-hulled steamboat on the Upper Mississippi and the namesake of my paddlewheeler CLYDE. Alma was, and remains, my favorite town on the upper river.
Entering lock_ "Sleep was interrupted by the recurring locks that demanded the quick turnout of the deck crew." Photo by Ben Sandmel
The AVALON was the last tramp excursion boat. "Tramping" meant going from town to town, and not staying in one place as most excursion boats do. As the AVALON steamed between towns without passengers aboard, the crew had the boat all to themselves. After all the work was caught-up, for work on a steamboat is never done, deadheading to the next town was a private, crew-only cruise. This was a time for catching up on lost sleep, to find a cozy place to watch the river, or to wash clothes in a five-gallon bucket. Deadheading was also a time to hang out with the guys and jaw, or listen to someone play the "harp," as a harmonica was known to the boatmen. In the days before cell phones, a pay telephone, ashore, and handwritten letters were the only ways to communicate with loved ones back home or with that new girlfriend met on a cruise at one of the towns we played earlier that season.
Room Twelve, my room shared with three other deckhands, was far enough away from the heat of the boilers that it was comfortable enough to sleep in, but with limitations. The two sets of bunks were so close together that a man could be standing between them talking to another on the bottom bed while resting an arm on each upper berth. A single, four-drawer, wooden dresser gave each occupant a drawer apiece, but there was space underneath the bottom bunks large enough for suitcases. Even my clumsy army footlocker found room to fit. An oscillating desk fan sat on the dresser top, and though the room was the coolest of any other on the Main Deck, Room Twelve was still hot by reasonable standards of summertime comfort. As the electric fan rotated, the refreshing breeze was delightful as it passed, but as soon as the gust journeyed on to the next guy, beads of sweat broke out on my forehead . . . then, "Aaahhh . . . ," I would say, silently, as the cool air returned. Sleep was interrupted by the recurring locks that demanded the quick turnout of the deck crew. Depending on the schedule, working fifteen, twenty, or even thirty hours without sleep was not unusual, and then as sleep finally came, Dirty Shirt Harold would appear at the doorway and yell inside, "LOCK TIME! HAUL OUT!"
There was a time, or two, coming into a lock when I was alone on the fantail standing with the heavy sternline in my hands while waiting for the boat to stop, that I suddenly jolted myself awake and realized I had been standing there sound asleep. A bump against the cement lock wall, while I dozed, could have easily tumbled and pulverized me between the boat and the wall. After writing about a similar experience to my folks back home, I received a letter back saying I "should come home," and other dispiriting remarks about my steamboating adventures . . . so, I just quit writing.
The River: On Steamer AVALON, amid pleasing clacking and clatter, were colorful characters aplenty
Feb 25th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
In the Summer of 1959, the Steamer AVALON had been built 45 years earlier by James Rees and Sons in Pittsburgh, but the Rees engines were older by any number of years. They came off another steamboat before being re-installed on the IDLEWILD, the AVALON's original name. These engines were designed with a feature that saved steam, and consequently, fuel.
By capitalizing on the expansive character of steam and the momentum of the massive moving paddlewheel and associated parts, once the steamboat had gained its cruising speed, an overhead operating rod was adjusted to reduce the amount of steam entering the cast iron cylinders while maintaining the speed of the vessel and the efficiency of the engines.
The Rees engines were older by any number of years. They came off another steamboat before being re-installed on the IDLEWILD, the AVALON's original name.
Initially, this feature was patented by the builders as the "Rees Variable Cut-Off Steam Engine." In the full cut-off position, metal dogs, parts of the mechanical linkage, made a pleasant clacking sound as the engines went about their business of propelling the boat. This pleasing clatter of the dogs and the rumble of the long, wooden pitman arms, connected by crossheads to the piston rods, made a relaxing white noise that was conducive to both introspective daydreaming and somnolence.
Room 12, by its proximity to the sounds and vibrations of the port engine, was restful as a baby's cradle after an eighteen-hour day. My bed was the top bunk nearest the engine, and with a narrow window, I enjoyed both cooler air and the lullaby the machinery played. The song the engines sang went something like this: Clack, Clack, Clack . . . Shooooooo." Clack, Clack, Clack . . . Shooooooo . . . throughout the night.
Rock Island, Muscatine, Burlington, Ft. Madison, Keokuk, Quincy, Clinton and of course, Hannibal, became familiar towns. The older crewmen knew them more intimately for the locations of the best ties for the AVALON's heavy ropes, or "lines," how far the closest bars were from the river, and which towns had the friendliest girls. But, being 17, with girlfriends and alcohol yet to become a significant issue in my persona, my spare time was spent doing odd-jobs or helping the Captain or the Chief with special projects.
In the full cut-off position, metal dogs, parts of the mechanical linkage, made a pleasant clacking sound as the engines went about their business of propelling the boat.
I especially enjoyed making the wind vanes Captain Wagner requested for the roof so the Pilots could tell the direction of the summer breezes that toyed with the sternwheeler; especially during landings and departures. While other crewmen guzzled away their $19 weekly pay, ashore, my money lay securely in E. P. Hall's safe inside the Purser's Office. Personally, I spent as much free time between rides, as possible, rowing the wooden jonboat that was stowed against the open windows back on the port engine room bulkhead where the heat of the engines dried-out the boat and caused it to leak fiercely whenever it was launched to recover another drunken jumper.
So the Skipper was always agreeable whenever I asked to take the boat for a row, which helped keep the wood swelled so it would not sink before the next jumper took the plunge off the side of the steamboat. Cap's only warning was, "Get the boat back before boarding time . . . I can't sail if I don't have a rescue boat."
One time in Hannibal, that July, I had the rescue boat up Bear Creek, the same crick a young Sam Clemens nearly drowned in, according to his autobiography, which would have opened careers for future river writers without having to carry the scourge of being branded, "The New Mark Twain."
It was getting close to departure time for the afternoon ride, and I figured there was plenty of time to get the wooden boat back, when it suddenly ran upon a submerged stump and was hard-aground. As strenuously as I could row, and I was an exceptional oarsman, the boat would do nothing but pivot around on the submerged stump. The mighty three-chimed steamboat whistle blew the 15-minute call for departure, but the jonboat was no closer to freedom than it had been immediately after the stump captured it.
BoL Cylinder Head. James Rees and Sons Engine Cylinder Head.
Only those who knew the wrath of the great Captain could understand the agony I was feeling knowing that I was about to be the cause of the cancellation of a cruise with the associated loss of revenue, and all. Finally, as I was about to jump overboard and attempt to dislodge the boat, some unexplainable miracle happened, and as soon as the boat and stump separated, I sped toward the AVALON as fast as I could row. Waiting on the fantail was Harry Ricco, Jackie Armstrong, and Dirty Shirt Harold; sent there by the Captain to help stow the little boat so that he could get the big one underway. As we secured the rescue boat, Jackie wore a broad grin, and he was delighted to assure me, "Cap'n Wagner, he really mad at you."
Before Larry cooked on the AVALON, he was a racehorse jockey. Neatly decked out in his cook's uniform wearing a white t-shirt and matching pants with a black belt and matching shoes, Larry cut a handsome figure in the cookhouse. Not only did he shove three tasty meals through the small opening in the sliding screen that kept the flies at bay from around the stove, but he also washed his dishes, pots, and pans although a paid positions existed on the books for a scullery lackey.
Instead, Larry convinced the Captain he could do both jobs if paid for both. This arrangement worked to the satisfaction of both the cook and the steamboat company until the harsh chemicals, used without the protection of rubber gloves, ate into his skin and he had to quit the steamboat and spend his time commuting between a dermatologist and his lawyer's office.
The memory lingers of waking on a crisp morning, on the Upper Mississippi River, where the aromas of Larry's strong coffee brewing and bacon frying blended with those of engine oil and musky, river air as the AVALON plowed her way up, or down, the waterway. Looking out the deck room windows across a river miles-wide, but only a few feet deep outside the channel buoys, the clatter of the engines running on full cut-off gave a lad the feeling that life could get no better. The passing years have not tarnished, nor diminished, those visions.
Avalon at Clinton, Iowa. Rock Island, Muscatine, Burlington, Ft. Madison, Keokuk, Quincy, Clinton and of course, Hannibal, became familiar towns
When Larry left, Blackie's wife filled-in and the quality of the culinary arts badly declined, much to the unabashed complaints of the crew who remembered the tasty meals the little jockey served. Everyone wished that Larry would be waiting at the next landing to resume his station in the galley. What I still consider as "real steamboat cooking" is a tasty serving, or two, of fried chicken, white beans, and turnip greens.
After many years, I asked Captain Hawley why this memorable combination of tastes was so frequently on the cookhouse menu, Doc answered with just one word . . . "Cheap."
Guarding the mouth of the Illinois River is the town of Grafton. Although Grafton was a stop anticipated by the crew each year, no excursion trips took place from there. Instead, the AVALON shoved in at a park, above town, and an annual ritual holiday for the crew was hosted by Walter Wilson, a Grafton garage owner and friend of the boat and the Captain.
Walt furnished large quantities of fresh Illinois River catfish while the AVALON supplied the rest of the picnic trimmings; including the deep-fat fryer, sodas, cases of Burger Beer, and all the labor to make the frolic happen. A softball game followed the meal; also a tradition, with the crew choosing amongst themselves to form two teams. After the holiday ended, everyone cleaned up the remains of the picnic and wearily trudged back to the boat. Soon the AVALON backed-out as her great whistle blew a rumbling salute to Mr. Wilson who stood waving from the bank as the steamboat turned its nose northward and began her summer run up the Illinois.
Steamboat Fare. What I still consider as "real steamboat cooking" is a tasty serving, or two, of fried chicken, white beans, and turnip greens.
Hardin, Illinois, with its green, highway lift-bridge, was our first stop after we left Grafton. Then upriver we steamed past mile-after-mile of farmland, under the railroad lift-bridge near the tiny village of Pearl, and past Meredosia to Beardstown where the Sangamon River, Lincoln's river, meets the Illinois. At Pekin, the AVALON landed below a row of fat, bulging grain elevators. But after the headline and springs were run out and made fast, no one wanted to go down-river toward the high grass to catch the stern line.
Captain Wagner was calling for a deckhand, but no one moved. "Ain't gonna catch me out there with them rats," Jackie mumbled with a determined look. "What rats?" I asked. "Whole dang' river bank's full of them dam' rats . . . bigger'n dogs," he answered. And sure enough, huge, brown rats as big as small dogs were bending the high-grass as they scurried about in the excitement and noise of the steamboat that so-unexpectedly disrupted their contented lives residing in the shadow of the endless bounty of the grain elevators.
Cap was growling down for someone to "catch the sternline before the stern drifted out," and weighing Wagner's displeasure against a riverbank full of slow, fat rats . . . I chose the rats and waded among them and pulled the sternline through the grass toward a tree to make it fast. The rats, I figured, were too well-nourished to be of serious concern. With their gleaming coats of shiny brown fur, they looked more like housepets than wild creatures of the riverbank, and once I got a hold of the line, it lighten as Jackie and Bobby were behind me pulling on the heavy manila rope.
Still, once it got dark, I had to handle the line, alone, as the grumbling returned, " . . . ain't gonna catch me out there in the dark with them rats . . . "
Dirty Shirt Harold was from Pekin, and several Donelson family visitors rode the afternoon trip. Harold was proud to show off the AVALON to the home folks, and he especially enjoyed introducing them to Captain Wagner who shook everyone's hand and extended a home-like invitation to all to eat supper with the crew. The Donelson's enjoyed the fried chicken, white beans, greens, and cornbread, and after several helpings, they left the table satisfied and full.
Huck. One time in Hannibal, that July, I had the rescue boat up Bear Creek, the same crick a young Sam Clemens nearly drowned in.
Mate Red Wilke, finagled some time ashore during the last ride at Pekin and was not at the landing when the boat returned. After all the passengers were ashore, and the lines pulled aboard, Red was still nowhere around. The whistle blew for departure as the AVALON backed out without him aboard and headed north for Peoria. "The steamboat waits for no one," was the steadfast law; for the AVALON had a schedule to keep, and the boat came first before anyone, or anything, that might prevent it from sticking to the timetable made at the beginning of the season, months before, in Cincinnati.
Red Wilke was a good steamboat mate. I liked working for him, and he appreciated my enthusiasm for the deck. But Red had a mean streak, especially after he found a passenger who was liberal about secretly sharing a bottle. Captain Wagner had a strict rule about alcohol on his boat other than what he, himself, occasionally doled-out after a long, hard day's work. That was when Cap opened the beer box for no more than two Burgers apiece, and the crew had all the free hot dogs they could eat. The more Red drank, the redder his face became until it went from a rosy glow to a sullen, mean glare that signaled the crew to tread lightly around him. A favorite trick of his was to carry a roll of dimes in his right pants pocket.
During the rides, Mate Wilke joined the other watchmen patrolling the passenger decks, and nothing delighted him more than dealing with a belligerent rider. Pretending to become friendly with the trouble-maker, Red's heavy, right hand slipped into his trouser-pocket and wrapped tightly around the roll of dimes while his left arm slipped around the culprit's shoulders in a fallacious gesture of friendship. But, just as soon as the trouble-maker relaxed, Red's fist flew out of his pocket, and reinforced with the metal roll of coins, he cold-cocked the belligerent, who, when he woke, was roasting in the tiny gorilla-cage jail in the sweltering space behind the engines.
Mate Wilke was waiting at the landing when the AVALON landed at Peoria. He apparently met someone in a bar and decided to take the night off. That was to be expected on an excursion boat that promised no time off from the beginning to the end of the long season.
Peoria was an excursion boat's town. The afternoon trips were filled with the usual crowds of mothers talking to other moms while their kids chased around the deck, and the moonlight rides were those where memories were made that would be recalled well into the future. Between trips, after the cleanup was done, most of the crew slipped ashore to the closest bar or to the Greyhound bus station in search of love. As usual, my free time was spent rowing the wooden jonboat while enjoying the broad waters of Peoria Lake.
Sometimes Harry Ricco would ride, and we would practice, as a team, with me at the oars while he steered. Mostly, the rescue boat was all mine, and that suited me fine. Though we played Peoria for several days, I was excited to get further up the Illinois and imagined seeing Chicago, or at least the outskirts of the Windy City off on the horizon. So when the last line was aboard, and the stage centered on the bow with the boat pointed north, I anticipated more steamboat adventures ahead.
The River: Steamboating with smelly crew, and provoking fight with little but tough former boxer . . .
Mar 4th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
The further up the Illinois the AVALON went, and the closer it got to Chicago, the dirtier, darker, and more fetid the river turned; tainted by the waste spilling down the Chicago Sanitation Canal and into the water we were paddling through.
Below the Starved Rock Lock and Dam, grimy soap suds, three to four-feet deep, built-up below the dam caused by the agitation of the falling water.
By the time the boat got above Ottawa, crew showers had ceased as the water coming from the shower heads and sinks, and that sloshing around in the toilet bowls became pitch-black and overpoweringly-repugnant. The only house-water filtration aboard the AVALON was a couple of sand filters that initially came from the steamer GORDON C. GREENE when that overnight-packet ceased running after the DELTA QUEEN was bought and replaced it in the overnight passenger-carrying trade. The bulk of the runoff from the metropolis, upriver, overpowered the boat's primitive filtration system that usually did a passing job of diluting muddy river water into a light-tan tea with a splash of chlorine bleach thrown in to make a show of killing bacteria coliform colonies.
The further up the Illinois the AVALON went, and the closer it got to Chicago, the dirtier, darker, and more fetid the river turned.
By the time the AVALON headed back south, the crew smelled worse than the foul river water. Passing Ottawa, a small sternwheeler, the HUCKLEBERRY, a twin of Captain Fred Way's LADY GRACE, followed us down the river for a' ways. Both the LADY and the HUCK were built on thirty-foot, wooden, Weaver Skiff hulls—the most massive such hulls constructed by the legendary small-boat builder from Racine, Ohio, Mr. Boone Weaver. Twenty-years later, I would buy and restore my own Weaver Skiff and name it the FLYING FISH; still, the record-holder for a boat of that type rowed, both up and back, on the Great Kanawha River from the Charleston Capitol Street Bridge to the Chuck Yeager Bridge; precisely five miles each way. But for then, I delighted in the sight of another mini-sternwheeler other than our MARJESS, back home.
The AVALON had no designated head-deckhand although Captain Wagner called Shorty Robinson his head-man. On the bow, Shorty handled the steam-powered capstan, but he had no supervisory authority over the rest of the hands. Shorty had been, some said, a cook on the steam towboat, the SAM CRAIG when it was owned and operated by the O. F. Shearer & Sons and towed sweet West Virginia coal to Cincinnati. Shorty was what would be called, nowadays, mentally-challenged, but the explanatory comments, made in 1959, about his affliction were not so kind.
Shorty hailed from Point Pleasant, WV, in the heart of the coal country. As he had no living family, he lived in the county-home during the AVALON's off-season. Cap made sure Shorty's modest wages were tucked securely away in Mr. Hall's safe—less some walk-around-money for his Camel cigarettes, one of which was continually hanging from the little capstan man's lip, or for an occasional beer sipped at a river town dive. At the end of the season, Shorty was given a bus ticket back to West Virginia where a bunk and three meals a day awaited. He earned it by sweeping floors and doing whatever else he was capable of doing at the poorhouse set aside for the impecunious of Mason County.
Below the Starved Rock Lock and Dam, grimy soap suds, three to four-feet deep, built-up below the dam caused by the agitation of the falling water. Each Spring, about a week before the excursion season, began again, a bus ticket and a small sum of cash arrived by mail, and Shorty was put on the bus to Cincinnati and rejoined the AVALON and worked and lived aboard the steamboat until the end of the year when the cycle repeated itself.
Shorty guarded the capstan, the mighty machine that tightened the mooring lines, as though he had title to it, and woe is the one who grabbed onto a rope wrapped around it. Shorty was the butt of many mean pranks committed out of sight of the Captain. A favorite was to encourage a new man to get astride the capstan and take-hold a line. The next thing the newbie was conscious of, was, finding himself face-down on the steel deck where Shorty had put him using, either, his fist or a handy, oak toggle-bar. I was spared that initiation, thanks to Ricco, who warned me about Shorty and the capstan, soon after I joined the deck gang. Jackie, though, repeatedly, encouraged me to work the steam-powered machine, but I refused to take the bait.
The chain of command within the deck department was clear: the Captain, Mate, and deckhands; with no other intermediaries. But, among the crew, a certain unspoken hierarchy, or pecking order, existed, that was defined by the position of the man on the headline as it was being hauled ashore. Whenever the AVALON landed along the riverbank, the Stage was swung out towards the landing, and the heavy hawser lines were arranged so that the headline was the first ashore, followed by the Spring Line, and, lastly, the Stern Line. The man holding the eye of the Headline, and standing nearest the forward, outboard end, or head, of the stage, was regarded by his shipmates as the most ascendant man on the deck crew. His job was to leap off the boat at the proper moment when the stage was over the ground and start dragging the manila rope to the closest tree, or fitting.
The HUCKLEBERRY, a twin of Captain Fred Way's LADY GRACE, followed us down the river for a ways
The second man stood inboard of the Spreader Bar where the bridle yoke connected the hoist cable to the center of the Stage. At this position, closer to the boat, the number-two man's weight kept the Stage from tipping over and throwing both the men into the river, or worse. A third man might be standing on the Heel of the Stage, where it rested on the deck, to provide an additional counter-balance. As soon as the first man, the one holding the eye, jumped off the Stage, the second deckhand tossed his section of the line into the river and followed him off. Once ashore, the second man dropped back several feet and grabbed onto the line, again, and helped pull it up the hill.
Depending on the distance the he might have stayed on the bow, or he could have gone ashore to secure the Spring and Stern Lines. My position was the number-two man; right behind Jackie who commanded the eye.
Jackie Armstrong was short compared my six-feet, but he was stocky and muscular in contrast to my skinny frame. We both, possibly, weighed the same. Jackie boasted of his prowess in the boxing ring where he claimed several victories before finding himself kissing the canvas the last time he fought as an amateur fighter. Jackie had most of the unlicensed crew buffaloed and believing he was a man to be reckoned with; especially those in the steward's department who held Jackie in nearly the same light that shone on the recently-crowned World's Heavyweight Champion of the World, that June, Ingemar Johansson.
Golden Boxers—Jackie boasted of his prowess in the boxing ring where he claimed several victories.
A year before I had graduated from high school and joined the AVALON crew, the bones in my right hand were shattered in a football injury, and after major orthopedic surgery, a pin was inserted into my hand that remains to this day. So when it came to using my dukes, I was a defenseless, one-handed, underweight, skinny kid. Jackie had a speech impediment, but his handicap never kept him from getting up on the ballroom stage on crew talent night and belting out the words of a popular tune of 1959, "Lonely Boy", while trying to mimic the heart-throbbing style of pop-artist, Paul Anka. But when Jackie crooned the tune, he sounded more like: "Whone-we boy, whone-we boy . . . Whon-we-an' bwu' oo . . . ". Soon after I was standing behind Jackie on the headline, he started muttering in low tones that only I could hear, "I gonna' get yo' an' wup you azz . . . " And it was not long before others divulged that the ex-fighter was boasting among the crew of "whipping me and running me off the boat." Even Dirty Shirt Harold said Jackie was "bragging behind my back."
