The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will share the stories of his long association with the river – from discovery to a way of love and life. This is part of a long and continuous history.
By Captain Don Sanders
Special for NKyTribune
What’s hot on the river besides the usual summer heat advisory is news of the redesigned Charleston, West “By God” Virginia “Sternwheel Regatta.” The once regional event was started by 13-year-old O. Nelson Jones in 1971. Although the riverside festivities ended in 2008 after 37 years, fan demand and the influence of good people revived the celebration this year again.
When I accepted the captaincy of the still unfinished PA DENNY Sternwheeler at this time of the season during our nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, the Sternwheel Regatta was in its fifth year. Among my deckhands were Nelson and Tom Cook, college students and descendants of two of the most influential families in the Mountaineer State Capital. The Jones and Cook family businesses involved river trade, so the young people naturally followed their age-old traditions. After spending their last college summer aboard the DENNY, the guys regained their family’s resources after graduation, but they remained close to their old boat and crew. William “Bill” Barr, a current officer with the Jones organization, now called Amherst Madison, Inc., also boarded the DENNY with his buddies Nelson and Tom that first year.
PA DENNY owner Cappy Lawson Hamilton had decorated the paddle steamer in his favorite colors of red, white and blue, with colossal plywood stars and a continuous row of billowing American flags adorning the boat’s upper deck. The DENNY was certainly a windbreaker with all those patriotic trimmings, but Mr. Hamilton was undoubtedly proud of her in all her Bicentennial finery.
Immediately after the last cruise during the 1976 Celebration, the DENNY departed shortly after midnight for Marietta, Ohio on the Ohio River. The Sternwheel Regatta, at the time, was celebrating Labor Day instead of Independence Day, as the festivities will be for the coming week. Nelson Jones and Tom Cook’s replacements were fellows who intended to make the DENNY a profession, namely Mark Twain lookalike Tony Harrison, a transplant from Covington, KY via Toledo on the Great Lakes, and Todd Mace and Bradley Price, both Charleston natives. My youngest brother, Jeff Sanders, was also the deck and closely watched the DENNY’s receipts as purser. Brad’s little brother, 12-year-old Tommie Price, got a place on the boat as my ‘Cub Pilot’ with his school’s permission for his absence while on the river heading to Marietta.
Once the PA DENNY arrived in Marietta, about 170 miles away via the Great Kanawha and Ohio rivers, other American Sternwheel Association paddle steamers already in town lined the Marietta shore. Cloistered at the nearby Lafayette Hotel by the river, members of the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen gathered for their annual River Enthusiast Summit from the farthest shores of the Mississippi river system. Of course, the S&D’ers packed our first afternoon excursion as the howling wind blew from the west along Ohio’s long reach.
Although the PA DENNY Sternwheeler was easy to get under way and maneuvered smoothly along the route, once it veered parallel to the other paddle steamers for a landing, the brisk westerly wind lifted the boat and pushed it sideways against the current of the river. After several failed attempts to tame the beast, a sandy shore beckoned me, so I drove the DENNY into the soft underbelly of the sand and held it there with the paddle wheel coming forward at a moderate clip . Then, with no swivel landing stage for disembarkation, our passengers nimbly dragged themselves outside the main deck railing to a stepping board to shore. Luckily most of our guests were river boat fans and seemed to enjoy the added thrill of the wind, Kamikaze style splashdown and unconventional paddle boat landing added to their cruising experience. Captain Fredrick Way, Jr. also featured the adventure in the December 1976 edition of S&D REFLECTOR, the Sons and Daughters’ quarterly magazine.
The 1977 Sternwheel Regatta featured my friend, famous Bluegrass musician, riverboat pilot and captain, John Hartford. When he could find the time in his busy schedule during the festivities, John climbed into the wheelhouse of the DENNY, where he steered the paddle steamer as often as possible. Before Cappy Hartford entered the regatta, I promised my crew that I would give them the whistle of the US government inspection boat MISSISSIPPI. Five years earlier, the owner of the MISSISSIPPI, renamed BECKY THATCHER, had given me the large brass whistle on the condition that I remove it from the spreader bar between the funnels of the steamer. My DELTA QUEEN deck crew and I made short work of the move.
Sure enough, the Sunday after the Charleston Regatta closed, I drove to Marietta where the S&D was meeting again and presented the single-chimer to John Hartford in the shadow of the moored US MISSISSIPPI/BECKY THATCHER on the Muskingham River near the parking lot of the Lafayette Hotel. A year later, John brought the whistle to the DELTA QUEEN, which I replaced with the melodious three-chime Lunkenhiemer from the QUEEN to see how the government whistle sounded.
The harder he blew, the louder the whistle howled. Finally, after several hours, everyone within earshot rejoiced when the QUEEN’s whistle resumed its place of honor on the hood encircling the chimney. Interestingly, the MISSISSIPPI whistle remains in service aboard the flagship of the Lake George Steamboat Company fleet on Lake George in New York State, LAC du SAINT SACREMENT.
Last week I was honored to be invited by Cappy Scot Heckert, the owner of the PA DENNY, to pilot “our old boat” in the 2022 Charleston Sternwheel Regatta. Although I was delighted when asked, personal circumstances prevented me from accepting the distinction. So after phoning Scot and thanking him, I informed him that my 12 year old Cub Pilot, who grew up to be the master of the DENNY, now a successful entrepreneur in his adopted state, had the plan to be home in Charleston for the regatta. After a few more calls, a message came in that Captain Tom Price would be piloting the PA DENNY in the next sternwheeler race during the festivities in a few weeks.
Captain Robyn Strickland Jones, Nelson’s widow, also needs a ‘thank you’ for her involvement in suggesting I race the DENNY and for helping bring the Sternwheel Regatta back. Sadly, Nelson passed away far too soon at the age of 52 in July 2010. Planned for dedication, a plaque honoring the memory of the beloved husband of Robyn and Cappy Lawson Hamilton will be on the program of the week’s activities.
Though not present, my heart will linger on the Charleston Seawall, where the whispers of the names of many friends, now departed, will echo amid the laughter and excitement of the rekindled festivities that began so many years ago. years by an excited 13-year-old. -old boy “fascinated by everything that happened on the river”, as Nelson recalled in a 1997 interview.
If the Sternwheel Regatta becomes a success and I’m still around, maybe I’ll be in Charleston another year. Stay tuned.
Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He was a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before learning 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 from the river. Hang on for the ride – the river has never looked so good.
Click here to read all of Captain Don Sanders’ stories on The River.