On an unusually beautiful August afternoon, somewhere on the Illinois below Peoria, The AVALON was playing a country town hidden from the river by a tall grove of trees situated between the river and the earthen levee that made the steamboat seem far-removed from civilization. With Jackie on the eye of the headline, and I standing a few feet behind him, he looked especially aggravated and threatening that day, and the bad blood between us boiled-over as the crowded boat nudged into shore. Mothers with bored and impatient children lined the upper portside railing, watching, while Captain Wagner stood inside the plywood, box-like structure above them, that served as the Bridge Wing; then located on the Hurricane Roof, the deck down-one from the pilothouse. All eyes were on us, the two deckhands standing out on the protruding stage, as it crossed over the shore and above a patch of wet sand.
As soon as the distance between the gangway and the beach closed, Jackie leaped into space holding tightly onto the braided eye. But instead of turning loose the line as I should have, I waited until he was suspended between the stage and the earth and gave a sharp pull toward the boat until Jackie's feet went straight-out and he became parallel with the ground . . . then I turned the line free. With a loud thump Jackie hit the ground as everyone aboard the AVALON watched. After the initial surprise, and seeing the man getting himself off the riverbank, the passengers began laughing loudly as Jackie and I, both, turned to look at the guffawing crowd.
Sweeping the decks—We jumped up from the table and, skipping steps, grabbed a pair of brooms and were soon sweeping alongside our chums.
Jackie was embarrassed, but as soon as he saw Captain Wagner laughing, too, he was mortified. We both recovered and grabbed the line and hauled it to a big Cottonwood several feet ashore. After a round-turn was made around the tree, and a half-hitch was bent onto the standing part, a bight was pulled through the eye and toggled with a stout, white-oak, wooden bar. Jackie was furious and hissed after we secured the line and watched the grass cordage as Shorty's capstan pulled it tight to make sure the toggle-bar held, "I gonna' get yer azz . . . I gonna' get yer azz af'ta' da las' ride."
The crew was abuzz with anticipation and excitement knowing that they were going to see Jackie whip me after the last ride, that night. He was strutting around the deck like the cock-of-the-walk. As soon as the last passengers were ashore, that night and the AVALON backed out and headed downstream, the splash boards were put into place. I lingered on the bow straightening lines and all, but what occupied my mind, most was wondering if Jackie was actually going to start a fight once the deck lights were extinguished and the Mate went upstairs. Sliding the heavy port door closed, I stepped inside the boat and turned, right, to go my room when I heard the loud, blustering bravado of my adversary boasting to a crowd of supporters out of sight on the starboard side, past the boiler room where the cabin boys bunked. "I goin' a whip hiz azz . . . " At that moment I had to make one of the most critical decisions of my young life. Was I going to slink into my room and eventually be run off the boat, or was I going to face Jackie Armstrong, the former Golden Gloves boxer, no matter the consequences? With only a moment's worth of contemplation, I turned toward the source of the crowing.
As I appeared so suddenly in the crowd, they were as surprised as Jackie when I came into their midst. Now it was time for a showdown, but I had no idea how I, a seventeen-year-old with just one hand, was going to stand-up to an older, trained, and experienced prize-fighter. Quickly regaining his composure, Jackie raised his dukes in a classic boxing stance. But before he could strike the first blow, out of sheer animal instinct, I rushed him and threw my arms around his neck and locked his head into a death-grip and began beating his skull into the steel bulkhead, until the skin split and his blood ran down the metal partition and onto the deck.
Headline Man on Stage—Differences between the little boxer and myself had diffused, and we worked together as a team. Sometimes I was on the eye of the headline, and at other times, Jackie was.
"Stop that fighting! Stop now," screamed Red Wilke, the Mate. "You're both fired!" Jackie's supporters guided their crestfallen hero to the head to patch him up, while I went up-top to the stern, overlooking the paddlewheel. A full moon illuminated the water falling off the spinning wheel making it look like fresh milk. The extraordinary beauty of the scene made my circumstances all the more regrettable, and I cried like a child for the loss of the world that gave me more happiness than I had ever known in my lifetime; for tomorrow, at the next landing, I had to leave the AVALON and return home in disgrace.
The next morning, Jackie and I sat across from each other at the wooden picnic table, in the deck room, picking at our breakfast. He wore a band-aid on the head that had seen worse beatings in the ring than the one it took the previous night. We were at peace with one another, but we were both glum because we had lost our jobs. Jackie Armstrong loved the AVALON as much as I did. When the rest of the boys jumped up from the table and ran upstairs to clean the decks, we sat there without talking when Red Wilke came up to us and asked, "Why ain't you two so-and-so's up-top sweeping?" Jackie remained quiet, but I spoke up, "Don't you remember, Red, you fired us last night?" "Awww-h . . . get yourselves going, and get upstairs," the Mate barked . Neither of us needed any further persuasion. We jumped up from the table and, skipping steps, grabbed a pair of brooms and were soon sweeping alongside our chums.
Nothing more was said between Jackie and me, nor did retribution come from Captain Wagner who had little tolerance for crewmen fighting on his boat. Either, Red did not tell the Captain, or if he did, the Skipper decided that scores had been resolved; or as he prized both his loyal hands, Cap allowed the argument to remain settled . . . I will never know. For the remainder of my first summer on the AVALON, differences between the little boxer and myself had diffused, and we worked together as a team. Sometimes I was on the eye of the headline, and at other times, Jackie was. Some 30 years later, Jackie was working in the kitchen of the MIKE FINK floating restaurant on the Covington riverfront, and hearing I was living close by, he telephoned. Later that day we met and enjoyed some pleasant hours, together, remembering our days on the "Steamer AVALON," as Jackie always called our steamboat. Jackie Armstrong, after all these many years, remains one of my favorite characters from my many years on the river, and I often wonder if he is still around. He was, after all, one of the best hands who decked on the AVALON.
The River: Two glorious summers decking on the AVALON are vivid, compelling memories, even now
Mar 11th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
Captain Tom Craig came aboard the AVALON somewhere on the lower end of the Illinois River, possibly at Hardin, and the buzz about the boat was no longer of the fight, but about the Missouri River that was but a couple days away. Captain Craig, a sizable man dressed in a blue and white Seersucker suit with the britches held up by suspenders, wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses and a bow tie. He looked more like a country preacher or a county judge than a steamboat pilot. Though Tom Craig was licensed "everywhere", he held a fierce reputation as a specialist in handling boats and barges on the cantankerous river that lay ahead.
Boldly printed on his business card was his motto. "Wherever Water Flows, Tom Craig Goes." He intentionally came aboard the AVALON several days early so he could post-up on the ever-changing Missouri, and spent this time reading channel reports and going over his river charts from the last time he was on the wild river. Captain Craig favored sitting at a small table placed in the breezeway at the top of the stairs coming from concession stands where I questioned him about what lay ahead.
Perhaps my jaw dropped when Cap'n Tom recalled the time the lead barge on a tow dove beneath the Missouri River where the current of the legendary stream grabbed the ill-fated barge in such a way that it suddenly rose up and flipped end-over-end. " . . . and that's the might of the Missouri River, young man," Captain Craig concluded with a smile.
The Missouri took on a mystery entirely different than the rivers we had already sailed on that summer, and the enigma of it all stirred visions of a wilderness waterway untamed and unchanged since time began.
Before the AVALON entered the Missouri, all the pallets were holding the various mooring lines, kept on the bow, were removed and carried inside the boat. Orders came from the Captain that the heavy sliding doors, separating the bow from the interior of the Main Deck, were to be kept closed, and absolutely no one was to be beyond the entries whenever the boat was underway. Leroy Batteau, one of Captain Wagner's most-trusted veterans, and the only unlicensed white boy he later took with him to the DELTA QUEEN in 1962, explained that the reasoning behind removing the line-pallets was due to strange swells that arose in the river and swept over the bow, tsunami-like, as the boat plowed deep into the wave; sweeping away everything in its path.
The Missouri took on a mystery entirely different than the rivers we had already sailed on that summer, and the enigma of it all stirred visions of a wilderness waterway untamed and unchanged since time began. On all the other rivers, I enjoyed rowing the wooden jonboat, but on the Missouri, even that pastime was forbidden, and of course, swimming, another leisure-time activity, was taboo. The Missouri was a river to contend with, and all preparations to prevent a calamity were embraced. As the AVALON shoved its bow into the feral stream, the boat became firmly gripped within the river's grasp. Jackie, Joe, Bobbie, Harry, and I watched and marveled at the river disgorging the runoff from half a million square miles of land that is the Missouri River drainage system.
'You ain't gonna let that little dog stop you, are you?'
Further up the Missouri, the AVALON slowed and shoved into the bank. Hearing the heavy doors slide open on their brass tracks, I hurried to the bow and joined the Mate and my crew assembled there. "What going on," I wondered aloud. "Cap'n Wagner wants a Channel Report," someone answered. I hung back in the crowd of eager deckhands ready to jump ashore and run up the steep, dirt bank to a nearby mailbox that held individualized reports of the river's ever-changing conditions.
The bow was nosed-in about three feet from the bank that rose high above until the top of the embankment was level with the windows of the concession stands. As one of the boys was about to leap the chasm between the boat and bow, the deep, booming voice of Captain Wagner, standing inside the bridge-box on the next deck above where he could see all of us below, commanded, "No! Get Don over there . . . " So, as fast as I could snake my way through the crowd, I leaped ashore at a run as the ground beneath me collapsed into multiple avalanches as my legs rapidly churned seeking the traction to fight my way up the crumbling escarpment.
My plight must have been peculiar to watch as I scrambled up the hill. Soon I heard laughter from the crew, but not, it seemed, in a mocking sort of way . . . I was just fun to watch, struggling as I was. Big Cap, meanwhile, was urging me on and shouting: "Hurry up . . . Can't hold this boat all day.." Even I sensed the humor in it all as I fumbled through the stack of Channel Reports inside the country-style mailbox; the kind with the red flag on top. "Take anyone!," bellowed Wagner, "Get on back.. an' hurry up!" So I did, but by the time I scrambled back down to the boat, the ferocious current of the river had ripped away the ground that, minutes before, I had valiantly fought so hard to conquer.
A long aluminum extension ladder was stretched across the ever-increasing distance from the boat to the shore, and I carefully crossed on all-fours as the Captain, above me, continued proclaiming the urgency of the situation. Inside the pilothouse, minutes later, as I handed the Skipper the envelope from the Corps of Engineers, he gave me that hard look, as only he could do, and asked, "What took you so long?" . . . and, pausing, laughed so hard the window sash rattled. Heading below, I felt aglow with the satisfaction that Big Cap had singled me out from all the eager crowd to fetch the Channel Report. It was an honor to be selected.
Following the warnings of Ed Smith, from St. Louis, himself, I stayed inside the bus station, there, instead of wandering outside in the rough neighborhood while I impatiently waited for the Cincinnati bus
The mysterious swells that arose from the Missouri occasionally washed over the front deck, as predicted, and did no damage, but left samples of alluvium from distant reaches of the far-ranging river. The astonishing speed of the current was such, that on a two-hour ride, the AVALON fought its way upstream for an hour and a half, but flew back to the departure site in a fraction of the time where there was no guarantee the boat could tie at the same place it had earlier boarded passengers. In a couple of hours, the landing-place, on occasion, silted-over and became too shallow for the AVALON to get close enough for the stage to reach dry ground. The steamboat was then forced to find another site, close by, where the impatient pilgrims could get ashore.
Though an estimated 17,200 dams are in the Missouri River Basin, most of which are small, local irrigation structures on side-streams, the first barrier to regulate the depth of the river is above Sioux City, some 760 miles upstream from the mouth of the river. But without locks, it marks the head of navigation. The Missouri's channel, "guaranteed by the government" to a depth of nine-feet from the Mississippi River, upward, is maintained with wing dams, dikes, and weirs; man-made structures that direct the powerful current of the "Mighty Mo" in such ways that the Army Engineers see fit to keep the river open to navigation. But, in 1959, steam-powered sidewheel dredges were still assisting the wooded dikes and wing dams to keep the channel open. Like graceful, oversized white swans floating serenely upon the muddy stream with plumes of steam seeping from all the right places, the MERIWETHER LEWIS, the WILLIAM CLARK, and the WILLIAM S. MITCHELL were like ghosts from the lost Golden Age of steam.
One evening, as the AVALON passed close-enough to the LEWIS that the shouts of dredge men came across the water over the hissing of steam and the clamor and banging of machinery associated with such a large scale operation, I watched and stared intently in wonder at a sight I would never see again. The summer was fast coming to a close, soon I would be leaving the steamboat in Jefferson City and heading home to start the fall college semester. But, until then, I still had a few more days to live the life of a steamboatman and savor the marvels of the amazing Missouri River, and so I delighted in each remaining moment.
Where, exactly, the AVALON landed, somewhere on the left-descending shore, I cannot recall. It was just a bank-landing at the end of a country road that meandered inland to Missouri Route 94, which paralleled the shore and connected Mokane and Tebbetts or Portland and Bluffton to the state capital at Jeff City.
Standing alone on that desolate beach was one Cottonwood tree stout enough to hold the steamboat in the powerful Missouri River current. It was my turn to hold the eye of the headline with Jackie and Bobbie, close behind, as we leaped ashore dragging the heavy line with us. But when we got close to the Cottonwood tree, an angry junkyard dog sprang from within the cool shade beneath the tree. Only the stout log chain that bound it there prevented the canine from mauling the three of us. The links of the chain were so tightly secured together that only welding them would have bonded them more firmly than did the weight of that snarling animal.
We hesitated just outside the safe boundary the chain provided, and I looked back at the Captain standing inside the bridge wing where he was assessing our situation. With a shrug, I made a gesture asking for his guidance, and he immediately shot back: "You ain't gonna let that little dog stop you, are you?" Without a second's hesitation I turned, and like the Civil War soldiers I'd read about who waded into hailstorms of lead and iron with their heads down and shoulders cocked, I turned and went unhesitatingly into the dog's circle of fire and made the headline fast.
. . . at Sterrett—My folks were in the backyard looking at Mother's flowers when I casually came upon them lugging the huge locker.
By the time my partners dislodged the determined beast off me with several heavy blows from a nearby fallen limb, I was soundly dog-bit. But never for a moment did I hesitate once the Captain roused me onward by speculating, loudly, if I was allowing some "little dog" to stand between me and my objective. Somehow, the skin was unbroken, but though the pain of the dog bites made my eyes water, I remained stoic about the whole affair. Consequently, among the deck crew, I gained another red feather in my symbolic cap.
The summer came to an end for me a couple of days later when the AVALON tied up at Jefferson City and my first steamboat days were over. The heavy footlocker was packed with all my booty except for the beautiful, engraved Elgin watch Grandmother had so lovingly given me for graduation. Someone had pilfered my property and kept the watch. I was stupid for taking it with me, as it should have been a lifetime companion.
Sadly I made my way around the boat and said my goodbyes before I stopped to see Mr. Hall at the Purser's Office to collect my summer's worth of wages he kept in the safe. Inside the paper envelope was two-hundred dollars and so many cents for ten weeks of work at nineteen dollars and change a week. I thanked him and started toward the stairs leading down to the bow when Captain Wagner came around from above to meet me. Cap and I stood there pumping hands, and as I turned to leave, he handed me two twenty-dollar bills. "Here . . . I'm paying your way home."
The next thing I knew, I was on the Greyhound bus crossing the bridge over the Missouri River; heading for St. Louis. A couple of girls, about my age, or slightly older, were flirting with a boy in the seat across from them as I turned and looked out the window and saw the AVALON tied at the bank where I left her. She seemed quiet and deserted and so tiny seen f rom my lofty perch high on the bridge. Desperately, I wanted to tell someone all about the dozing steamboat, if only they would look and wonder aloud about what they were seeing. But no one noticed. Following the warnings of Ed Smith, from St. Louis, himself, I stayed inside the bus station, there, instead of wandering outside in the rough neighborhood while I impatiently waited for the Cincinnati bus.
My folks were in the backyard looking at Mother's flowers when I casually came upon them lugging the huge locker. Mom was but a few days from birthing my only sister, and she and Dad were more than surprised to see me arriving unannounced, but looking tan and fit after my first steamboat summer.
The next summer we would go through the same battle to keep me off the AVALON. Dad even found me a job on a third-rate construction gang, but I took my first, and only, paycheck and invested in a ticket for a 24-hour bus ride to La Crosse, Wisconsin where the AVALON waited. Captain Wagner did not know I was coming, but as soon as he saw me walking across the dance floor, and I asked for my job back, announced, "You'll always have a job with me."
I stayed with him the entire 1960 season and saw a steamy New Orleans for the first time, and we were in Pittsburgh the night the Pirates won the World series in a historic game that any Pittsburg fan, no matter the age, knows about in explicit detail.
Regrettably, I finally caved-in to parental pressures the third year, the last year the AVALON would run, and so I missed, perhaps the most talked-about year in AVALON history. But nothing could have been more exciting than my first summer on the steamboat. Over half-a-century later, the glorious Summer of 1959 I spent decking aboard the Steamer AVALON remains as vivid and compelling as I recall living it.
The River: Robert and Rollie Mae Lollar, a Steamboat family love story; remembering a special friendship
Mar 18th, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
The Mississippi River has brought a host of visitors to the front door of the City of Natchez, Mississippi. Great men and women with names like John Jay Audubon, Jenny Lynn, and Mark Twain have climbed the steep incline to the top of the bluff as have hordes of the humble. But none of the countless wanderers washed ashore have been more unusual than the steamboat load of 485 Girl Scouts who landed there on the excursion steamer AVALON on a sultry summer day in 1961.
The story behind the landing was recounted in a first-hand account written by Jim Swartzwelder of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and printed in the June 1990 edition of the S&D REFLECTOR, a quarterly selection of river recollections edited by Captain Frederick Way, Jr., who, years ago, bought the steamboat BETSY ANN, then owned by the Rufus Learned family of Natchez.
Natchez, 1850's—The Mississippi River has brought a host of visitors to the front door of the City of Natchez, Mississippi.
The young ladies in green had boarded the AVALON in Memphis for the beginning of a dream steamboat adventure to the Crescent City of New Orleans. After stops in Greenville and Vicksburg, the paddlewheel boat rounded-to above the Natchez Highway Bridge and shoved her nose into the sand at the foot of Silver Street. The girls, accompanied by 15 adult staff and two registered nurses, paraded up the hill to begin the day that included a luncheon at the City Auditorium and tours of Stanton Hall, Rosalie, and Bontura historic houses. An evening meal at Tops Grill and prearranged church services completed a day they would never forget.
The AVALON, which still operates today, 57 years later on the Ohio River and in its one-hundred fourth year, but renamed the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, laid dozing below the towering loess bluffs. The last of the authentic Mississippi River steamboats must have looked like a floating wedding cake. Mister Swartzwelder recalls this moment: "During this respite, a number of local negro youngsters, attracted by the novelty of a steamboat, got the attention of the boat's amiable black cook, Mrs. Rollie Lollar, who loaded up a tray of sandwiches and sweets, and toted the banquet ashore to the willing guests. Doubtlessly, today, there are African American ladies and gentlemen residing in Natchez who recall this delightful party of steamboat food served by an authentic steamboat cook by the riverside."
At that moment, I was 800 miles away, miserable, and languishing at a summer job I had taken and regretted. During the two previous summers, I was "decking" on the AVALON, but that summer, the last year the AVALON ran as a tramp excursion boat, I caved in to parental pressure and found a "respectable" job, ashore, making more money riding herd on a lawless pack of eight-year-olds on the city-run playground.
Mrs. Lollar's husband, Robert, was my friend and shipmate. We worked together during the summer of 1959 and the last half of 1960 when I stayed on the boat instead of returning to college at the end of the summer. We finish the excursion boat season, together, on the upper Ohio River, as already, word was going 'round the fo'c'sle that the AVALON was chartered to a thousand Senior Girl Scouts, next season.
AVALON 1949—The AVALON, which still operates today, 57 years later on the Ohio River and in its one-hundred fourth year, but renamed the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, laid dozing below the towering loess bluffs. The last of the authentic Mississippi River steamboats must have looked like a floating wedding cake.
Robert Lollar was better known on the river as "Preacher." When I met him that first year, I was 17, and he was 82, perhaps more, though probably not less. He was short but hard-muscled from a lifetime of steamboat chores. His skin, like dark Spanish leather, complimented a pair of bright shining eyes, and his hair was tight, tiny ringlets of cotton. His thick, white mustache sparkled with an amber jewel, or two, from the generous quid of Kentucky Plug chewing tobacco always present within his jaw.
Preacher never learned to read or write, yet he would sign his name "Robert Lollar" with a bold flourish. He memorized a litany of Bible verses taught to him by Captain Thomas G. Ryman, the celebrated Nashville steamboat tycoon noted for his evangelistic zeal and as the builder of the Union Gospel Tabernacle, later renamed the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the country music variety show, "The Grand Ole Opry." Captain Ryman recognized the worth in a young Robert Lollar and elevated him to positions of trust and responsibility on his steamboats which always tied to shore, nearest the closest church, on Sundays. If a boat found itself "out in the bushes" come a Sunday, then the services were held on the boat. Robert, with his Bible-quoting talents, soon found himself conducting services on the bow for the black members of the crew, and he became their "preacher." The name stuck and followed him to the end of his long days.
Preacher was the Striker, or Oiler, in the engine room on the AVALON, a position usually reserved for a younger man apprenticed to become a licensed engineer. In his younger days, he tended the fires under boilers making steam for the boats that roared like dragons on the water. In days long ago, when steamboat fires were fueled by coal, Preacher was a coal fireman of renown. Firing a steamboat with coal was an art that few could master, and a good coal fireman was as valuable to the riverboat as was the engineer, or even the pilot. Years after the last of the coal-fired boats converted to oil, Robert Lollar was still respected as a fireman who had excelled at the art of laying a hotbed of embers that kept the steam lines humming and the safety valve dancing.
Miss Sofronia—A number of local negro youngsters, attracted by the novelty of a steamboat, got the attention of the boat's amiable black cook, Mrs. Rollie Lollar, who loaded up a tray of sandwiches and sweets and toted the banquet ashore to the willing guests.
In his last years, when Preacher was still working on a steamboat at more than 90 years of age polishing brass on the DELTA QUEEN, he was featured in a story in a Cincinnati newspaper. It was a complimentary story complete with a couple of photographs. The article portrayed Robert Lollar as he was then, a ninety-year-old man keeping the DELTA QUEEN's bright-work looking better than it had ever looked before, or since. Those of us who personally knew the elder steamboatman were proud of his newspaper publicity, but also we knew that shining brass was his retirement job and a way he could keep himself on the river aboard a steamboat where he belonged. We saw Robert Lollar as the best coal fireman still alive on the river. He knew we understood, and he wore that understanding with great satisfaction.
Now and then, a younger member of the AVALON's crew subjected Preacher to some light teasing and horseplay. Typically, they were newcomers who felt a need to attract attention to themselves by harassing an old man, but Preacher always got the upper hand and the teasers became the butt of the rest of the crew's jokes for being so foolish. good steamboat crew is like a family, often better. When a new prospect does not fit in, the veterans make life so miserable that the greenhorn is usually seen "going up the hill" with his suitcase in hand at the next landing. A replacement soon comes aboard to face his own rite of passage.
One example of steamboat flesh who was especially disliked, resisted all persuasion to quit, and actually seemed to delight in the notoriety that he had acquired. Most of the crew that summer were regulars who had already secured their niche in the steamboat pecking order, and so it was good to have someone around to take the brunt of the jokes and teasing that is always a part of crew life on any vessel. With so many people living so closely together, combined with the stress of working seven days a week with no time off, teasing and practical jokes became a safety valve for the emotional steam generated by the human fires on board.
This fellow constantly carried a fancy harmonica he was attempting to learn to play, but he had yet to exercise the gremlins that resided deep within the instrument. He soon discovered that he could return, in spades, the harassment his shipmates directed his way by blowing on his devilish device within earshot of his crewmates he targeted for revenge.
Once, he actually careened far out a window behind the hot dog stand, his duty station on the boiler deck, and began blowing notes nearly as loud and shrill as those emanating from the steam calliope on the roof. Directly below, on the bow, in the path of the auditory assault, a knot of deckhands clustered about the capstan discussing the critical subject that young deckhands always talk about when they are on the river: girls—girls that they have met and girls they are yet to meet. This intrusion upon such a meaningful discussion was encountered with rage, but the victims could not wage a frontal assault upon the offender who was safely at his place of business behind the snack bar on the deck above. Besides, the excursion boat was underway filled with a load of paying passengers, so a disturbance among crew members was unlikely.
Rollie and Robert Lollar were apparently in love with one another, and as the photograph I took of them together on the bow of the DELTA QUEEN, sometime around 1967 shows, they had a great deal of affection toward each other that they were not afraid to display in public.
A few loose items, however, were found lying about that were thrown with such a vengeance they caused the "harmonica man" to duck back inside the protective wall of the AVALON's forward bulkhead. As a final gesture of defiance, the plutonian musician thrust his arm back out the opening and held up his offensive instrument in a victorious salute. That "harmonica from hell" became an implement slated for destruction, but the demise of the hated appliance came by chance from an unexpected source.
The open deck space forward the engine room was known as the Deck Room. In this expanse were five wooden picnic tables around which were seated members of the crew eating lunch. I had just stepped out the door of my tiny room, the last one aft on the larboard side, and there Preacher and I met. He stopped a moment to talk but seemed somewhat hard to understand, and I saw that his mouth was stuffed with an extra-generous, juicy wad of his beloved Kentucky Plug chewing tobacco.
Preacher was padding along the main deck in his "little old man shuffle," early one afternoon, headed to the firebox located forward towards the bow. He had just come on watch at noon, only a few minutes before, and his first assignment was to obtain samples of a boiler feed-water for the Chief Engineer who analyzed the specimens at his cubby-hole laboratory alongside the high-pressure steam engine on the port side.
As we engaged in a mutual conversation, Harmonica Man strode up and joined our circle. He tried a note, or two, on his infamous musical device and failed, but then proceeded to begin beating the thing wildly against the palm of his open hand as though the blows would somehow rearrange the euphonious generating capacity of the maddening mouth organ. Both Preacher and I were intently watching this display, and the sound of the harmonica beating against the fellow's hand created a flesh-against-wood-and-metal sound that caused most of our boatmates to look up from their plates, and they, too, stared at the least-liked crew member on board. None of us, especially Harmonica Man, himself, could have imagined in the wildest, most far-fetching realms of our imagination, the spectacle about to explode before us within the next instant.
Hohner -1896 marine band harmonica—This fellow constantly carried a fancy harmonica he was attempting to learn to play, but he had yet to exercise the gremlins that resided deep within the instrument.
"Here, gimme dat harp!" a deep basso voice demanded. A dark, calloused hand shot out and snatched the musical instrument from the startled youth. The lightning speed of the abduction left the boy dazed and confused as he stood there watching in amazement as his beloved Marine Band harmonica departed from his possession for the first time since he was on the boat. Now it was in the powerful hands of the old man whose yellowed fingernails looked like ancient, mellowed ivory piano keys.
Everyone in the deck room watched transfixed as Preacher brought the harp to his lips. They opened, and the harmonica went entirely inside his mouth alongside the tight plug of juicy Kentucky burley. A pause of only a moment passed, but it seemed as though it lasted forever.
During that brief respite, none of us watching knew what he intended to do with the boy's harmonica. While we waited in stunned silence, the old boatman was positioning the instrument deep within his mouth for the most significant moment of the harp's existence. Robert's mouth opened only a slit, just enough for the holes in the contraption to find air. And as the first blast of air passed over the tiny reeds, a sound, the likes of which had never been heard before on that old steamboat, began to fill the deck room with the most incredible music.
An old English piece called "The Fox and Hounds," a tune familiar long-ago in the hills and mountains, and along the rivers and valleys of this land, came to life again and was played by a musical master none of us knew had possessed such an extraordinary talent. From deep within the old man's jaws came the cry of the hounds as they chased the sly, red fox from his hiding place in a hole among the stones of an ancient hand-laid wall in a gently rolling Bluegrass meadow. Over the hills and through thickets and briars the crafty fox led the pack. A horn! A hunting horn sounded, as more hunters on horseback join in the melee. Back and forth the fox led the howling and baying hounds. The trumpet sounded louder and louder! The whole affair reached a marvelous crescendo, and then the excitement of the chase slowly faded as the hunting party pursued the wily rascal further and further. Soon the sounds of the pursuit died away and were gone.
Everyone in the deck room stood transfixed. Even the mighty Captain Wagner, the skipper of the AVALON, was at a lost for words. Then, with his thumb and forefinger, Preacher slowly extracted the glowing harp from beneath his amber stained lips. The instrument ran with a golden fluid from the plant that grows among the same rolling hills where the fox and hounds had just led the red-coated riders to the call of the brass hunting horn.
Cincinnati Public Landing—The Cincinnati waterfront still looked much like it did when hundreds of tall-stacked steamboats nosed in and out, loading and unloading passengers and freight.
With a quick flick of his wrist, Preacher slung the worst of the amber off the harp and offered it back to its dumbfounded owner who stood wide-eyed and limp before him. The younger man opened his right hand and held it up to the old man. Without looking, Preacher placed the instrument onto the dazed fellow's palm no differently than he would have laid it on a table. At that instant, the deckroom erupted into an uproarious approval for the preacher-man's musical performance, but the old boatman's only reaction was a slight smile.
Though Preacher was aware that the entire crew in the deckroom had been thoroughly entertained, he had only intended a demonstration for the Harmonica Man, himself, proving to him that his harp was capable of producing musical manifestations in the hands of a talented performer. The main deck was in an uproar, but Preacher merely gave a shrug of his powerful shoulders. He seemed to be unconcerned that pandemonium reigned, and he said quietly to me, "Gotta get ma water samples . . . Will 'ya write a letter to Rollie Mae fo' me, later?" Then Robert Lollar turned and resumed his journey down the guard toward the Boiler Room as though he had never stopped.
Lost in a stupor, Harmonica Man began a slow trek across the deckroom toward his own room on the starboard side. The harmonica still rested on his upturned palm where Preacher had placed it. As he trudged past the crew with his shoulders slumped, he was oblivious to the taunts and laughter hurled his way. The harmonica was never seen again and the poor fellow remained silent and in a mild state of shock for the next few days he was on the boat. The former harmonica owner left the AVALON so quietly that no one knew he was gone until Jackie-the-deckhand looked up and saw the forlorn fellow as he crested the top of the hill with his suitcase in tow.
Rollie Mae Lollar did not cook on the AVALON the two seasons that I was a crewmate with her husband. She was at home in Cincinnati as the matriarch of a large family. One day, a month or so after Preacher and I first met, he asked me if I would write a letter to his wife for him. The past month had, apparently, given him sufficient time to decide whether I was trustworthy enough to shoulder the responsibility of such an intrusion into the personal lives of the Lollar family. Apparently, I had passed whatever test the old gentleman had given me, and I understood that by becoming his scribe, I was accorded an honor few were given.
His words to his wife were simple and straightforward. He always began by asking, "How are the kids?" I imagined that their children must be grown, or perhaps Preacher was referring to his grandchildren or great-grandchildren. I never found out. They were simply "the kids" in each letter which read about the same as every other letter. In my immature 17-year-old mind, I felt his letters needed spicing up a bit, so I threw in a few "I love you's," or a "my heart yearns for you," now and then. But after several letters with too many syrupy embellishments, I became fearful that Mrs. Lollar would realize someone was tampering with her husband's transcriptions. So I returned to writing his letters as he dictated; especially in the light of the fact that we were heading toward our home port, Cincinnati, where I faced the reality of meeting Mrs. Lollar in the flesh.
Preacher on Deck—In his last years, when Preacher was still working on a steamboat at more than 90 years of age polishing brass on the DELTA QUEEN.
The AVALON tied up at her usual place below the Greene Line Steamers wharfboat on the ancient cobblestone levee after we landed one crisp autumn day near the end of the season. The Cincinnati waterfront still looked much like it did when hundreds of tall-stacked steamboats nosed in and out, loading and unloading passengers and freight. The levee was once the core of life in the Queen City, but now the cobblestone grade was a silent parking lot for the thousands of automobiles belonging to office workers in tall buildings uptown. Where once the grand steam palaces lay shoulder-to-shoulder for a mile or more along the Ohio River shore, our shabby, doddering excursion boat was the only steamboat there.
Two ancient wharfboats, relics of bygone times, remained as skeletal reminders of days filled with the blasts of hundreds of boat whistles, the shouts of sweating roustabouts, and the sizzle of live steam coursing through open cylinder cocks. Where on the cobblestone levee, the phantom crack of the drayman's whips resounded as they cursed their straining teams to haul overloaded wagons up to the top of the steep incline. The ghostly reverberations of those resonations hung like whispers where the AVALON lay tied to the massive, iron mooring rings fastened into the granite-paved levee. At times those whispers could still be heard when a warm zephyr played through the willow branches that grew at the end of the sleeping landing.
Family members of the crew were waiting on the riverbank when we arrived. Mine had come aboard the day before at Madison, Indiana and spent the day with me, so I did not expect them here until later, but I knew that Rollie Mae and "the kids" would be waiting to see the old man. A deep pang of guilt overcame me for embellishing Preacher's letters, and I prayed that somehow I could avoid meeting Mrs. Lollar for fear of the resentment that I imagined she harbored for me.
Captain Wagner had sent me on an errand to the boiler room, and as I stepped out of the fire box, I was looking down at the brightly-painted deck when a powerful hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. I stood face-to-face with Robert Lollar. His deep voice broadcast my worst fears. "Here," he said, " I want you to meet my wife, Rollie." He spoke with his mouth half-full of fresh chew and told his wife that I was the one who had written his letters for him.
Rollie Mae Lollar was apparently much younger than her husband, but still, she must have been at least 60 years of age. Her eyes were bright, warm, and friendly. She was, as my grandmother would have said, "fleshy," or a bit "stout." Mrs. Lollar was a steamboat cook of preeminence who obviously enjoyed sampling the fruits of her labor. She held out her hand to me, and I took it. Her handshake was firm and sincere, and as she pumped my arm up and down, I looked deep into her brown eyes, and I felt right about what I saw. We became friends, then and there, and she never made any comment about the way I had transcribed her husband's letters.
Rollie and Robert were apparently in love with one another, and as the photograph I took of them together on the bow of the DELTA QUEEN, sometime around 1967 shows, they had a great deal of affection toward each other that they were not afraid to display in public. Thinking back over those many years, now, perhaps I just may have thrown a little bit of pepper into their love life . . . . but no, the fire was there all along, and it needed no help from a boy like me.
Time has an abysmal condition of becoming slippery like cylinder oil. The interval between the day I first met Rollie Mae Lollar on the deck of the AVALON, and now, has grown to almost 60 years. The Lollars have since departed this life decades ago.
Writing in the S&D REFLECTOR, Jim Swartzwelder believed there were "gentry and ladies residing in Natchez . . . who recall this delightful party." Who, now, among the elder citizens of Old Natchez, 28 years after Jim's story was published, remembers that day in 1961 when the AVALON discharged almost 500 Girl Scouts at their city's front door? Does anyone still recall when Mrs. Rollie Mae Lollar, according to the Swartzwelder article, "loaded up a tray of sandwiches and sweets" and "toted the banquet ashore" for the children playing on the riverbank? Inevitably, someone must be left who remembers.
The River: Can't stay away, and second season on AVALON is reconnection with old friends and new
Mar 25th, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
Admittedly, I was blessed with the serendipitous opportunity to "deck" on the steam excursion boat, the AVALON, for two of the last three seasons she tramped from town-to-town, from one end to the other, on the Mississippi River System.
After a year of college, where I spent most of my time miserably wishing I was back on the river, my parents and I, again, bickered over my yearning to return to the steamboat rather than obeying, staying home, and working a respectable job over the summer vacation before college started the next fall. Dad even found a job for me with a small construction outfit owned by a friend of his. I worked until the first check came and then announced I was going to catch the AVALON at La Crosse, Wisconsin on the Upper Mississippi.
Dad dropped me off at the Art Deco-style Greyhound Bus Station on East Fifth Street in downtown Cincinnati.
This time there wasn't the intense parental opposition to my leaving as happened the year before. The bulky army footlocker was again crammed full of stuff I believed would be vital for sustaining me for another term on the steamboat. The only item missing this time was the beautiful Elgin watch Grandmother Edith had given me for high school graduation that was plundered from the unsecured locker stowed beneath the bottom bunk in Room 12 on the port-side-aft where three fellow deckhands and I slept.
Traveling back and forth, from home to a job on the river soon becomes another aspect of the life of a young boatman. Without the resources to fly, so I, too, like others of my lowly station, became familiar with the ins-and-outs of traveling by bus. Dad dropped me off at the Art Deco-style Greyhound Bus Station on East Fifth Street in downtown Cincinnati after reminding me that I was returning to the AVALON unannounced. "What if Wagner won't rehire you," he cautioned? "He'll take me back—I'm positive. "
The station, built about the same year I was born, was bustling in 1960. Train travel, like steamboats in their day, had seen its zenith during the Second World War and was quickly being replaced by another technology advanced and perfected during the war, airplane travel.
Every town worthy of the name had a bus terminal, and practically every terminal had a bar.
Yet, because of the high cost and scarcity of air travel to the masses, buses remained a convenient and economical means of transportation. Most young rivermen I knew from my previous year of steamboating prided themselves in knowing the virtues of traveling by bus and what vices the bus station also promised.
Every town worthy of the name had a bus terminal, and practically every terminal had a bar. As the use of alcohol by crewmen aboard the AVALON was as carefully monitored as possible by a prudent staff of officers. The first place many a hand would seek immediately after stepping foot on dry ground was the closest beer joint. Quite often one was located at the local bus station.
Where, too, the station was also the hunting grounds for errant women by love-starved men isolated for most of the time away from the opposite sex. Even when the steamer had women excursionists aboard, the crew was kept separate from most intimate interactions with them during the cruise, although relationships, at times, began with a chance encounter between passengers and "the help."
However the friendships started, with few exceptions, the interaction between the parties took place ashore and, assuredly, not aboard the boat. For getting caught in an indiscreet circumstance o n the steamboat meant the loss of a paycheck, one's own bunk, and three squares a day shoved out the cookhouse window. For many of the men, the boat was the only home they knew. Besides, "another was always waiting at the next landing," was a general feeling. With few exceptions, a boatman's job was his life and meant more than an occasional tryst with a stranger met on the ride only an hour or so earlier.
Eskers, kames, and kettle lakes, remnant deposits from the glacial era dotting the countryside, got me out of my seat and looking around at what I had seen only before in Miss Edward's tenth-grade science textbooks.
My ticket was paid through to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, a medium-sized river town on the Upper Mississippi, with a layover and a change of busses in Chicago. I chose a seat on the window side toward the rear on the left-hand side of the Greyhound, across from, and a slightly forward of the bathroom that made it convenient to heed nature's call on the long trip.
No sooner had I made myself comfortable in the reclining chair, a scrawny, boy of about my age slid into the seat alongside me and straightaway commenced a chatter that aroused me from the euphoric comfort I had fallen into. A sudden movement beyond my window caused me to look that way as a horrific profusion of indescribable gore, worse than any spew I'd witnessed within the cuspidor on the AVALON's pilothouse floor, erupted from the mouth of a twin-like duplicate of my seatmate who had been standing in the small knot of well-wishers outside the bus, covered the outer glass in such a corruption, the sight of which was as revolting as it was puzzling as to why my window was targeted.
"That's my buddy," was the only explanation my fellow passenger offered as the sound of the diesel engine behind us whined to a start and the door, up front, closed. The bus backed away from the curb and turned toward the general direction of the Windy City, some three-hundred miles, or more, to the north and west as roads went in those days before the expressways were completed.
The motorcoach stopped at every tiny berg, it seemed, between Cincinnati and Indianapolis. After a thirty-minute break, we were back on the road toward Chicago across a prairie as flat and smooth as a pool table top. And the whole while, my closest traveling neighbor kept up a lively banter about just every subject I had no interest in hearing. The early summer sun radiated in a cloudless sky with such a ferocity that the dazzling glare made the bus seem to stand motionless on the broad, expansive, treeless plain. After what seemed a lifetime, the coach pulled up to a final stop at the Chicago Greyhound station, and verifying that my footlocker would be checked through to our destination, I approached the ticket counter only to find the next bus to LaCrosse was leaving early the following morning. All I could do was wait.
The Steamboat AVALON lay tied to a mooring ring at Riverside Park and looking not much different than when I last saw it on the Missouri River a year earlier.
The long eight-hour bus ride from Chicago to LaCrosse was made easier by a more eye-appealing view and an empty seat alongside me. Instead of the endless monotony of the Indiana prairie, the Wisconsin topography became more impressive the closer the coach approached LaCrosse. Eskers, kames, and kettle lakes, remnant deposits from the glacial era dotting the countryside, got me out of my seat and looking around at what I had seen only before in Miss Edward's tenth-grade science textbooks.
As much as I wanted to talk about what I was absorbing, no one else on the bus seemed excited. They were either sleeping, reading magazines, or staring out the front window at the road ahead. Around 2 p.m., the bus pulled into the LaCrosse station and the river was but a short walk away lugging the heavy footlocker.
The Steamboat AVALON lay tied to a mooring ring at Riverside Park and looking not much different from when I last saw it on the Missouri River a year earlier. A couple of the boys splicing a line on the bow stood up, shook my hand, and welcomed me back.
"You should'a been on the boat, yesterday, coming up from Dubuque," Bobby informed me. "Wind wuz blowin' a hun'erd miles 'n hour . . . lucky we got tied-up good 'n tight."
After hearing the news about the close call the AVALON experienced the day before, I asked where I could find Captain Wagner and learned he could be found on the dance floor on the Boiler Deck, the level above the boilers.
Setting the faithful locker inside the ticket booth inside the sliding front doors, I climbed the stairs to where the polished Maple floor stretched nearly the entire length of the steamboat cabin. At the far end stood a familiar, giant figure of a man who turned and faced my way as I strode across the wooden planks.
Stretching out my hand I looked the Captain In the eye, "I want to come back." To my relief, Captain Wagner shook my hand and answered, "You always got a job with me, Don."
Fortunately, an empty bunk was waiting in my old room, and soon my footlocker and I moved back into Room 12. Cap even increased my last year's wages from $19 a week to $35—room and board included.
E. P. Hall, Purser and Captains Hawley & Wagner—The regular Mate, Captain Clarke Campbell "Doc" Hawley had returned after a year spent on the overnight passenger vessel, the DELTA QUEEN.
Over the past winter's layover, several changes were made to the steamboat. The original, ornate wire fencing with the lovely metal rosettes surrounding the Hurricane Deck was removed and replaced with a stronger, more sturdy all-steel successor. And the "bridge," the small booth-like boxes where the Captain stood during landings, departures, and lockages were rail-enclosed platforms were constructed on the roof above—an amendment that should have logically been done years before. Appearance-wise, the AVALON looked, smelled, and felt the same as I always knew the old gal.
Many of the old die-hards were still aboard: Besides the venerable Master, Ernie Wagner—Chief Stewart Amol Warner, Purser A. J. Hall, Firemen Ed Smith and Bubba Smith, Watchmen, "Big Bill" Willis, Blackie, and "Dirty Shirt Harold," and deckhands Jackie, Bobbie, and Shorty were all familiar faces. But, Mate "Red" Wilke was gone and the regular Mate, Captain Clarke Campbell "Doc" Hawley had returned after a year spent on the overnight passenger vessel, the DELTA QUEEN, where he was earning the extra tonnage requirement needed for an Unlimited Masters License he tested for and was awarded, before returning to the tramp excursion steamer of his river origin.
Life aboard the AVALON for the deck crew also changed under the leadership of Captain Hawley. Whereas we had the run of the boat with passengers aboard when Doc's predecessor, Red Wilke, was the mate, we were now restricted to the Main Deck unless duties required our presence up top. Without today 's electrical gadgets to keep us occupied during the two-hour cruises, at least one of the boys played the "harp," and a "geetar" magically appeared at the first note. Jackie sang "Lonely Boy," but the words came out, "Wone-we boy, wone-we an' boo . . . " Lacking the ability to carry a musical tune, I found the chain hanging across the sliding front door readily transformed into a rhythm instrument when a stick or the side of my pocket knife handle was strummed across the links. We formed a deckhand band. A unique musical treat was whenever Bubba Chin, the fireman who played saxophone in the Rhythm Masters Band before manning the fires beneath the boilers, joined in and harmonized with our little group.
But as soon as the thunderous whistle sounded for a landing, the deck gang was up and at their duty stations on both ends of the boat.
The River: Summers are scorchers on the Upper Mississippi; mayflies add to misery; Tommy's story
Apr 1st, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
Summers on the Upper Mississippi River can be scorchers. Adding to the misery are the bugs—especially, nasty, fish-like critters known by several names—"Mayflies, Fish Flies, Canadian Soldiers, Ephemeron," or more commonly, "Willow Bugs."
Summers on the Upper Mississippi River can be scorchers. Adding to the misery are the bugs—especially, nasty, fish-like critters know by several names—"Mayflies, Fish Flies, Canadian Soldiers, Ephemeron," or more commonly, "Willow Bugs."
These aggravating creatures, cousins to the dragonfly, surface in hordes from the muddy bottom of the river where they'd been napping for several years before emerging on the river's surface. Opening their cellophane wings, they dance in swarms above the water with hopes of attracting a partner before mating and dropping their spore into the cradle of the Mississippi to aggravate folks in the future.
"Willer'bugs" were the nightly bane of the steamboat crew. Several years before I joined the deck team, the AVALON was approaching a town to load a pre-sold charter ride, but to everyone's bewilderment, every lightbulb in the burg was extinguished. Before the first line was run out, the entire crew, from the captain to the pot washer, soon found out why as a living cloud, denser than an October lower river fog, descended upon the brightly illuminated excursion boat.
Immediately, the steamboat was enveloped in countless insects latching onto every exposed surface. Worse, they blanketed the hundreds of searing, incandescent light bulbs in thick layers that soon started smoldering and emitting foul fumes of burning bug flesh.
Mayflies: Opening their cellophane wings, they dance in swarms above the water with hopes of attracting a partner.
Unshaken, the townsfolk piled aboard carrying brown paper sacks concealing the valuable liquid contents hidden within with hopes of discovering what adventures lie ahead they had been anticipating since their tickets were bought and paid for long before the boat and the bugs arrived.
By the time I was serving aboard the boat, lessons learned earlier taught the crew to extinguish as many lights as practical.
The hordes of swarming bugs and the oppressive summertime heat made me wonder why anyone would pay hard-earned money to isolate themselves in confined spaces on a riverboat so far from the safety of the shore. There was no escaping the insect invasion. Even the walk-in chill box was, somehow, thick with them. The Mate eased his restrictions on keeping his boys on the Main Deck. Instead, we were pressed into service on the upper decks assisting passengers trodding perilously on the greasy carpet of slime created beneath the soles of a thousand pairs of feet mashing the fishy-smelling bugs into the canvas-covered decks.
Meat Packing Plant. Tommy started bragging about his girlfriend's daddy being a "big man" at the Swift & Co. slaughterhouse and packing plant in South St. Paul near where the AVALON turned around below Pig's Eye Island on afternoon trips.
The Hurricane Roof canted steeply from the skylights under the stairs, coming off the Texas Deck, to the new steel railings. Many a reveler's feet flew from under them as they stepped onto the steeply-inclined deck, fell on their backsides, and slid all the way outboard. They would have flown into the river had it not been for the stout railing.
Everyone, though, it seemed, picked themselves up after slamming against the barrier and laughed. Apparently, after enough alcoholic infusions, it was great fun to butt-slide across a slimy deck covered in bug mucus on a sweltering night aboard a steamboat on a dark, featureless, and frightening Mississippi River. Watching them, I must admit, was hilariously entertaining.
As the summer passed, the AVALON played all the stops I was familiar with from the previous year. We made our way upriver to St. Paul for a two-week stay where one of our boys met a girl on a Moonlite Ride. Within a few days, they saw each other every chance they could, and their relationship quickly grew.
Tommy started bragging about his girlfriend's daddy being a "big man" at the Swift & Co. slaughterhouse and packing plant in South St. Paul near where the AVALON turned around below Pig's Eye Island on afternoon trips. Next door to Swift, the equally monumental Armour meatpacking plant adjoined the St. Paul Union Stockyards. The pungent fumes from the slaughterhouses and animal pens enveloped the boat as soon as we drew within sight of the towering smokestacks of the Armour plant and penetrated every space, no matter how remote or enclosed.
Unloading cattle. An endless parade of railcars brought countless numbers of animals to slaughter. But the cattle cars required sanitizing before returning to wherever they were reloaded to fetch another batch of critters to be killed.
There was no escaping the foul atmosphere, and the stench was impregnating. But in spite of all the evidence, Tommy gave notice to the Mate and quit the crew. After packing his small suitcase and collecting what little wages he had coming, he scoffed and mocked the rest of us for staying on the boat and working too many hours for low pay and simple meals. Tom boasted of possibly making twice, maybe more with overtime. than what the steamboat paid. And after he was secure in his new job at the slaughterhouse, he was, he boasted, marrying his girlfriend and settling down in South St. Paul for a long career at the meatpacking plant.
Tommy left the boat without looking back. But whenever the AVALON approached the putrid stench that hung over the river like a rancid cloud, I wondered how my friend was doing at his new career and if he and the meat packer's daughter had yet married.
The next to the last day the AVALON was in St. Paul, before we packed up to head downriver to the Mouth of the St. Croix River, I noticed a dirty, scruffy, skinny kid standing by the head of the stage pleading with the captain and the mate. A beat-up suitcase was on the ground next to the boy's feet. It was a curious sight, and the longer I stared, the more the fellow began to look familiar. It was Tommy! Several minutes later, he picked up his grip and carried it back to his old room next to mine. He never looked happier! After Tommy had an opportunity to clean up and eat a couple chicken legs left over from lunch, he told an eager audience his tale.
AVALON 1960. The AVALON made the rounds of the towns along the Upper Mississippi, St. Croix, and Illinois Rivers, that summer.
He recalled looking forward to a whole new life away from the steamboat and the river where he could enjoy a more comfortable, cleaner, and respectful life shared with the young woman of his dreams. The dream, though, began to fall apart soon after arriving at the girlfriend's house in a seedy neighborhood not far from the slaughterhouses.
Instead of a room in the home with or close to his girl, he was directed to a hot, dusty attic with one musty bed overtop a ramshackle garage in the side yard. The girl's father, the "big man" at the Swift & Co. slaughterhouse and stockyards, was actually in charge of a peculiar squad at the stockyard complex that was always short of manpower. Tommy became the old man's latest recruit.
An endless parade of railcars brought countless numbers of animals to slaughter. But the cattle cars required sanitizing before returning to wherever they were reloaded to fetch another batch of critters to be killed and processed into steaks, roasts, chops, weiners, and other sorts of meat products and by-products to satisfy the endless appetites of meat-eaters, everywhere. Tommy's new job was to shovel and remove the thick carpet of cow and hog manure from each car.
New Orleans Steamboats. Departing St. Louis for the final time, the bow was pointed downstream toward the South as excitement grew among the crew. We were heading for New Orleans!
Because the cattle car cleaners were always running short-staffed, he was marinated in cow and pig crap for ten hours a day, or more, in the stifling South St. Paul summer heat. Tommy never saw the girlfriend, much, once he started working on her father's crew. He was, he said, "too tired and worn out" after a day buried to his knees in animal excreta for a love life.
Most of his first paycheck went to the old man for room and board. Finally, realizing the AVALON, his only escape from his new life, was leaving town, Tommy grabbed his battered suitcase and fled to Lambert's Landing and begged his way back aboard.
But it would be some time later before the ribbing stopped and all the scoffing and mocking words he spoke before leaving that were repeated back, over and over again, ended. Only then, was Tommy, once more, accepted as a full-fledged member of the deck crew.
The AVALON made the rounds of the towns along the Upper Mississippi, St. Croix, and Illinois Rivers, that summer, but the steamboat stayed away from the mean Missouri. Instead, after departed St. Louis for the final time, the bow was pointed downstream toward the South as excitement grew among the crew. We were heading for New Orleans
The River: Downbound, entering Mark Twain's Lower Mississippi and falling in love with 'Father of Waters'
Apr 8th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
Passing Cairo Point, downbound, the AVALON entered a different river—the Lower Mississippi—an incompatible beast of a stream than what the boat and crew had been experiencing all summer. Whereas the Upper Mississippi was a system of lake-like pools created by a series of dams, the river, from St. Louis, down, ran unfettered and free.
But once past the Cairo Point, the combined forces of the Upper, the Missouri, the Illinois, plus all their tributaries, united with the Ohio River and the "Mighty Mississippi" of legend was formed. Or as a grizzled shantyboat man described the stream best, "A great mass of water rushing madly to the sea."
The river, from St. Louis, down, ran unfettered and free . . . a broad expanse of water, sand, and endless trees.
The Lower Mississippi was a fluvial fantasy created by Mark Twain's writings that stirred the imaginations of millions anticipating a river wonderland for whatever escapades their minds conceived. But the exhilaration soon wore thin after several days of staring at a broad expanse of water, sand and endless trees. To others witnessing a river at its most majestic, the Lower Mississippi was truly the "Father of Waters." As soon as the AVALON was firmly within its grip, instantly, I fell in love with that awesome river.
The Lower Mississippi remains a favorite river along with my beloved Licking River, back home, and the lovely Tennessee.
Accompanying me on my first trip down the Lower Mississippi River, was a ragged, dog-eared copy of Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" scrounged from a cache of paperbacks and well-worn girlie magazines found stashed under the bunks in Room 12, the quarters I shared with three other pilgrims of the deck.
"Life . . . " became my guidebook throughout my first trip on the lower river, especially where it synchronized with the Great Man's recollections of his last steamboat ride over the same course, some eighty years before. This arrangement, when it worked, helped guide my introductory excursion on the river made famous by Twain, and was, too, my first incursion into his writings.
In the stifling delta summer heat. Interspersed among the rows of cotton, negro men and women dressed in heavy clothing: long sleeved shirts and blouses, hats and scarves, were picking the fluffy cotton balls and stuffing them into long sacks dragging behind them.
Somewhere near New Madrid, Missouri, the AVALON pushed her nozzle against the bank and tied off for a "Moonlite" ride later that evening. With free time on my hands, I decided to take my first steps onto the soil of the "Deep South." Hopping off the landing stage, I climbed to the top of the earthen levee, a section of an immense system of dikes encasing the Mississippi in an attempt to protect lives and property from the river whenever it becomes enraged. This defensive structure is generally successful unless "Ole Man River" decides otherwise.
As my feet crested the summit of the embankment, I froze in amazement at the scene transpiring on the landward side of the levee. From the base of the earthen barrier, stretching to the horizon, cotton plants in full ripeness made the fluvial plain appear shrouded in a thick blanket of snow in the stifling delta summer heat. Interspersed among the rows of cotton, negro men and women dressed in heavy clothing: long sleeved shirts and blouses, hats and scarves, were picking the fluffy cotton balls and stuffing them into long sacks dragging behind them.
It was like a scene from "Gone With the Wind" or a Currier & Ives print. Even for the time, hand-picking cotton was a rare sight as giant mechanical pickers, operated by a single person, were doing the labor of many.
Memphis, sitting high on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff, one of a series of wind-blown loess soil formations deposited on the left bank of the Mississippi River during the Ice Age, was the AVALON's first sizeable southern city on its 1960 itinerary.
Memphis, sitting high on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff, one of a series of wind-blown loess soil formations deposited on the left bank of the Mississippi River during the Ice Age, was the AVALON's first sizeable southern city on its 1960 itinerary. The steamboat landed at the mouth of Wolf River, by the foot of Beale Street, alongside Waterways Marine, a floating store catering to commercial riverboats. The Wolf River, in those days, was a foul, choked, repository of the city's sewage and waste. The water was so unfit for the AVALON's boilers that a firehose was run across the grocery boat from a fireplug, ashore, to feed the boiler's hungry appetites. Falling into the foul stream meant a trip to the hospital for a tetanus shot. Maggots crawled on the driftwood. Still, crowds flocked to the boat.
Captain Clarke Campbell Hawley, better known as "Doc," and sometimes, "Little Doc," was the AVALON's First Mate, and with his newly-minted Master's License, he was the "Alternate Master" serving as Captain Wagner's relief when the occasion arose. To give the young captain a free hand at commanding the steamboat, Wagner, whenever possible, left Hawley in charge and took some free time off the boat. One day no trips were scheduled until later that evening when the elite of Memphis was expected aboard for a "white linen" charter.
Doc AVALON. Captain Clarke Campbell Hawley, better known as "Doc," and sometimes, "Little Doc," was the AVALON's First Mate, and with his newly-minted Master's License, he was the "Alternate Master" serving as Captain Wagner's relief when the occasion arose.
Captain Wagner joined those not necessary to operate the boat for an afternoon of personal time, ashore, and left his young alternate in charge. Wagner was watching from the store boat until the AVALON backed out into the Mississippi, turned around, and headed downstream. The destination was an oil terminal on McKellar Lake, behind President's Island, to fuel the boat and return to WaterWays in ample time to prepare for the evening's gala.
The oil burned beneath the boilers to create life-giving steam for the AVALON was Number 6 grade, or Bunker C, the heaviest weight fuel oil that must be heated before it can flow. It was more like tar than oil. Captain Wagner recalled standing on top of the solid oil during cold winter months when he was working inside a fuel tank on the Steamer ISLAND QUEEN. But, it was this same grade oil that exploded and burned the ISLAND QUEEN after it was heated and a spark from a welder's torch penetrated the tank and ignited a thunderous fireball that killed 19 of Wagner's crewmates and injuring 18 others; himself included.
McKellar Lake, behind President's Island, was a startling contrast to the nasty Wolf River. As the AVALON plowed through the cleaner water, I was surprised to hear a steam whistle in the distance that was soon answered by our own sonorous, thundering three-chimed signaling device on the roof of the pilothouse. Looking up from the bow, where I was getting the lines ready to tie-off at the fuel dock, the steam sternwheeler U. S. MISSISSIPPI, belonging to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, passed us on the two-whistle, or starboard-side-to. The government boat then blew another set of whistle signals: One very long blow following by two short melodic pulls on the whistle cord—a greeting, or "hello" that sent chills down the spine bones of anyone within earshot.
US MISSISSIPPI. The steam sternwheeler U. S. MISSISSIPPI, belonging to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, passed us on the two-whistle, or starboard-side-to.
I waited in anticipation for what I knew what was to follow. Moments, that seemed to take forever passed, but then our whistle returned the greeting in kind. As the U. S. MISSISSIPPI passed on and the echoes of the steam whistles faded, they left indelibly engraved in my mind the memory of these two riverboat relics meeting and exchanging steam whistle salutes on that long-ago summer day.
Shortly after the MISSISSIPPI was well away, the AVALON arrived at the oil terminal, made fast, and began taking on several thousand gallons of hot, Number Six, Bunker C, fuel oil. Though taking on fuel bunkers was the responsibility of the Chief Engineer, Captain Hawley was close by. The level of the oil in the tanks was monitored by an engineer watching the markings on a brass dipstick inserted into a short pipe on the deck that opened into the fuel compartment for that purpose. As the height of the hot, thick liquid reached a specific mark, the cry rang out, "That's it—we're full! Shut it off!" An employee of the oil company was standing on the dock waiting for the word to cease operations. But to everyone's surprise, instead of turning a valve handle until the discharge line was closed and the bunkering stopped, he trudged to a nearby booth, picked up a telephone, and called someone ashore to cease the oil flow.
Within minutes, the engineer gave a terrified shout, screaming, "Get back! Here comes more oil!" At that, the tall gooseneck vents atop the fuel tanks let loose a tempest of hot, black oil that covered the front deck until the deluge ran over the side and into McKellar Lake. Luckily, no one was hurt or burned, as everyone scampered like rats following the engineer's warning. The smoking oil flowed until all that remained in the pipe between the shut-off valve, ashore, and the boat, drained through the vent pipes. We stood numbly staring at the devastation until Captain Hawley's voice rang out, "Ok, let's get this mess cleaned up!"
AVALON 1960. When the AVALON was alongside the grocery boat, Captain Wagner and the crew, lucky enough to get a day off, were waiting. The rest of us were putting the finishing touches on the cleanup.
Oil spills were not unknown occurrences on the steamboat nor at the dock where, because of the placement of the fuel control valve was far from the discharge end of the line. And, too, no one from the fueling facility cared to inform our engineers of the odd arrangement, so a preventable pollution incident happened that would be considered quite serious these days. The situation was more of a concern to the crew of the AVALON than to the men on the dock. By law, a steamboat was required to carry at least one barrel of sand to absorb spilled oil. Several full drums were brought to the bow where the yellow sand, collected from a sandbar sometime before, was scattered about. The pools of oil that lay in depressions on the deck were scooped overboard at the direction of the dockman. The sand, now thick with the tarry residue, followed.
When the worst was overboard, the boys and I began wiping-down the black film clinging to the deck and the sides of the bulkheads with rags and kerosene. As quickly as he could, Captain Doc ordered us to turn loose and get underway and back to the mouth of the even more-foul Wolf River where catering trucks, floral lorries, and vans of while linen were soon to arrive for the spectacular pageant that evening. When the AVALON was alongside the grocery boat, Captain Wagner and the crew, lucky enough to get a day off, were waiting. The rest of us were putting the finishing touches on the cleanup.
From the dock, the bow actually looked better than it had earlier before we departed for the fuel terminal. The paint on the steel bulkhead and deck glistened in its new, shiny coat of oil. Captain Wagner was pleased with the actions of his relief captain and the crew. The fancy ball went well that night, and all was right within our steamboat world.
(Note: The way the oil spill was addressed was not uncommon, and actually routine, nearly sixty years ago. Today, such an event would be immediately reported to the U. S. Coast Guard who would send a response team to the scene to make sure the clean-up was done correctly. A professional spill recovery company might be called to provide personnel, materials, and containers to collect and haul away the refuse to an approved hazardous waste facility. Today, this situation would take many hours, even days, to resolve. The costs would be astronomical, but now all boats, thankfully, must carry insurance for such an event. The regs say that even "a sheen on the water" must be reported. Theoretically, a greasy peanut dropped onto the navigable waters of the United States, if it makes a sheen, is a reason for informing the Coast Guard. In reality, I once reported a small paint brush a deckhand dropped into the river while touching up the paddlewheel. As the iridescent luster radiated from the brush and onto the surface of the water, a violation was committed, and I, as Captain, was required to inform the regulatory authorities.)
The River: AVALON on the way downriver, picks up some guests, and later a canoe, skiff race ensues
Apr 15th, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
Right about lunchtime, a day, or so, before the AVALON left Memphis and continued downriver, two tanned, muscular young men in a canoe got our attention as they paddled alongside. Captain Wagner leaned over the Main Deck railing and asked them where they came from and where they were going.
"Minneapolis," one replied, " . . . we're headed for New Orleans," the other chimed in.
"Tie that thing up back there and come aboard and eat with us," Big Cap invited, referring to their canoe and all its plunder. As the voyagers nudged against the port fantail, I was waiting and tied off the thin line tossed from the aluminum canoe. Once they were out of their craft and standing alongside me on the steel deck, I saw that one was a tad taller and the other a bit shorter than I. By the looks of them, their story of paddling all the way from near the head of navigation on the Mississippi, to the foot of Beale Street, seemed plausible.
AVALON in Negative. When the AVALON backed away from the Waterways boat store barge and into the current of the Mississippi River to continue southward, the canoe, with its crew of two, was on board. Our next stop was Greenville, Mississippi, located on the eastern bank of Lake Ferguson, an oxbow lake left from an old channel of the ever-changing river.
"Git in here and git yourself a plate," Wagner again ordered. Entering the Deck Room where most of the crew were eating at their assigned tables, the wayfaring strangers found two plates already filled and waiting for them at the Captain's bench. By the time their dishes were emptied and washed down with two tall glasses of ice tea, apiece, the duo was already the guests of the Captain. After lunch, a couple of us helped bring the canoe aboard and found an out-of-the-way place to stow it. Cap even gave the men a room on the cool Texas Deck away from the sweltering heat near the boilers were the rest of the crew, except the licensed officers, slept. With nothing else to do but eat, sleep, and ride, the canoeists found themselves a new home, they evidently believed.
All I saw of the new guests was at lunchtime as they were putting away the free chow at Cap's wooden picnic table. While the rest of were allotted one plate of grub a meal, they had theirs filled a second time. Whereas the rest of us were confined to the lowest deck whenever paying passengers were aboard, the two freeloaders were mingling on the dancefloor singling-out the prettiest girls.
"Dirty-Shirt" Harold, the Night Watchman, whispered around the deck of seeing the boys sided-up to some local folks who were giving them free booze once the boat was underway. Soon, it became obvious that the two paddlers were reveling in their carefree life aboard the steamboat without a worry in the world. It must have been a sight-better than paddling a tiny canoe on a rugged river on hot, often stormy, summer days.
Lake Ferguson. Our next stop was Greenville, Mississippi, located on the eastern bank of Lake Ferguson, an oxbow lake left from an old channel of the ever-changing river.
When the AVALON backed away from the Waterways boat store barge and into the current of the Mississippi River to continue southward, the canoe, with its crew of two, was on board. Our next stop was Greenville, Mississippi, located on the eastern bank of Lake Ferguson, an oxbow lake left from an old channel of the ever-changing river. Not much happening on the AVALON long escaped the attention of the veteran master of the steamboat. Captain Wagner soon realized his guests were overstaying his generous hospitality. And though the canoeists had it in their minds to ride the boat the rest of the way to New Orleans, Cap called them together and informed them they would be getting off at Greenville.
As quickly as I could, after the steamboat was tied up and all my chores done, I dropped the aluminum rescue boat off the port fantail and into the translucent water of Lake Ferguson.
While most of the crew hurried off the excursion boat as soon as free time was infrequently made available, I chose to take the yawl out for a row. As I was about the only one who enjoyed rowing a little boat in my spare time, I was usually the only one in the skiff, as I was on this particular day. As I was bobbing about a hundred yards off the stern of the AVALON, a small craft came from around the bow, heading my way. By the way two figures within the boat were furiously paddling, it could only be the Minneapolis to New Orleans-bound canoe. From the tone of their voices, the former guests of the Captain were apparently upset over their eviction and the predicament of again facing the elements and the unpredictable wrath of the Mississippi River. They didn't see me resting on my oars until their canoe was almost alongside my aluminum yawl. "Wanna race?" I called to them.
Canoe on Mississippi. Right about lunchtime, a day, or so, before the Avalon left Memphis and continued downriver, two tanned, muscular young men in a canoe got our attention as they paddled alongside. Captain Wagner leaned over the Main Deck railing and asked them where they came from and where they were going. "Minneapolis," one replied, " . . . we're headed for New Orleans."
The canoe nearly rolled over when the two paddlers suddenly lurched to the outboard side of their tipsy ark at the unexpected sound of my voice. But their shock soon turned to laughter. "What, you want to race us in that piece of crap? We've paddled all the way from Minneapolis." "Yeah, except for from Memphis to here," I taunted. The barbs flew fast and thick from the boys until I added, "Well . . . are you just downright chicken, or don't you want to have to go home and tell your friends that some skinny kid rowing an old beat-up boat bested the both of you and your slick canoe in a race?" I could hear one say to the other, "Let's whip his ass—he's ain't got a chance . . . "
A course from about where we were floating; downstream to a spit of revetment projecting into the water, was chosen as the boundaries for the race—a distance of about two lengths of the AVALON, or one football field—some three-hundred-some feet, more or less. "But first," I announced, "I need to put some rocks into my boat to add some weight." The two looked at each and laughed. "Sure. Put in all the rocks you want." I eased the pointed bow of my aluminum skiff against the rip-rap revetment on the Arkansas shore of the lake and filled the nose with heavy limestone blocks until the bottom of the hull, at the stern, lifted out of the water.
"Hey, you think you got enough rocks? Put in some more!" one taunted, as I gingerly stepped from the riverbank and into my carefully balanced craft. My rivals flaunted their ignorance of the dynamics relating to the performance of a vessel with a pointed bow, a trick I learned from Captain Wagner whenever he ordered the AVALON be trimmed nose-down to increase speed and lessen resistance. By lifting the stern out of the water, the area of the surface of the flat stern bottom was mitigated which decreased the tension and drag of the hull through the water. With the center of gravity moved toward the bow, the little boat wanted to fall forward through the water, and that was exactly the effect I was seeking as the ballast was added to the nose. Those fools were beaten—they just didn't know it yet.
Aluminum Skiff Boat. I dropped the aluminum rescue boat off the port fantail and into the translucent water of Lake Ferguson. While most of the crew hurried off the excursion boat as soon as free time was infrequently made available, I chose to take the yawl out for a row.
Carefully, we lined up noses-even with the starting line. So sure were the canoeist that victory was theirs, they allowed me to call the start: "READY . . . GET SET . . . GO!" I shouted. The first stroke of my oars thrust the skiff suddenly forward while the paddles of the seasoned canoers dug furiously into the calm waters of Lake Ferguson. The canoe quickly gained the lead, but my boat was yet to reach its maximum speed. With each stroke of the oars, my skiff, with its massive stones in the nose, accelerated until it became apparent that it was gaining on its competitor. The taunts of the two men ceased as they focused all their energy on driving their craft past the rapidly approaching finish line. But, now, the canoe was losing ground as my oars worked as furiously as the steam engines of the AVALON whenever it races a towboat to get to a lock first.
As I shot across the finish, the bow of the canoe was well aft of my stern. I waited for them to cross the line and was expecting well-meaning felicitations from my rivals congratulating me and my clumsy-looking craft on our victory. But, instead, they were furious, insulting, and cursing both my craft and me. Had they been able, they undoubtedly would have caused my noble vessel and me bodily harm.
Instead, they splashed on like clumsy novices; cursing and shouting as they aimed toward the mouth of Lake Ferguson where it joined the Mississippi River. The canoe, nor its personnel, were never seen or heard from again by the AVALON crew. A gut-feeling has forever convinced me that the tanned, muscular young men, who paddled most of the way from Minneapolis, ne'er realized their goal of reaching the Crescent City of New Orleans by canoe.
The River: A young man becomes a 'captain' and takes the Delta Queen from Cincinnati to New Orleans
Apr 22nd, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
The AVALON rounded-to abreast Natchez-Under-the-Hill and slid into the sand below the cement ramp extending into the river at the foot of Silver Street, the old Spanish trail cut through the soft loess soil from atop the high bluff where the genteel city of Natchez, Mississippi sat like a princess on a velvet cushion. Natchez, in its heyday, "befo'da Wahr," was really two towns: Natchez—on the Hill and Natchez-Under-the- Hill.
The AVALON rounded-to abreast Natchez-Under-the-Hill and slid into the sand below the cement ramp extending into the river at the foot of Silver Street.
The proper portion, atop the loess bluff, once housed more millionaires than any other city in America, other than New York City, they boasted. But the lower quarter was reserved for the dregs and lowlifes of society—mostly river boatmen and the painted ladies who capitalized off the lusts, carnal desires, and immoral depredations of the flatboatmen, keelboatmen, and steamboatmen who frequented its shores. But, by the time our boat landed, both portions of Natchez were havens for tourists flocking from all directions to visit the "largest collection of antebellum homes in America."
The remnants of the lower section remaining after the river rampaged through the quarter were only a single line of ramshackle structures on the uphill side of the Spanish path. Of the two sectors of Natchez, Under-the-Hill with its connections to the river was my favorite. But I was to miss, perhaps, the most interesting interplay between the city and the AVALON, when, during the following year, I stayed at home instead of shipping out on the steamboat while some 400 Senior Girl Scouts were aboard from Memphis to New Orleans.
Myrtle Terrace. Natchez, in its heyday, "befo'da Wahr," was really two towns: Natchez-on the Hill and Natchez-Under-the- Hill. The proper portion, atop the loess bluff, once housed more millionaires than any other city in America, other than New York City, they boasted.
The City on the Bluff, or "Bluffton," as I sometimes call Natchez, and I would have many more encounters over the years after my first visit on the AVALON in 1960. A decade later, I would return by steamboat again, but onboard the legendary overnight-passenger-carrying steamboat, the DELTA QUEEN.
By that time I was taking the place of my former boss, Captain Doc Hawley as the Mate, and within less than two years, I was sharing command of the DELTA QUEEN with my long-time mentor, Captain Ernest E. Wagner. Captain Wagner and Cap'n Hawley became the two commanding officers on the QUEEN after the AVALON declared bankruptcy following the 1961 "Girl Scout" Season and was sold to the City of Louisville and renamed the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, where it will continue to run excursions in its upcoming 104th season!
By January 1971, I tested for and received my Unlimited Master's License from the U. S. Coast Guard authorizing me to command steam and motor vessels without any limitation as to the tonnage. Soon after, I was given the opportunity to "captain" the DELTA QUEEN from Cincinnati to New Orleans, and return.
Natchez. Old UTH. But the lower quarter was reserved for the dregs and lowlifes of society—mostly river boatmen and the painted ladies who capitalized off the lusts, carnal desires, and immoral depredations of the flatboatmen, keelboatmen, and steamboatmen who frequented its shores.
Landing at Natchez during high water stands out in the memory of my first trip in charge of the most famous steamboat on the Mississippi River during the second half of the 20th Century. Natchez, again, became a highlight on a 1994 trip when I was in charge of the ADVENTURE GALLEY II, an authentic reproduction of a 1792 flatboat by that name that journeyed from Pittsburgh to the Crescent City for the Louisiana World Exposition, better remembered as the "New Orleans World's Fair."
While atop the Natchez bluff at the beginning of Silver Street that trip, I surveyed the awesome river below me and reflected on the magnificent antebellum homes behind me, and vowed that I would, one day, return and make my residence in the enchanting city on the Mississippi. So, in the Spring of 1991, my family and I moved from Covington to Natchez to fulfill the promise made seven years earlier.
Departing Natchez, the romantic city of so many adventures over some three-hundred years under the flags of four countries, France, Spain, and Great Britain before the Stars and Stripes were hoisted after the American Revolution, the AVALON continued south on the muddy Mississippi River.
Natchez and I would have many more encounters over the years after my first visit on the AVALON in 1960. A decade later, I would return by steamboat again, but onboard the legendary overnight-passenger-carrying steamboat, the DELTA QUEEN.
Passing places along the way with names sounding like music to my teenage ears were: Dead Man's Bend where the bodies of those murdered at Natchez-Under-the-Hill and dumped into the river where seen by passing flatboats and keelboats, the 180-degree turn at Graham Bend, Artonish, Palmetto Point, and Old River where the Mississippi wants, to this day, to change its channel and make a beeline westward bypassing New Orleans. Angola, the home of the feared Louisiana State Penitentiary where the ferry was piloted by a "trustee," a prisoner invested with such responsibilities. Pointe Coupee, Tunica, Raccourci, Morganza, and Bayou Sara . . . among many others.
Just beneath the mouth of Bayou Sara, the AVALON found a place to settle-in below the St. Francisville, Louisiana Ferry. Soon hoards of local natives swarmed out of, seemingly, nowhere for a steamboat ride. Bayou Sara was once a busy commercial waterway with a wild, rowdy, riverboat town by the same name at its mouth, but erosion from farming silted up the stream and the Flood of 1927 washed the town away.
All that remained of civilization was the landing where cars, trucks, and a few occasional pedestrians were ferried to Pointe Coupee Parish on the far shore of the river.
Natchez, again, became a highlight on a 1994 trip when I was in charge of the ADVENTURE GALLEY II, an authentic reproduction of a 1792 flatboat by that name that journeyed from Pittsburgh to the Crescent City for the Louisiana World Exposition, better remembered as the "New Orleans World's Fair."
The River: Tarzan, Lester, a snake, an ill-conceived prank marked the AVALON's trip to Bayou Sara
Apr 29th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
On one typical hot and humid afternoon between excursions, a fellow deckhand, everyone called "Tarzan" because of his love for nature and the great outdoors, invited me along on a hike up Bayou Sara to see what there was to see. No sooner had we gone a short distance along the brush and sand-choked stream, an unfriendly snake hiding in the grass along the pathway took a swipe at my companion's tough, leather logging boots.
Mississippi River c. 1846-1848. Location "Bayou Sacra" is probably town of "Bayou Sara" in West Feliciana Parish; St. Francisville on the bluff in background.
In a flash, Tarzan wiped out what looked like a machete, and with a single swipe, dispatched the reptile into whatever realm deceased snakes go. The poor creature's head was hanging by a thin sliver of skin. Tarzan scanned the bayou and found a discarded cardboard box of just the right size and coiled the dead snake inside it so it couldn't have looked any more natural had the critter crawled into the box, itself. With the trophy in hand, we retraced our path back to where the AVALON dozed below the ferry.
Tarzan had a grand time opening the lid of the box and showing the freshly dispatched reptile to anyone, and everyone, whether they were interested, or not. At the head of the steamboat's landing stage that stretched from the sandy shore to the gunnel, a small crowd of crewmembers and Louisiana fishermen gathered to stare into the box. After a while, the onlookers faded away, their curiosities satisfied.
So Tarzan asked, "Here, you want this thing?"
"Sure," I replied. "I know someone who hasn't seen it yet."
Hefting the closed box for the first time, I felt the weight of the dead reptile move as it slipped within the cardboard container as I accepted it one-handed. Holding my newly acquired curiosity tightly like a football under my left arm, I crossed the stage and hurried toward the rooms on the starboard side where the Steward's gang bunked.
No sooner had we gone a short distance along the brush and sand-choked stream, an unfriendly snake hiding in the grass along the pathway took a swipe at my companion's tough, leather logging boots. Lester, a city-bred kid, perhaps two or three years my senior, carried his cheap suitcase aboard the AVALON for the first time before the boat left Peoria, but he told everyone he was from St. Louis. Lester was the paragon "cool cat" of his age.
He embodied Bobby Darin, Elvis, and Little Richard in one rock n' roll-style package—complete with greasy ducktails, pegged britches, pointy-toed shoes, and a shirt unfastened down to the third button. But ever since the steamboat left the Upper Mississippi and was paddling on its southern counterpart, Lester was reluctant to leave the safety of the vessel unless it was tied-off where he could feel cement sidewalks beneath his feet once he stepped ashore. But at these dirt bank landings, like where we were moored below Bayou Sara, his outspoken excuse for not leaving the boat was, "Ain't getting me out there—whole damn place is eat up with snakes."
"Hey, Lester," I shouted as I thrust the open box toward his face, "Tarzan's sent you a present!"
The horror that masked the face of the unfortunate fellow should have been sufficient to end the mischief then and there, but he started screaming and cussing both the bloody contents of the box and its presenter. That was, in itself, a reason to continue the sport.
Lester, all the while, was back-pedaling toward the tables in the open Deck Room, when, suddenly he turned and broke into a sprint, leaping over the first line of the wooden picnic tables with the snake and me in close pursuit. The chain blocking access to the engine room was down, so Lester ran into the restricted area toward the gorilla cage jail, furthest aft, where there was no escape.
Lester was the paragon "cool cat" of his age. He embodied Bobby Darin, Elvis, and Little Richard in one rock n' roll-style package. "I got him, now," I thought, almost out loud.
All the commotion in the pristine engine room promptly caught the attention of Engineer Ray Gill, a veteran steamboatman best known for having been the Chief Engineer on Captain Fred Way's BETSY ANN and the recently-retired steam paddlewheel towboat, the GEO. M. VERITY. Chief Gill, a man I admired and had stood watch for as his Striker on several watches, was a no-nonsense steamboatman noted for the absolute cleanliness of his engine room.
He had, he told me, once slipped on a drop of spilled oil on the deck, and as he fell, his arm caught in the spinning flywheel of an electric generator. His boat was in a remote area of the river, and in those days, he related, it took several days before another man could get out to the steamboat to relieve him; so the dedicated engineer stood his watches with the badly broken and swollen arm until he was finally discharged from duty. Based on that experience, Chief Gill was a zealot for the engine room perfection he expected, and received, from his subordinates. A Striker better never be caught without a wiping rag hanging out his back pocket, and woe be to him should the Chief spot a drop of oil on the deck his wiper overlooked.
Lester, with his back to the iron bars of the gorilla cage and the dead snake and I blocking his escape forward, slipped his hand into the right back pocket of his rolled-up jeans and pulled out something dark and menacing. With a loud "snap" the dark object sprang alive, and I was now staring at the point of a six-inch stiletto switchblade knife. Suddenly, the tables turned!
I was glancing over both shoulders quickly calculating my own egress out of the engine room until the loud voice of Chief Gill unexpectedly startled us both. "Get the hell out of my engine room right now!" I figured the Chief was directing his anger toward Lester, the one with the open switchblade knife until I saw the heavy, menacing Louisville Slugger baseball bat the Chief was wielding; ready to knock us both out of his park.
Torrent and debris—Everyone ran to see what Ed was shouting about. Above the ferry landing barge, Bayou Sara was "running out" in a continuous wall of water.
Chief Ray repeated his order, but this time he included, " . . . the both of you! Exit we did, and fast! The snake was taken ashore and received a deserved burial below the mouth of Bayou Sara. Lester beat a retreat to his room on the starboard side where he had been so rudely interrupted just a short time earlier. Nothing more was said about the prank-gone-wrong. Lester and I tolerated each other until he got off at Memphis on the way back up the Mississippi and returned to either Peoria or St. Louis and dissolved into the mists of time as far as steamboating was concerned.
The next morning at Bayou Sara was as pleasant and sunny as any Southern summer day could be. Off into the distance a line of low clouds hung close to the horizon north of us, but otherwise, there wasn't another cloud in the sky. Most of the crew was finishing breakfast when a shout was heard from Ed Smith who was relieving Bubba Chinn outside the port door of the firebox. Everyone ran to see what Ed was shouting about.
Above the ferry landing barge, Bayou Sara was "running out" in a continuous wall of water racing across, and higher, than the surface of the wide Mississippi River. When the boiling water neared the far shore, the force of the river's robust current forced it downstream, but soon the waters of the run-off turned upstream again and traced a path back toward its source, creating a monstrous whirlpool-like "eddy" of over a mile in circumference. Captain Hawley had just come on watch and was, fortunately, on the bow. He raced to the controls operating the steam hoist engine beneath the deck and raised the stage before it, and all the rigging supporting it were twisted and destroyed.
The eddy-current rushing against the stern of the AVALON would have crashed the steamboat and crew against the ferryboat and its barge had not the doubled-up spring lines held. While the deck crew raced to their stations, Captain Wagner alerted the engineers as he took off running up the stairs to the pilothouse. A few minutes later, frantic engine room bells pleaded for steam to the engines as the paddlewheel backed hard into the flood.
Thankfully, no snakes slithered in the debris of the runoff. The AVALON had its share of snakes and needed no more. The next morning, we departed Bayou Sara for Baton Rouge.
The surging stream was choked with logs, stumps, and debris both natural and from the civilized world. As the minutes passed, which seemed more like hours, the runoff from the bayou ran its course and gradually calmed again. But along the shore of the expansive river where we had narrowly escaped disaster, a mass of floating detritus remained following the rampage of the angry, subsidiary stream.
Staring into the mass of waterborne debris, I detected the movement of living creatures swept away during the temper-fit of the bayou. Much to my delight, scores of small green turtles of the sort sold in the "dime stores" back home were scurrying about the driftwood. But trying to catch one without a net proved impossible.
Turtles, I learned, could be fast if they sensed danger, and none of us, on deck, snagged a single baby turtle. Later, we learned that the low, gray clouds on the northern horizon, seen earlier, were the source of a gullywasher flash flood that raced down the course of Bayou Sara and nearly washed the AVALON and the St. Francisville Ferry, and its landing barges, along with it. Thankfully, no snakes slithered in the debris of the runoff. Evidently, they were there in significant numbers, but cleverly hiding from sight. The AVALON had its share of snakes and needed no more. The next morning, we departed Bayou Sara for Baton Rouge.
The River: Heading toward the Gulf, the AVALON offers experiences to prepare a fellow for Captaincy
May 6th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
Again, I was fascinated with the sights and names along the river as the AVALON paddled southward through the turbid water bearing the soils from every tributary above. Particles of mud and sand from Ohio and Kentucky mixed with those from Iowa and Minnesota. Representatives from the Great Plains carried to the Mississippi upon the back of the awesome Missouri River were indistinguishable from those flushed from the Illinois or the Arkansas Rivers. Suspended within the formidable mass of water beneath the AVALON's hull on a journey toward the Gulf of Mexico, the fluvial dregs would eventually precipitate and be reborn as an extension of the Mississippi River Delta as the current, impacting the Gulf, slowed.
Waterloo, Fancy Point, Point Menoir, False River, Solitude, and Profit Island, one of the largest intact islands on the Mississippi invoked images of steamboats, flatboats, keelboats, riverboat gamblers, perfumed redheaded ladies of a bygone era I had missed by birth, but still longed for. Devil's Swamp seemed foreboding. As the AVALON swung around Thomas Point, where the stern of the boat seemed to catch up with the bow, a flock of black river ducks cloaked the water like a blanket. But as we approached, the ducks took to the air at a forty-five-degree angle to the horizon and filled the view of the atmosphere with their mass.
As the AVALON swung around Thomas Point, where the stern of the boat seemed to catch up with the bow, a flock of black river ducks cloaked the water like a blanket. But as we approached, the ducks took to the air at a forty-five-degree angle to the horizon and filled the view of the atmosphere with their mass.
Instinctively, I compensated for the loss of my visual references by tilting my head in such a way to make the line of egress of the ducks my artificial horizon until I became so affected by vertigo, grew dizzy and nearly fell onto the steel deck. All the while, I was hoping the Pilot wasn't experiencing the same sensation as the steamboat rounded the seemingly impossible turn at Mulatto Bend. Straight ahead, the AVALON came to the infamous bend at Free Negro Point, since renamed Wilkinson Point.
Once the one-hundred-degree-plus turn was safely negotiated, the boat was abreast Ben Burman Light, named for a renowned river writer from my hometown, Ben Lucien Burman. Mr. Burman's most celebrated work, "Steamboat Round the Bend," was made into a 1935 film starring Will Rogers, Irvin S. Cobb, Stepin Fetchit, and others. Passing Ben Burman Light, ahead lay the bustling port city of Baton Rouge, the capital city of Louisiana.
The AVALON steamed under the Airline Highway Bridge and promenaded proudly through the busy harbor, the head of navigation for the ocean-going ships being loaded, unloaded, or at anchor awaiting their turn for a dock space to open. This was my first time to see tall ships with bows higher than the roof of our pilothouse. Many of the ocean-going vessels were steam-powered. Cold chills shivered my spine whenever they "traded whistles" with our thundering, "baby-waker" that sounded as loud and melodic as any the sea could offer. Flares burning at the Standard Oil Company Refinery looked bright, even in the daylight.
Once the one-hundred-degree-plus turn was safely negotiated, the boat was abreast Ben Burman Light, named for a renowned river writer from my hometown, Ben Lucien Burman. Mr. Burman's most celebrated work, "Steamboat Round the Bend," was made into a 1935 film starring Will Rogers, Irvin S. Cobb, Stepin Fetchit, and others.
The tall spire of the Louisiana State Capitol Building, where Governor Huey P. Long met his fate, reminded me of a rocket in a Buck Rogers comic book. But my eyes brightened as the Old State Capitol Building, looking like an English royal castle came abreast. Mark Twain had few words of praise for it when it was new, and I heard that Mr. Long despised the structure when it was old. With all his power, it's a wonder Governor Long hadn't ordered its destruction, but, perhaps he hadn't gotten around to it before his assassination inside the Old Capitol's replacement.
Directly ahead, in our path, a relic of earlier times, a single-stacked steam ferry was crossing from shore to shore. Much to my delight, the AVALON rounded-to and blew for a landing below the ferry ramp on the Port Allen side, opposite the Capital. No sooner had we gotten the AVALON secure on the mud bank, the ferry, CITY of BATON ROUGE, bumped against her mooring barge and disgorged a load of rush hour commuters eagerly fleeing, mostly, government offices on the Baton Rouge side of the Mississippi River.
Once more, I had another steamboat to explore, but unlike the SPRAGUE, the CITY of BATON ROUGE (CBR) was alive and snorting with a boiler full of steam. It didn't take me long to become pals with the Chief Engineer. During my time away from my steamboat, I rode back and forth in the engine room of the CBR enjoying the sights and sounds of the Gillett & Eaton steam engines turning the cranks of the unseen paddlewheel hidden inside an inner enclosure located within the engine room space.
As a side business, the Chief sold evening newspapers to passengers from a tall stack weighed down with a Civil War cannonball he found mired in the mud along the riverbank near where his boat operated. Though I imagined myself scrounging along the shore for my very own cannon projectile, I never did. But I have often thought of the ancient, rusting relic and wondered what became of it. Perhaps, it may be hidden somewhere within the recesses of the CBR that still serves in the second decade of the 21st Century, in its 102nd year, as the wharfboat for the Motor Vessel TWILIGHT in Le Claire, Iowa. The Gillett & Eaton steam engines I enjoyed watching doing their work, were removed in 1971 and placed in Captain Dennis Trone's JULIA BELLE SWAIN, a steam-powered excursion boat in LaCrosse whose fate is uncertain at this writing some 58 years into the future.
My eyes brightened as the Old State Capitol Building, looking like an English royal castle came abreast. Mark Twain had few words of praise for it when it was new, and I heard that Mr. Long despised the structure when it was old.
Steamboat trips sold well, though all the Baton Rouge passengers had to pay a quarter each way to take the CITY of BATON ROUGE steam ferry from the Capital over to where the AVALON was waiting on the Port Allen side. The going rate to ride the AVALON was generally a buck-and-a-half for advanced ticket purchases and a dollar-seventy-five at the boat.
On a particularly perfect summer afternoon, the AVALON was filled to near capacity as the pilot blew one long mournful whistle signal followed by three short toots signifying the boat was departing with the engines operating astern. But, on a typical departing slow bell, the steamboat refused to budge, so Captain Wagner called for the pilot to back harder. The AVALON was stuck tight in the mud and no matter what persuasion the Captain requested, his boat refused to cooperate.
Finally, Cap called for the Mate and the Watchmen to move everyone toward the stern of the steamboat, and the next time the engineers opened the throttle and added steam, the boat backed off the bank and into deeper water to the cheers of the paying passengers. I, too, enjoyed the experience and learned a lesson I was to use when I was the one calling the shots on my excursion boats.
Directly ahead, in our path, a relic of earlier times, a single-stacked steam ferry was crossing from shore to shore. No sooner had we gotten the AVALON secure on the mud bank, the ferry, CITY of BATON ROUGE, bumped against her mooring barge and disgorged a load of rush hour commuters.
The last night the AVALON played Baton Rouge, the Chotin Transportation Company and guests held a gala event aboard the steamboat. This time, we left the muddy riverbank at Port Allen and scooted directly across the river to the luxury of the Chotin's enclosed wharfboat. Crisp, white tablecloths covered all the tables on the AVALON's dance floor. Vans bringing food, flowers, and decorations came and went on the floating wharf until our old steamboat looked as elegant as the J. M. WHITE, the ROBT. E. LEE, or any of those other floating palaces that once graced the Lower Mississippi River.
After a short ride, we returned to the dock. Most of the revelers stayed aboard for a dockside party as the liquor flowed and the beat of the AVALON's band, the Rhythm Masters, filled the Chotin wharfboat where I was stationed to assist guests on and off the steamboat. Numerous cats ran about the place. One especially dignified-looking matron, walking alone, ignored my hand when I offered it and, instead, picked up a tiny yellow kitten and spoke to it in a soft voice I was able to understand, "Would you like to go home with me?" As she proceeded on with the kitty, I warned, "Ma'am, I don't think you ought to be taking that cat—it doesn't belong to you."
The regal woman stopped, turned, and looked me in the face and solemnly replied, "I'm Mrs. Chotin. If I want to take Kitty home, I will!"
That kitty had to be the luckiest cat in Baton Rouge.
As a side business, the Chief sold evening newspapers to passengers from a tall stack weighed down with a Civil War cannonball he found mired in the mud along the riverbank near where his boat operated. Though I imagined myself scrounging along the shore for my very own cannon projectile, I never did.
The last night the AVALON played Baton Rouge, the Chotin Transportation Company and guests held a gala event aboard the steamboat. One especially dignified-looking matron, walking alone, ignored my hand when I offered it and, instead, picked up a tiny yellow kitten.
The River: AVALON on the lower regions of the Mississippi and a young man discovers New Orleans
May 13th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
Steamboatmen of an older generation called the stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge down to the sea, the "Coast." Even the climate was different. Along this inland "coast," sultry, humid semi-tropical air broiling beneath a searing Sun sucked the sweat and sapped the strength of the boatload of pale newcomers arriving from the more benign temperatures to the north. Thus, I and others of the AVALON's crew got our first introduction to the lower regions of the Mississippi.
Our first stop below the capital city was at Plaquemine, Louisiana, near a government lock where small boats could take a shortcut across Bayou Plaquemine and get into all sorts of backwaters best known to the Cajun boatmen who were native to the region.
Our first stop below the capital city was at Plaquemine, Louisiana, near a government lock where small boats could take a shortcut across Bayou Plaquemine and get into all sorts of backwaters best known to the Cajun boatmen who were native to the region. Again, that night, I "volunteered" to stay ashore to catch the lines when the AVALON returned from a chartered trip. Following a short survey of the lock, I returned to the pitch-black riverbank to await the arrival of the steamboat where I looked for a safe place to take a nap. Again the dread of the snakes that called the Coast their home kept me from curling up in a comfortable nook along the river shore. To my delight, a dump truck with a bed high off the ground caught my attention, and after kicking around and satisfied it was reptile-free, I curled inside the spacious dump bed until the throaty steam whistle announced the welcome return of my floating home.
As quickly as all our passengers were safely ashore, Captain Wagner ordered all the lines let loose and the AVALON backed out and turned her nose South toward the Crescent City. As there were no pressing duties for the deck gang, Cap allowed us to have the rest of the night to ourselves. I drifted up to the pilothouse, where at the invitation of the pilot, I climbed onto the "lazy bench" and peered into the darkness at the lights ashore until I started dozing, so I returned below and spent the rest of the night sleeping soundly in my comfortable bunk in Room 12. But all too soon, the tantalizing aromas wafting from the nearby cookhouse, better than even the shouts of Dirty-Shirt-Harold, the Night Watchman, awakened me and I was up, again, and ready for the excitement of the AVALON's entry into New Orleans harbor. The day couldn't have been more flawless. Fluff balls of white, radiant clouds floated against an azure empyreal firmament.
Aways down the river, the AVALON rounded Avondale Bend at Twelve Mile Point and lined up on a most astonishing engineering leviathan, the Huey P. Long Bridge.
The steamboat was making at least ten miles an hour downbound on a moderate current for the Mississippi River. Earlier, while I was preoccupied between the sheets of my bunk, the AVALON had covered some eighty miles before breakfast. After the morning repast, we deck apes were up-top cleaning the boat after last night's ride. Though I had stayed up long enough the night before to perceive the ghostly outline of Bayou Goula Towhead in the darkness, I missed seeing Bayou Lafourche, that once in ages past, was the main channel of the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
Donaldsonville, the one-hundred-eighty-degree turn at Point Houmas, and lovely-sounding Willow Bend at Forty-eight Mile Point all went by unbeknownst to me. But there was more than enough scenery yet to come, even for an eighteen-year-old with his mind set on taking in all the sights he'd heard or read about. At least three more hours of steaming remained before our arrival at the wharf at the foot of Harmony Street; some three miles above the legendary Canal Street.
Aways down the river, the AVALON rounded Avondale Bend at Twelve Mile Point and lined up on a most astonishing engineering leviathan, the Huey P. Long Bridge. But just as impressive was the frantic beehive of activity at the Avondale Shipyard abreast our starboard beam. The shipyard, founded in 1938 and a builder of large tugs and small cargo ships for the U. S. Navy during the Second World War, was, as we gawked in amazement, "the largest employer in the state of Louisiana with some 26,000 employees," as I overheard Chief Gill tell someone.
The aging pier at the foot of Harmony Street stood on tall wooden telephone-pole-like legs and smelled of tar and creosote. A vast warehouse, surpassing the bounds of a football field, was planted dead-center on the pier.
Suddenly the spell was broken by the blast of a whistle on a floating steam-powered stevedore gantry-barge greeting us with the traditional New Orleans Harbor Salute: three long whistles blasts, which we returned before the steam crane followed with another long blow. Again, we replied in kind. Those whistles sounded better than rock n' roll music, I thought. Then another small steam crane barge began saluting. Soon, one after another blasted the Harbor Salute as we paddled alongside the endless line of ships and barges being loaded or unloaded.
Not long after our boat passed beneath the center span of the Huey P. Long Bridge and rounded the corner at Nine Mile Point, Captain Wagner ceased returning the greetings of the small steam stevedores. Either he feared using too much of the steamboat's valuable vapor, or else Captain Tommy Dunn, the pilot on watch with Cap, wore himself out keeping up with all the toots.
The last bend lay ahead at Audubon Point before the AVALON rounded-to and tied off at the Harmony Street Wharf across from the entrance to the locks of the Harvey Canal on the west bank of the river. After we landed against the tarred, wooden wharf towering above the first two decks of the boat, no longer was there a refreshing breeze like that on the open river. Straightaway, the heat, the humidity, and the mosquitoes became a constant reminder we had arrived in New Orleans in the heart of summer.
Small oceangoing British ships came and went, unloading and reloading, on either end of our even smaller riverboat. Their ports of call, London, Bristol, and Liverpool written on their stern plates, proudly announced from whence they came.
The aging pier at the foot of Harmony Street stood on tall wooden telephone-pole-like legs and smelled of tar and creosote. A vast warehouse, surpassing the bounds of a football field, was planted dead-center on the pier. Metal roll-up doors, spaced along intervals of the building, when open, allowed the exotic scents from stored sacks piled high on wooden pallets, which when combined with those of the pier, suggested images of wooden sailing ships with their bilges stuffed with fragrant cargoes from exotic lands. Fat grey rats scurrying beneath the wharf where waves from passing riverboats smashed loudly against revetment stones scrutinized the low-lying AVALON but must have concluded the pickings were easier in the warehouse above.
To everyone's delight, they stayed off our steamboat.
Small oceangoing British ships came and went, unloading and reloading, on either end of our even smaller riverboat. Their ports of call, London, Bristol, and Liverpool written on their stern plates, proudly announced from whence they came. Wee brown men scurried about the vessels doing the tasks at hand. But at appointed times, all the activity stopped as prayer rugs unrolled and the Muslim seamen knelt, faced toward the east, and prayed. Englishmen, the type my Uncle Ray, a Navy veteran of the Second World War, called "Limeys," crewed the ships, too. Though not much older than I, they seemed rougher and more course than were my mates. Most of the young Brits were stripped bare to the waist and wore nothing more than khaki shorts, boots, or leather strapped sandals. They wore their hair long, and each carried a sinister straight knife strapped to their belt.
But in the evenings, after work, these fellows cleaned up nicely and went ashore headed for, most likely, the French Quarter some three miles downtown. Many of the other crewmen squatted in groups on deck, drank tea and smoked from a mutually-shared hookah, or water pipe. New Orleans was indeed a strange and exotic city, I thought; far unlike any other I had known before.
The River: Getting Night Watchman duties, wearing shirt too big, hat too small and missing New Orleans
May 20th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
One hot afternoon after lunch, a couple of days after arriving at the Harmony Street Wharf, Captain Wagner called me aside and told me to get some rest. Dirty-Shirt-Harold was spending the night at the merchant marine hospital, and Cap wanted me to take his place as Night Watchman that evening while most of the crew slept. He emphasized the responsibilities of the assignment and concluded by asking, "What would you do if the boat caught-fire?" "Why, I'd wake you," I answered. "First thing you'd do," Cap corrected, "is sound the General Alarm bell!" Advice I would remember the rest of my days—Sound the General Alarm—let everyone know trouble is brewing aboard the boat!
Besides a reliable flashlight, a circular Detex Watchclock hung by a leather strap from around the neck and shoulder of the patrolman. Inside the clock, a spring-driven mechanism kept a record of whenever a key, dangling from a brass chain at assigned stations, was inserted into the keyhole of the punch-clock and turned
Aboard any vessel where crew or passengers are sleeping, the Night Watchman may be the most critical person aboard. According to the "CFR's," the Code of Federal Regulations, "Between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., a supervised patrol shall be maintained to completely cover all parts of the vessel accessible to passengers or crew." Also, "The Watchman, while on duty, shall wear a distinctive uniform or badge, and shall have in his possession at all times an efficient flashlight." The regs go on the specify that his cap shall have letters spelling WATCHMAN no less than one-half-inch in height.
Not only did Captain Wagner understand that the job of patrolling the steamboat while most of the crew slept, a vital assignment, but Uncle Sam, himself, spelled out in the law the specific associated duties of a Watchman and what he should wear and what equipment he carried. Besides a reliable flashlight, a circular Detex Watchclock hung by a leather strap from around the neck and shoulder of the patrolman. Inside the clock, a spring-driven mechanism kept a record of whenever a key, dangling from a brass chain at assigned stations, was inserted into the keyhole of the punch-clock and turned, leaving an impression on a round piece of paper as evidence of the presence of the Watchman at that station at a specific time. Captain Wagner made me feel I was someone important to the AVALON as I stood ready for such an important assignment.
Cap's favorite New Orleans haunt, Felix's Oyster Bar, where the Skipper was lionized for sucking down dozens of raw oysters and washing them down in a flood of pitchers of cold Jax Beer. Decked out in a borrowed white shirt two sizes too large, a "high-pressure" officer's cap a size too small with WATCHMAN emblazoned in gold letters on the band pinching my temples, and the Detex Patrol Clock proudly displayed across my scrawny chest like an Army bandolier, I reveled in the trust the Captain bestowed in me though I was one of the youngest of his steamboat crew.
Although it was past midnight, and the night still ruled by the heat and the swarming mosquitoes, several of our steamboatmen were off the boat and likely carousing on Bourbon Street or in one of the sordid seamen's bars on Lower Canal where their chances of returning to the vessel were just better than even. Captain Wagner and the Purser, E. P. Hall, arrived earlier from Cap's favorite New Orleans haunt, Felix's Oyster Bar, where the Skipper was lionized for sucking down dozens of raw oysters and washing them down in a flood of pitchers of cold Jax Beer. A couple of the engine room boys brought back sacks of boiled crab wrapped in newspapers they unfolded on a picnic table in the crew's mess and invited me to eat a few crustaceans as I passed by on a round. Over on the wharf, a knot of returning Limey neighbors where boasting in loud voices of their exploits in town. By nearly 4 am, two of our deckhands stumbled across the walkway by my post at the gate when I wasn't patrolling the boat. They were drunk, bloody, beaten, and excitedly recited a tale of "gettin' our ass whipped" in a dive on Decatur Street they should have never entered.
I warned them to get below before they woke that grouchy old bear of a captain and they would be wishing they were back on Decatur battling lesser adversaries.
A rowdy, boisterous crew of rugged newcomers gathered on the dock. One unusually assertive muscular fellow shoved his way onto the deck, followed by several of his companions and demanded that I allow them to walk around and "have a look" at the steamboat.
The few hours remaining until my stint as Night Watchman were over, passed slowly while the darkness gradually turned to dawn as the sun rose in the direction of the French Quarter, the scene of so much revery and misery of the fading night. Just minutes before 6 a.m., a rowdy, boisterous crew of rugged newcomers gathered on the dock. One unusually assertive muscular fellow shoved his way onto the deck, followed by several of his companions and demanded that I allow them to walk around and "have a look" at the steamboat on which I was charged to safeguard the order of the vessel while my companions slept until I was relieved of duty. The leader, or at least the most outspoken, was a few years older than I but appeared much stronger than I could dream of being. My first instinct was to submissively step aside and allow the longshoremen, as they were, to trespass and violate my area of responsibility. But immediately, the image of my Captain and his voice of authority gave me courage, and I stood in the path of the intruders and informed them that the AVALON remained restricted to visitors, and they could venture no further.
Still, the young leader insisted, but I would have rather faced a dozen of him than one Captain Wagner, and I stood firm. Finally, one of his companions, an older and, apparently wiser, man spoke up, "Com' on—lez go. Dat man jest doin' his job." Much to my relief, the stevedores, including the one leading the pack, turned and returned to the wharf and about their intended business, leaving me alone to enjoy the rosy, red sunrise. Before long, I replaced the borrowed cap and hung the clock by its strap to the knob on the Purser's office door and went below for my share of breakfast and then into bed for a well-deserved rest. By the upcoming afternoon ride, though, I would be back on deck hard at my deckhand chores.
By the time the AVALON packed up, departed New Orleans, and turned its bow into the swift current of the Mississippi River for a long trip that would eventually take boat and crew to the Golden Triangle of Pittsburgh at the source of the Ohio River, I had yet to set foot past the Harmony Street Wharf. It would be seven more years before I returned to the Crescent City for a first glimpse of the French Quarter with all its sights, sounds, smells, and excitement. But, then not aboard a riverboat. Instead, I returned as a "special agent' of the government on a classified training mission that I swore the specifics to secrecy. Even at this writing, over half a century later, I remain hesitant to divulge details of that secret assignment.
By the time the AVALON packed up, departed New Orleans, and turned its bow into the swift current of the Mississippi River . . . I had yet to set foot past the Harmony Street Wharf. It would be seven more years before I returned to the Crescent City for a first glimpse of the French Quarter with all its sights, sounds, smells, and excitement.
The River: Plodding upsteam on Mississippi, seeing waste inferno, sights to dazzle the senses and more
May 27th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
Slowly, the AVALON plodded upstream against the surging might of the Mississippi River. Returning to Baton Rouge, we stayed long enough so that I was able to tour the old Louisiana State Capitol Building which both Twain and Huey Long despised. At a cafeteria in the new Capitol, I learned the difference between "pure" or "chicory" when I asked for a cup of joe.
The refinery, the fourth largest in the country, looked like a version of Dante's Inferno stretching out for miles
Continuing on after departing the Port Allen ferry landing after the last Moonlite charter, the steamboat went but a short distance before landing alongside a steel and concrete pier at the Standard Oil refinery below the upper Huey P. Long Bridge, also known as the Airline Highway Bridge.
The front office in Cincinnati had arranged with the refinery for a load of thick Number Six Oil to be loaded aboard the AVALON, but once we were tied off and getting ready to refuel, a supervisor arrived pedaling a bicycle and informed Captain Wagner that he would not refuel the boat. The refinery, the fourth largest in the country, looked like a version of Dante's Inferno stretching out for miles with nightmarish flames roaring from tall stacks flaring off waste vapors from the oil distillation processes going on all about us.
The arrangements between the offices failed to note that our boat was made of wood with open flames within the furnace which produced the steam that was the soul of the steamboat. The refinery overseer feared he argued, heavy stray gasses from the oil refinery might find the AVALON's open flames and ignite, causing all sorts of catastrophe for both the Standard Oil facility and us.
In the interim, while discussions were going on between Cap'n Wagner and the refinery boss, I found a spare bicycle leaning against the dock railing and rode up and down by our boat until I heard the Mate call all hands to get ready to refuel. Whatever persuasion Big Cap used to get
Immense mounds of golden sand arose as islands and bars. The harshness of the southern sun reflecting off river and sand dazzled the senses of any witness, and the silence, devoid of human sounds other than our own, was otherwise unbroken but by the wind and the occasional cry of a waterfowl.
the refinery guy to change his mind, it worked. After our fuel tanks were topped off without further incidents, we let loose of the oil dock and set off into the darkness. The boat was past Ben Burman Light and rounding Free Negro Point by the time all was secure on the bow, and Captain Doc Hawley retired his crew for the rest of the night. Again, the AVALON bumped softly ashore at the foot of Silver Street under the loess bluffs at Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Pressed up against the steep bank, between the Spanish Trail and the highway bridge, an orange-colored bottom of an ancient wooden steamboat hull was the only reminder of Natchez as a significant river port alive with the comings and goings of countless steamboats, flatboats, and keelboats with all their associated human and physical cargoes. As I stared at the mute hull, it asked more questions than it offered answers: "What boat was I? Where was I built? What happened that I should be here, upside-down, and wrecked? How long have I been here?"
Plodding headlong against the flow of the Mississippi River as the steamboat retraced the path it had traveled just a few weeks before, gave me plenteous occasions to survey the scenery more adequately than I did on the hurried downbound route. Immense mounds of golden sand arose as islands and bars. Forests of cottonwoods and oaks came so close to the water's edge that they often fell into the stream and became snags and impediments whenever their footings were undercut by the scything flow of the river. Surprisingly, an acre, or more, of the riverbank might suddenly collapse as we passed close by carrying with it a community of trees, plant life, and creatures that called that stretch of the shoreline, "home." The harshness of the southern sun reflecting off river and sand dazzled the senses of any witness, and the silence, devoid of human sounds other than our own, was otherwise unbroken but by the wind and the occasional cry of a waterfowl.
Vicksburg and Greenville were again welcomed stops on the long, slow journey back up the Mississippi, but neither seemed as exciting the second time around. Arkansas City, once a storied city in the heyday of steamboating history passed unseen in the distance. Three palatial cotton packets named KATE ADAMS were built specifically to cater to the town as best remembered in the words of an old rouster tune—"Cap'n Jim Rees sed when da Katie wuz made—Arkn'sa' City gwon' to be her trade." Surprisingly, a survey of a map of the town showed several streets named for steamboats. Among those so honored were the steamboats KATE ADAMS, GEORGIE LEE, SPRAGUE, MORNING STAR, SADIE LEE, CAPITOL, and even the more recent, DELTA QUEEN.
Arkansas City, once a storied city in the heyday of steamboating history, passed unseen in the distance. Three palatial cotton packets named KATE ADAMS were built specifically to cater to the town as best remembered in the words of an old rouster tune—"Cap'n Jim Rees sed when da Katie wuz made—Arkn'sa' City gwon' to be her trade." My last authentic steamboat thrill remaining on the Lower Mississippi River, other than our own AVALON, awaited at Helena, Arkansas where the steam, sidewheel railroad transfer ferry, PELICAN, moved train cars across the river several times a week.
The AVALON shoved into Porter Slough very near the PELICAN. One of the great thrills of that entire summer was standing ashore next to the transfer steamboat and watching as it prepared to raise steam and get underway. It was like being transported back into the Nineteenth Century when those great sidewheels started turning. The roar of the exhaust from the engines 'scaping onto the roof was deafening! At the same time, burned-out remains of what must have been a lovely steam automobile ferry moldered at the Helena city front. The blackened steam engines looked much like the AVALON's Rees steam engines but were much smaller. The Helena Highway Bridge, under construction, while we were there, would soon replace the sister boat to the charred ferry.
As the AVALON departed the slough on its last excursion before continuing up the river, a hard, on-shore wind shoved the steamboat against a string of pleasure boats moored against wooden floats alongside the shore. As the pilot had no choice but to continue backing hard against the wind and toward the river channel, the entire marina was hauled ashore and placed high and dry onto the riverbank. Fortunately, the boats were unoccupied, and no one was injured. But seeing the accident happen was almost as exciting as watching the PELICAN get steamed up and underway . . . almost, but not quite.
The AVALON shoved into Porter Slough very near the PELICAN. One of the great thrills of that entire summer was standing ashore next to the transfer steamboat and watching as it prepared to raise steam and get underway. It was like being transported back into the Nineteenth Century when those great sidewheels started turning. (Pelican, by Allan Hammons)
Helena, AK Steam Ferry—Burned-out remains of what must have been a lovely steam automobile ferry moldered at the Helena city front. The blackened steam engines looked much like the AVALON's Rees steam engines but were much smaller. The Helena Highway Bridge, under construction, while we were there, would soon replace the sister boat to the charred ferry.
The River: Memphis behind; a brief encounter with young lady and a glimpse of grand Cairo hotel
Jun 3rd, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
Memphis came and went and was, fortunately, nowhere as exciting as it was on the downbound leg of the trip. Wolf River was as foul as ever at the height of the Southern summer, and after several excursions, the rest of the crew was as happy as I was once the AVALON backed away from the WaterWays wharfboat and continued on against the current of the river. Osceola, Luxora, and Tomato were ignored.
Osceola and Luxora were once thriving communities when steamboats reigned and cotton was king, but as the last tramping steamer was passing, they were decaying remnants wallowing in the ashes of the own past. Tomato, a tiny farming community, was known for its unusual name and its location on Island Number 25 in the Mississippi River.
Caruthersville, Arkansas was the AVALON's next landing. Awaiting yellow school buses disgorged excited kids of assorted ages who ran down the embankment intent on racing across the landing stage until Shorty, Blackie, and Big Bill Willis halted the mob and kept them on the riverbank until their adult supervisors caught up and bestowed some semblance of order. Their wards then boarded at a slower pace until reaching the bottom of the stairs going to the dance floor, where, suddenly, everyone raced up the steps whooping and yelling and entirely out of control once more. The ride was open to all comers. City folks came and farmers wearing clean denim overalls, some so thin after years of wear, the material looked a pale blue, almost white. But all wore a particular look of anticipation and excitement we seasoned crewmen recognized from watching countless thousands come aboard. By the time the lines were let go and brought on-deck, some six-hundred souls, about half the maximum capacity of the AVALON, were enjoying a steamboat ride on a balmy, near-perfect day on the river.
As I was restricted to the Main Deck when the boat was underway with passengers unless summoned above, I took the opportunity to watch the river from one of the large open windows toward the forward end of the steamboat. Though most of the passenger stayed on the upper decks, they were not restricted from coming below where I was confined. Among those guests who chose to explore the lower level where the singing engines and the roaring fires beneath the boilers were always exciting to see, was a girl of about my own age, or perhaps a year younger, who was walking about and stopped where I was standing and began asking me about the boat.
She wore a simple, cotton summer dress. It may have been homemade. She was thin, but not skinny, having an extraordinary, lithe figure with ample breasts for a girl so slender. She revealed she came on the excursion with her parents who were sitting up-top. She graduated, she said, from high school earlier that year and was considering attending the local junior college in the fall and did not want to venture away from home so she could continue helping her folks with their little farm outside of town. But what I noticed most about this uncomplicated, intelligent young woman, was a genuine sincerity that radiated like a glow surrounding her. Before long our hands met and were stood there talking and holding hands like we had known each other for much longer than we had.
Eventually, her mother and father found us and they, too, were as genuine and friendly as the daughter they reared. The four of us prattled on until steam gurgled loudly from the nearby boilers through the line to the whistle high above as the Captain blew for a landing and I had to attend to my deck chores. After the AVALON was made fast with just a headline, my lovely new friend and I stood on the riverbank, again holding hands, but saying our farewells. She was only the third girl I had ever held hands with, but in my terrible shyness, I never asked for her home address so we could write. Again, the whistle summoned the crew to let the single line loose and climb back aboard. And so our hands let loose their affectionate grip and we parted, forever, without even the simplest kiss.
The AVALON passed Tiptonville, Tennessee near where the Mississippi River ran backward for three days during the cataclysmic earthquakes of 1811, and a great section of the river was torn asunder from itself forming Reelfoot Lake. But from the steamboat, all I could do was imagine the lake as it was far inland and there was nothing to see but the earthen levee and endless trees.
AVALON in negative
Ahead lay New Madrid Bend, sometimes called Kentucky Bend, laid out across the map in a north-south direction like a horseshoe with the ends bent toward each other so that they were nearly touching. The bend was almost eighteen miles from beginning to end, but just a single mile separated the neck at its closest juncture. At times, it was rumored, steamboats would put crewmen armed with hunting guns off on the lower end of the bend and pick them up later at the upper end after the hunters had killed a quantity of game while walking across the narrow neck.
By the time the boat traveled the long circuit around New Madrid Bend, the hunters would be waiting. In that way, fresh meat in the form of rabbit, squirrel, turkey, and even deer would freshen the menu after the hunt. Halfway around the bend lay the town of New Madrid, Missouri, the epicenter of the 1811 earthquakes and the namesake of the semicircular hairpin turn of the Mississippi River. The bend is also the extreme southwest corner of Kentucky and includes the lowest point in my home state. By the time the AVALON steamed around the circumference of the bend, and was near Winchester Towhead at the foot of Island 10, I stood atop the Texas Deck and looked across the neck of the peninsula at a smokestack on the Missouri shore we had passed hours before.
Soon, the AVALON was plowing through the point-way of Island Number Eight that lay completely within the borders of the Kentucky commonwealth, the only time Kentucky soil lay on both sides of the Mississippi River. It felt comforting, I thought, to be totally within my home state. After an afternoon school ride in Hickman, the westernmost city in Kentucky, the boat pushed through the bendway of Wolf Island and passed Columbus where a long iron chain once stretched across the river during the Civil War that prevented the passage of Yankee steamboats until a sailor boy, of about my age, volunteered to row to the chain under the cover of darkness and cleaved it in two with a hacksaw. Wickliffe, Kentucky was passed-by to the comfort of Captain Wagner who witnessed the murder of a fellow crew member of the Steamer ISLAND QUEEN during a riot by locals there, not so many years before.
Ahead, within sight, as Old Quaker Oats Light was abreast our starboard beam, the mouth of the Ohio River disgorged lightly tinted green-colored water that clearly separated the muddy Mississippi into two distinct lanes. What a welcome sight it was to see the river named for its natural beauty. The French called the Ohio "LaBelle Riviere", the beautiful river. To the Shawnee, it was the "Spaylaywahtheepe", but the river received its English name from the Iroquois word, "O-Y-O" meaning "the great river." Before long, after entering the beautiful river, we deckhands sprang to the commands coming from the Captain shouting down from the wing bridge on the very forward end of the roof as the pilot rang for a slow bell and the AVALON turned toward the Illinois shore and tied-off at Cairo.
As the southernmost city in the Prairie State, the "Land of Lincoln", Cairo, Illinois had changed little since General Grant commandeered the town during "The War" and made it his staging point for the Union incursion into the South, culminating with the Siege of Vicksburg and the liberation of the Mississippi River into Federal control so that Old Abe could boast, "The father of waters flows unvexed to the sea."
Between rides, I slipped uptown to look at the ancient, historic structures and found one of particular interest. A bronze plaque on the front of the Hotel Cairo boasting of Grant's residency caused me to go into the hotel lobby, seemingly, untouched since the General last signed the guest registry. Black marble and brass fixtures, or "brass and ebony," was the dominant style of the foyer that was as strikingly lovely, still, as it must have been when muddy soldiers' boots trod where I was standing a century later.
The memory of the exquisite interior of the Cairo Hotel is one that has not dimmed with the passage of the decades. But when I returned to Cairo, five years later aboard the Steamer DELTA QUEEN, the magnificent Hotel Cairo was demolished and gone with all its history and architectural splendor. After another five years, by the beginning of the next decade, the 1970's, Cairo would resemble the aftermath of a battlefield after race riots and general anarchy decimated the city; driving out commerce and residents.
The River: The trip upriver to Louisville and the harrowing saga of 'head man' Shorty Robinson
Jun 10th, 2018
See original: nyktribune.com
Once more the AVALON landed at Paducah but stayed just long enough to fill the potable water tanks on the roof, take on a few stores from the Henry A. Petter Supply Company warehouse at the top of the hill, and for my old friend and mentor, Captain Arthur J. "Red" Schletker, to relieve Captain Blankenship as a pilot.
Up the Ohio River, the AVALON continued, though stopping along the way for a charter ride or an occasional public affair. Evansville for a couple of days and then Tell City, Indiana, booked for an open trip, slowly came abreast in a cold, hard rain, but as the AVALON slowed before swinging ashore, not a soul was waiting.
Much to the crew's relief, Captain Wagner rang the engine indicator for "full ahead" and Tell City, with an upside-down steamboat hull decorating its riverbank, passed astern; lost in the mist and fog of the driving early Autumn shower.
Passing Derby, Magnet, Alton, Bull's Point at Wolf Creek Bend, and Fredonia, the AVALON pushed through the Oxbow Bends of the Ohio River until Lock and Dam 44 near Leavenworth, Indiana signaled the end of the oxbow country. Ahead lay Mockport, Indiana, and Brandenburg, Kentucky where the famed Southern Raider, General John Hunt Morgan, seized the steamboat ALICE DEAN passing on her maiden voyage and used the newly-launched steamer to cross the river in July of 1863 on his daring incursion into Yankee territory.
But our goal was to reach Louisville, not too far ahead, where several charter trips awaited and some of the boys were anticipating revisiting the saloons and sleazy dives along the city waterfront. Captain Wagner had been talking about Jack Salmon sandwiches and cold Falls City Beer for several days, now. Was it my imagination, or was the AVALON actually picking up speed the closer Louisville loomed?
Soon we were below McAlpine Lock and Dam as the throaty whistle sounded to fulfill the letter of the law, as arrangements had already been made between the lock and the pilothouse by the marine radio.
Captain Doc was excited when he told his deck crew the boat was using a tiny, ancient lock chamber barely big enough to squeeze inside. The combined system of McAlpine Lock and Dam and the Portland Canal was constructed to allow river traffic a safe passage around the Falls of the Ohio River.
All went without a hitch, and the AVALON was soon leaving the upper end of the Portland Canal. Again the whistle blew for a landing as the deck crew did what they knew best and quickly and efficiently snubbed the steamboat to the cobblestone landing at the foot of Fourth Street. Without an excursion until late that evening, the crew deserted the boat like bilge rats and disappeared into the maze of saloons at the top of the levee.
With a significant turnover in the crew of the AVALON, crewmembers came and went. Often when the boat played a large city like Louisville and stayed for usually a week, or more, a veteran might return aboard and work for the duration of the stay and then quit when it was time to move on to the next port of call.
Chuck, about forty, slim, always wearing black jeans and a black tee-shirt with a pack of Camel cigarettes rolled into one of the sleeves was one of those types. He wore his long blond hair slicked back against his head with a generous application of fragrant gel to keep it plastered in place. As deck skills went, Chuck was as good as any I worked with during my two seasons on the AVALON, but a blatant, lingering animosity simmered between he and Shorty Robinson, the capstan man.
We'd been running an odd schedule since arriving in Louisville. After a day, sometimes more, following the last trip of the day, the AVALON left town and deadheaded upriver to Madison, Indiana, some forty miles, and played there for a day before reversing the procedure and returning back to the Falls City for a day of excursions and again repeating the process.
Around midnight, the deck crew was tidying the lines on the boat after securing the splashboards around the curvature of the bow to prevent waves from washing over the head as the steamboat plowed a furrow in the Ohio River.
Satisfied the bow was in apparent good order, Mate Hawley was about to turn off the deck lights and dismiss his crew when, suddenly, Chuck sprang forward from within our gathering and lunged at Shorty he caught standing in an awkward position between the capstan and the forward edge of the deck. Over the head of the boat, by then, moving through the water on a full head of steam, the wiry capstan man flew.
Over the splashboards and into the roaring, white bow wake of certain death the small man went as we, his shipmates, watched stupefied witnessing Shorty die.
But to the disappointment of some, especially, Chuck, Shorty had, miraculously, grabbed ahold of the lines hanging from the Belly Blocks beneath the Landing Stage and was hanging on, literally, with a death grip to the hemp ropes while his legs skipped along the surface of the water as the steamboat sped along at a full clip. No one, myself included, made a move to help the terrified boatman as he clung for his life to the guidelines that, fortunately for him, had not been pulled tightly against the belly of the Stage, but had enough slack left in them that enabled Shorty to reach out and grasp the redeeming ropes into his arms.
Within moments, which must have seemed an eternity to the gnarly boatman hanging by hempen threads in front of the roaring, deathful wave, Captain Hawley grabbed the braided cord that hung from the bell, three decks above, and gave three solid taps. Within seconds, the sound of the Engine Order Telegraph, aft in the engineroom, signaled the Engineers to stop the engines. As soon as the AVALON began slowing, Cap'n Doc ordered, "Get him out," and we promptly sprang to the mate's command and pulled Shorty onto the safety of the deck.
Another tap on the bell and the AVALON proceeded on its way through the darkness toward Madison. No more was ever said about the incident, but Shorty was on his best behavior, for a time, until Chuck quit the boat in Louisville when the AVALON left town for the last time that season.
Writing earlier about my first year on the AVALON, I had the following to say about Shorty Robinson, the wiry, diminutive capstan man, and I will repeat it as I cannot add further to what has already been written:
The AVALON had no designated head-deckhand although Captain Wagner called Shorty Robinson his head-man.On the bow, Shorty handled the steam-powered capstan, but he had no supervisory authority over the rest of the hands. Shorty had been, some said, a cook on the steam towboat, the SAM CRAIG, when it was owned and operated by the O. F. Shearer & Sons and towed sweet West Virginia coal to Cincinnati.
Shorty was what would be called, now-a-days,"mentally-challenged," but the descriptive comments, made in 1959, about his affliction were not so kind. Shorty hailed from Point Pleasant, WV, in the heart of the coal country. As he had no living family, he lived in the county home during the AVALON's off-season.
Cap made sure Shorty's modest wages were tucked securely away in Mr. Hall's safe in the Purser's office—less some walk-around-money for his Camel cigarettes, one of which was constantly hanging from the little capstan-man's lip, or for an occasional beer sipped at a rivertown dive. At the end of the season, Shorty was given a bus ticket back to West Virginia where a bunk and three meals a day awaited he earned by sweeping floors and doing whatever else he was capable of doing at the poorhouse set aside for the impecunious of Mason County.
Each Spring, about a week before the excursion season began again, a bus ticket and a small sum of cash arrived, by mail, and Shorty was put on the bus to Cincinnati where he rejoined the AVALON and worked and lived aboard the steamboat until the end of the year, and the cycle repeated itself. Shorty guarded the capstan, the powerful machine that tightened the mooring lines, as though he had title to it, and woe be the one who grabbed onto a line wrapped around it.
Shorty was the butt of many mean pranks committed out of sight of the Captain. A favorite was to encourage a new man to get astride the capstan and take-hold a line. The next thing the newbie was conscience of, was, finding himself face down on the steel deck where Shorty had put him using, either, his fist or a handy, oak toggle bar. I was spared that initiation, thanks to Ricco, who warned me about Shorty and the capstan soon after I joined the deck gang.
At the Madison, Indiana waterfront, my parents were waiting as the AVALON made a landing and they watched as I went through the normal routine of helping my mates get the lines out, the stage lowered, and the boat secured to take on a charter rider later that day.
Captain Wagner allowed me to enjoy a couple days off, so I left the boat at Madison riding in the back seat of the family car. As we rode the Indiana backroads along the Ohio River at speeds I had not experienced in months, I asked my mother what she thought of seeing me "deck" while the AVALON docked. Expecting to hear a complimentary assessment concerning my steamboat prowess, all she could muster was a feeble, "I was so embarrassed to watch you throwing those ropes."
That night I slept at home devoid of the sounds of steam engines hissing and clacking, whistles thundering, crewmen tramping a steel deck outside a hot, smelly room crammed with three other sweating bodies, the expectations of the Watchman pounding on the steel bulkhead for all to roll out for a lock, and the anxiety of the possibility of Shorty stealing into the room and getting hit in the head, as he was rumored to have done on occasions when a grudge demanded revenge.
Early the next morning, I was still asleep when Mother slipped as quietly as she could into the large bedroom on the second floor, but just her presence caused me to rouse suddenly out of my slumber as I shouted, "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT?" As quickly as my startled mother and I regained our composures, I apologized and added, "Sorry, Mom—I thought you were Shorty." Completely puzzled, the most my little mother could add was, "Who's Shorty."
In the most ironic of circumstances, merely two years after Captain Hawley saved Shorty Robinson from certain death beneath the foaming bow wake of the AVALON, the venerable steamboat had ceased operations and was sold to become the BELLE of LOUISVILLE.
Captain Wagner, Captain Hawley, and a few chosen crewmen were then staffing the palatial overnight steamer, the DELTA QUEEN. Shorty was not among the chosen, but he was invited to visit the Captains aboard the QUEEN one hot summer day when the boat landed at Point Pleasant, Shorty's hometown.
Mate Hawley, was on the starboard wing bridge as the DELTA QUEEN slowly slipped alongside the West Virginia shore while Captain Wagner, off-watch, was resting in his stateroom a deck below where Cap'n Doc was guiding the Pilot into the landing. Looking at the mass of curious well-wisher crowding the riverbank, Captain Doc spied Shorty standing on the edge of the crowd, where, oddly, a strange drama was unfolding.
Just several feet away from the former AVALON capstan man, a mean poisonous copperhead snake was embraced in a struggle with a scruffy brown wharf rat. For whatever reason, Shorty ran to where the snake and rat were battling and kicked the copperhead so hard it turned its victim loose. Angered at the loss of its meal, the snake immediately buried its fangs into Shorty's leg.
Terrified, the little man did the worst thing he could have done after getting snake-bit . . . he started running toward the top of the landing. By the time Shorty reached the cement floodwall that protected the town from floodwaters when the Ohio River was angry, the deadly venom circulated throughout his blood system and he dropped to the ground and lay motionless.
Captain Wagner, by that time awake in his room immediately below the wing bridge where Doc was standing, opened his window and shouted up to his Mate to inquire why the DELTA QUEEN hadn't completed its landing.
"Cap, you better get dressed," Captain Hawley replied, "I think Shorty's just been killed."
Up the Ohio River, the AVALON continued, though stopping along the way for a charter ride or an occasional public affair. Evansville for a couple of days and then Tell City, Indiana, booked for an open trip, slowly came abreast in a cold, hard rain, but as the AVALON slowed before swinging ashore, not a soul was waiting.
AVALON Sketch—Some of the boys were anticipating revisiting the saloons and sleazy dives along the city waterfront. Captain Wagner had been talking about Jack Salmon sandwiches and cold Falls City Beer for several days, now. Was it my imagination, or was the AVALON actually picking up speed the closer Louisville loomed? AVALON Sketch_Daniel H. McCay_2
AVALON Departing LouKY—We'd been running an odd schedule since arriving in Louisville. After a day, sometimes more, following the last trip of the day, the AVALON left town and deadheaded upriver to Madison, Indiana, some forty miles . . .
Shorty had, miraculously, grabbed ahold of the lines hanging from the Belly Blocks beneath the Landing Stage and was hanging on, literally, with a death grip to the hemp ropes while his legs skipped along the surface of the water as the steamboat sped along at a full clip. (DELTA QUEEN Stage for demonstration.)
The AVALON had no designated head-deckhand although Captain Wagner called Shorty Robinson his head-man. On the bow, Shorty handled the steam-powered capstan, but he had no supervisory authority over the rest of the hands. Shorty had been, some said, a cook on the steam towboat, the SAM CRAIG.
The River: Time to head back to school, but the river beckoned and college would have to wait
Jun 17th, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
The Fall Semester at Eastern Kentucky State College was within a week of beginning while the AVALON was still playing Cincinnati, across the Ohio River from Covington, my hometown, so my parents, naturally, thought I would quit the crew and head back to college.
The furthest up the Ohio River I had ever been was just above Lock & Dam 36, across from the Cincinnati Coney Island Amusement Park. A few years earlier, Walter Hoffmeier locked the PAL-O-MINE through Lock 36 to the delight of his guests; including my family and I. But shortly, as the AVALON floated in the upper the pool above the dam, I was in an untrodden territory and eager to savor every moment. But to their bitter surprise, I decided to miss the first semester and stay aboard the AVALON when it departed for the remainder of the 1960 season.
The furthest up the Ohio River I had ever been was just above Lock & Dam 36, across from the Cincinnati Coney Island Amusement Park. A few years earlier, Walter Hoffmeier locked the PAL-O-MINE through Lock 36 to the delight of his guests; including my family and me.
But shortly, as the AVALON floated in the upper the pool above the dam, I was in untrodden territory and eager to savor every moment. Without stopping, the AVALON passed New Richmond, Ohio where Captain Wagner's family were waiting on the riverbank in front of the Wagner home on Front Street.
Mrs. Rosa Lee Wagner, little Ernie Lee, and their attractive, teenage daughter Sandy were waving and yelling as Captain Wagner blew an elaborate salute on the celebrated steam whistle atop the roof of the pilothouse. Only a month earlier, I had helped the family lug their bags to the Baton Rouge train station overlooking the Mississippi River following a short stay on the boat.
Small towns passed with names familiar to me from the stories my Grandmother Edith told of her days growing up along the Ohio River—Point Pleasant, Moscow, Chilo, and Utopia, Ohio. Grandma's father, Charles Rice, an itinerant barber, moved his family from place to place before finally settling in Covington where Edith met and married Jesse, a recent arrival from Sanders, Kentucky and established a family dynasty that thrives a century later.
Historic Maysville, remembered from my Kentucky History book as "Limestone," a home of frontiersmen Dan'l Boone and Simon Kenton, was the AVALON's first stop before continuing, up the Ohio River. Historic Maysville, remembered from my Kentucky History book as "Limestone," a home of frontiersmen Dan'l Boone and Simon Kenton, was the AVALON's first stop before continuing, up the Ohio River.
After several more stops along the river, Ashland, Kentucky was a major destination with a "Fall Foliage" cruise and a several private charter trips awaiting our arrival. With the passage of Labor Day on the 5th of September, 1960, kids were back in school, and in everyone's minds, summer was over. Consequently, the AVALON could not get the public to ride even if the tickets, popcorn, and the sodas were free of charge.
Foliage tours, company picnics, and other gimmicky trips were the only rides that sold after Labor Day. Much to my delight, the steamboat had enough excursions booked at Ashland to keep the boat there for a few days.
A recent addition to the Ashland riverfront was an old friend I remembered from my Walt's Boat Club days—the recently-retired steam, paddlewheel towboat, the WEBER W. SEBALD, a gift to the Ashland Boat Club from ARCO Steel, the owners of the SEBALD.
A recent addition to the Ashland riverfront was an old friend I remembered from my Walt's Boat Club days—the recently-retired steam, paddlewheel towboat, the WEBER W. SEBALD, a gift to the Ashland Boat Club from ARCO Steel, the owners of the SEBALD. Everything on the boat was as it was on the final day the boilers were cooled down and the last crewman stepped ashore. Everything on the boat was as it was on the final day the boilers were cooled down and the last crewman stepped ashore. In my spare time, between steamboat chores, I rowed the AVALON's rescue boat over to the boat club and bummed my way aboard their new steamboat acquisition. The fact was, I was given the run of the WEBER W. SEBALD as though it was a member of its crew.
Amazingly, the boat seemed ready to raise steam and get underway. The kitchen dishes filled the galley cupboard, and every bed had fresh linen and clean covers. Engine lube oil cans stood filled and waiting for the Striker to make his rounds.
Of all the attractions on the boat, the cozy Guest Room quickly became my favorite spot on the SEBALD. There, between two twin beds, a wooden nightstand held an old-fashioned, pull-chain lamp. Beneath the light, a thick, leather-bound book opened onto once blank pages filled with the signatures and commentaries of the who's who of the river world—former guests aboard the vessel who ate at the table of the steamboat's captain and slept beneath the covers on the beds I was standing between reading the words they left behind.
"Lovely boat. Wonderful crew. Thanks for inviting me to experience the hospitality of the WEBER W. SEBALD," I imagined myself writing in the guest ledger.
After repeated visits, I finally left the SEBALD as it was nearing time for the AVALON to continue up the Ohio River.
The steam sternwheeler, WEBER W. SEBALD, today, nearly sixty years later, lies as a rusty, moldering wreck on the Great Kanawha River near St. Albans, West Virginia. Sometimes, over the many years that passed between then and this writing, I wished more larceny had been lurking in the heart of a policeman's son, and I had "liberated" the precious guestbook . . . or better, asked my hosts if I could have it. The steam sternwheeler, WEBER W. SEBALD, today, nearly sixty years later, lies as a rusty, moldering wreck on the Great Kanawha River near St. Albans, West Virginia.
The precious book, filled with the words composed by the elite of the inland marine world, has disappeared and, most-likely exists no longer. But had I gained possession of the priceless relic; it would be here with me, now, next to my desk.
On the last Ashland Moonlite Cruise, as I was standing idly in the deckroom near the cookhouse in front of the starboard steam engine waiting for the AVALON to lessen the gap to the shore before retiring to my station on the fantail to catch the sternline, the sounds of breaking glass and bending steel caused me to rush to the opposite side of the room.
While we were cruising on the river, a small fleet of empty hopper barges was dropped below our landing causing the pilot, ninety-year-old Captain John Emory Edgington, to have to get above the barges before making a sudden, hard-down turn into where the AVALON usually landed. While we were cruising on the river, a small fleet of empty hopper barges was dropped below our landing causing the pilot, ninety-year-old Captain John Emory Edgington, to have to get above the barges before making a sudden, hard-down turn into where the AVALON usually landed. After the Pilot rang a stopping bell, the current shoved the steamboat onto the sharp corner of the rake-end of the outside barge.
As the hard steel barge ripped into the side of the superstructure, overtop the main deck, hundreds of wooden cases loaded with empty Wagner Cola bottles, stored alongside the outer bulkhead, cascaded onto the top of the steamboat hull as wood, glass, and mangled steel made a terrible mess of the boat we worked so hard to maintain.
Fortunately, no one was injured, and within a few days, repairs made to the satisfaction of the prying eyes of the U. S. Coast Guard, the government agency charged to monitor the fortunes and misfortunes of all passenger-carrying vessels within the navigable waters of the country, allowed us to continue along our route.
By then, the AVALON was hosting steamboat trips at Huntington, West Virginia, only a few miles further up the Ohio River where the crispy chill of autumn made the night air cold enough for jackets and sweaters.
The River: More adventures; loving the captain for making a stalwart steamboatman of a young boy
Jun 24th, 2018
See original: NKyTribune.com
Captain Hawley, the AVALON's First Mate and Relief Captain, also played the steam calliope mounted on the roof making an infernal musical racket heard for great distances that summoned the rubes from miles around to let them know the steamboat was in town. Huntington, West Virginia was no exception. The riverbank between the cement floodwall, clear to the water's edge, was crowded with those eager to hear the thirty-two brass whistles on the Thomas J. Nichol steam-powered musical instrument screeching and hooting as Cap'n Doc shoved against the brass keys hard-enough to overcome the pressure of the hot vapor that powered the odd contraption.
Captain Hawley, the AVALON's First Mate and Relief Captain, also played the steam calliope mounted on the roof making an infernal musical racket heard for great distances that summoned the rubes from miles around to let them know the steamboat was in town.
Doc allowed me a certain concession of standing on the roof next to him as he played and obliged my requests for certain tunes well-suited to the steam calliope. After a time, I no longer had to ask for those songs by name. They became my "signature tunes" performed for me without my asking whenever I was around while "L'il Doc" played the "Cally-O," as my Grandmother Edith called it, remembering her younger days on the Ohio River hearing the songs played on the steamboats of her youth. Of course, "Avalon" was my most beloved calliope tune, and "Alice Blue Gown" was a close second. The autumn nights had grown chilly, but I found I could stay warm standing downwind of the whistles in the steam erupting from them as Doc delighted all who enjoyed the mesmerizing music of the AVALON's steam calliope.
A haunting memory of Huntington was that of the sunken wreck of what must have once been an attractive steamboat not far from where we moored. It was buried up to its Boiler Deck in the river, and the stacks and pilothouse were missing, but, still, it was unusual to see such a sight, although everyone seems to think the rivers lay littered with such picturesque wrecks.
The old Gallipolis Locks were made late at night. My station during lockages was by myself manning the sternline on the opposite end of the boat from where the Mate and the rest of the hands were tending the forward lines. There were no radios, of course, to communicate between the mate and myself, so I had to be familiar with the way the steamboat normally behaved in a locking situation.
The old Gallipolis Locks were made late at night. My station during lockages was by myself manning the sternline on the opposite end of the boat from where the Mate and the rest of the hands were tending the forward lines. There were no radios, of course, to communicate between the mate and myself, so I had to be familiar with the way the steamboat normally behaved in a locking situation. As I was next to the engineroom, I learned to tell by the bells of the Engine Order Telegraph and the way the engines handled what I thought the Pilot and the Captain, far up on the roof, were intending. As having no one else working with me, or supervising, I quickly learned to be resourceful, alert, and especially careful as tending the sternline, alone, could be a precarious place to be as I experienced several times when my guesses failed to comply with the actions of those above.
But that lonely outpost taught me how to think for myself and the experience proved incalculable when I was the one on the bridge guiding a steamboat into similar situations.
After a day, or two, spent playing Gallipolis, Henderson, and Point Pleasant, the AVALON nosed its bow into the mouth of the Great Kanawha River bound for territories entirely unknown to me but were eventually to become like a second home.
Heading up the scenic river, the AVALON blew salutes to the folks watching and waving at Grimms Landing, Buffalo, and Eleanor before the first lock below Winfield, West Virginia. Red House, a tiny hamlet above Winfield, was where Captain Clifford Dean operated a small hand-rowed ferryboat when he was a youngster. Actually, it was only a double-end jonboat, but in those days, he did a brisk business during those summers of long ago, he once told me. Captain Dean, watching one time as I rowed a skiff on the Kanawha laughingly teased, "You don't know how to row!" As I prided myself on my oarsmanship, I flushed with vexation, but instead of reacting angrily, I replied, "If you know so much, why don't you get in the boat and show me the right way to row."
He did and changed my life as far as small boat handling under-oar went. Cappy Dean taught me how to handle the oars the way he rowed when he pulled his tiny ark ferrying paying passengers from Red House to Winfield. I named Cap'n Dean's method of rowing "The Kanawha Crawl" I used, some years later, when I broke two 1941 speed records on the Great Kanawha River. My times still stand, at this writing, for over 40 years, now.
Close to the landing, I spied a half-sunken wooden barge, a relic of times gone by, with one end afloat, and the other buried in the mud deep beneath the river. On the floating rake end, an inviting deck looked perfect to curl up on until I heard the whistle calling for a landing.
St. Albans, a city of modest size, not far from Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, hosted a charter trip after dark, the kind we called a "Moonlite Ride." Again, I volunteered to stay ashore to catch the lines when the Avalon returned from the excursion. Typically, this was a choice assignment that allowed the lucky deckhand to get some free time ashore to find a tavern for a few beers, or if the town was large-enough, look for the Greyhound Bus Station in hopes of finding a stray gal of easy means.
However, I chose to find a haven to curl up for a nap to await the return of the boat as I had done in East St. Louis, Prairie du Chien, St. Paul, Plaquemine, before, now, at St. Albans. Close to the landing, I spied a half-sunken wooden barge, a relic of times gone by, with one end afloat, and the other buried in the mud deep beneath the river. On the floating rake end, an inviting deck looked perfect to curl up on until I heard the whistle calling for a landing.
The only access to reach the space was along a very narrow, slanted, slippery gunnel of but one six-inch-timber wide. Getting onto it was easy in the daylight. Soon I took advantage of a rare opportunity to grab some rest, and I was fast asleep until I was dreaming I heard the whistle blowing nearly over my head. Startled, I leaped up to find the AVALON was almost abreast of my half-submerged hidey-hole and I had to quickly get ashore and be waiting to catch the first line as soon as it came ashore from the bow.
Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, was the hometown of Captain Clarke Campbell "Doc" Hawley. As the AVALON pulled into Charleston, after leaving St. Albans in its wake, this would be my first visit to the town, but definitely, not my last.
The steamboat was ablaze as every side light was burning. The brilliant carbon-arc spotlight blinded me as the pilot found me feebly trying to walk the slick, wooden timber to get close enough that I could step ashore. My world started spinning, and I realized I was started to fall off the wet gunnel of the barge. But, I still had a choice: would I fall into the sunken barge and have a terrible time getting out, or would I attempt to leap the wide gap to the shore? With all my might, I summoned my entire strength and threw one leg forward toward the muddy shore . . . and splashed waist-deep into the chilly water of the Great Kanawha River.
Desperately, I crawled out of the river, up the muddy embankment, and was barely on time, but I caught the handy-line Jackie threw, pulled the headline ashore, snubbed it around a cottonwood, and dogged it off. I was muddy, wet, and cold, but when I asked the mate for his blessing to change into dry gear, he refused to allow me to leave the bow until all the passengers were off, the headline back aboard, the lines on-deck in order, and the steamboat underway for Charleston. I'll say this: Cap'n Hawley did his best to make me into a stalwart, seasoned steamboatman, and I have always loved him for it.
Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, was the hometown of Captain Clarke Campbell "Doc" Hawley. As the AVALON pulled into Charleston, after leaving St. Albans in its wake, this would be my first visit to the town, but definitely, not my last. Just a few years earlier, the steamboat had been in town, but the steam calliope was silent for lack of a player. A friend of Captain Wagner's recommended a teenage boy in the city who played the organ at his church after Wagner mentioned that organists generally make better calliope players than do pianists. Cap agreed to give the youngster a try, and very soon the friend departed and returned to the boat with the lad and his parents.
The Captain called for steam on the roof, and the boy took naturally to playing the infernal contraption as though he was born to it. He did so well, and attracted to many rubes to the steamboat, that Cap asked Mr. and Mrs. Homer Hawley to allow their son to spend the rest of the summer traveling with the boat playing the calliope and helping sell popcorn between concerts. The Hawleys agreed, and their son became a striker steamboatman at the age of fifteen. By the time he was nineteen, Clarke was a duly-certified Mate.
After we locked through the last dam at London, Montgomery, the head of navigation on the Kanawha as far as the AVALON was concerned, lay ahead. Above there, within a few miles, was the falls, and further on, the source of the Kanawha River at the juncture of the Gauley and the New Rivers. The terrain had changed, too, from low hills to the "mountains" that most people associate with West Virginia.
Soon after his twenty-first birthday, he was a United States Coast Guard licensed "Master and First-Class Pilot of Steam and Motor Vessels of Any Gross Tons Upon Rivers," as his official document read. He earned the nickname, "Doc," as a premedical major in college, but he soon realized he "couldn't stand the sight of blood," as he once explained the origin of his unusual moniker. After graduating with honors in a field other than medicine, Doc Hawley devoted his life to steamboating and will go down in river history as the most celebrated steamboatman of his generation. A hundred years from now, whenever the history of steamboats in the Twentieth Century is studied, his name will be celebrated.
After several days, the AVALON continued her tour of the Kanawha and headed upriver toward Montgomery. Little did I know, as we steamed by the impressive West Virginia State Capitol that I would return to Charleston sixteen years later, America's Bicentennial Year, as the first Captain of the, then, newly-constructed excursion paddlewheeler, the P. A. DENNY. But that is another story.
With each turn of the AVALON's wheel, I was seeing new towns and places with names that would, one day, be as familiar to me as any on the Western Rivers System: Campbell's Creek, Port Amherst, Malden, Marmet Lock, and Belle, to name but a few. After we locked through the last dam at London, Montgomery, the head of navigation on the Kanawha as far as the AVALON was concerned, lay ahead. Above there, within a few miles, was the falls, and further on, the source of the Kanawha River at the juncture of the Gauley and the New Rivers. The terrain had changed, too, from low hills to the "mountains" that most people associate with West Virginia.
After several school rides and a charter for the local community college, the AVALON departed Montgomery less a couple of benches tossed into the paddlewheel by unknown vandals during the Moonlite Cruise. Fortunately for them, they missed a visit as guests of the sweltering "gorilla cage" jail behind the engine room where such miscreants languished until they were in the custody of the "law" after the boat arrived back at the point of departure.
Within the week, the AVALON's three-chime whistle was thundering a long blast as the steamboat entered the Ohio River leaving the Great Kanawha River in its wake.