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Capt. Don Sanders: Sure it’s cold and might get colder, but have you been on a riverboat on ice?


By Captain Don Sanders
Special to KyForward

As a much younger man, I delighted in blustery winter weather like the Ohio Valley’s been enduring this week. The colder, the rawer, the nastier — the better. We had our share of wintry temps, ice, and blustery winds at Walt’s Boat Harbor, in West Covington, back in my high school days. One frigid afternoon, I stepped off the school bus in time for Walter to announce:

We had our share of wintry temps, ice, and blustery winds at Walt’s Boat Harbor, in West Covington.

“Don’t take off yer coat and get cozy. The water pipe in the cottage basement atop the hill froze, and I was waitin’ for help before I got started. Water’s a’ blowing out the pipe and freezin’ to ice everywhere.”

Walter Hoffmeier, a small, skinny, older fellow, was waiting for me to lug the heavy toolbox to the top of the steep riverbank at the ramshackle cottage where the ancient mother of the former owner of the riverfront property enjoyed free rent, electricity, and water for the remainder of her days, according to the terms agreed upon when the property changed ownership.

The elderly lady spoke but rarely, and then only in barely-coherent, broken English. She dressed all in black like the women of her age back in the old country where she was born before immigrating to America soon after the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. With no plumbing inside the one-story cottage facing Second Street that dropped off to a full-level, walk-in basement on the waterside, I learned to be extra vigilant at the sound of a window opening above me in the older woman’s quarters whenever I was nearby. As fast as the window opened, the contents of her slop jar rained down without warning onto anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in its path. After experiencing a couple of close calls, I habitually gave the target area a wide berth.

Walter Hoffmeier, a small, skinny, older fellow, was waiting for me to lug the heavy toolbox to the top of the steep riverbank.

But that day, when the water supply line froze, broke, and turned the cottage basement into an ice rink, I was soaked to the skin by the time Walt and his brother Huckle stopped the leak and replaced the busted pipe while I stood by and held the flashlight. Before you laugh, holding a flashlight correctly is an essential art I learned from Walt, which I applied to my advantage many times throughout my working career. 

The long walk in the howling wind and sub-zero temps, back down the hill to the warmth of the coal-burning, potbellied stove in the headboat, took long enough to enclose me in a layer of ice by the time I reached the gangway. Instead of bemoaning my predicament in the freezing river air, I wore the encased ice like a suit of honor. Only when the Hoffmeier brothers crossed the walkway behind me did I hurry inside after Walter commanded:

The ramshackle cottage where the ancient mother of the former owner of the riverfront property enjoyed free rent, electricity, and water for the remainder of her days.

“Hurry yer ass inside and get warmed up and dried out. What’s wrong with you?” 

Perhaps the coldest winter at the boat harbor was in 1958, my last winter with Walter before I graduated from high school, left for a summer of steamboating, and then headed off to start college. The Ohio River soon choked with grinding ice from the Covington shoreline to the far Cincinnati side. Anything within the path of the frozen bulldozer quickly ground to pieces before being swept away. However, Walt knew the techniques of the old-time rivermen and how they dealt with such bitter extremes of nature.

The elderly lady dressed all in black like the women of her age back in the old country where she was born.

Intentionally, he grounded the headboat, the long string of floats, and the houseboats MARJESS and the PAL-O-MINE until the ice eventually swept by and the rising river safely refloated the fleet. The following winter, with me off to the college and without other helpers, the old boatman was shoveling a truckload of cinders for the rampway when his frail heart gave out, and he died soon after. I always thought of Walter Hoffmeier as an older man, but he was only 58 when he expired doing the job I would have done had I been there.

The coldest days I experienced on the DELTA QUEEN were usually during the rare times when New Orleans really became cold. Some readers may remember me telling about when the “head lady from the Cincinnati office” ordered one of our most gullible deckhands to break out the water hose and flush the deck by the shoreside boarding ramp. Of course, the water immediately froze, and a layer of ice sheathed the deck. When I arrived at the entranceway with a barrel of sand to scatter on the ice, a blustery senior citizen pushed his way past the Watchman before he could be stopped and instantly slipped, fell, and busted his arm in multiple places. I felt sorry for the old gentleman as George, the United Cab Company driver, hustled him off to Charity Hospital’s emergency room.

Intentionally, he grounded the headboat, the long string of floats, and the houseboats MARJESS and the PAL-O-MINE until the ice eventually swept by and the rising river safely refloated the fleet.

It wasn’t until I came on watch again, several hours later, that I found out the pushy oldster was none other than Captain Howard Tate, the crusty pilot on the after-watch with me. For a few days, Tate reluctantly granted me some time steering the DELTA QUEEN until his pain subsided, and then he took back the “sticks.”

I saw more winters on the casino boats, which ran year-round, instead of the overnight and excursion boats that tied up during the cold season. The first boat I piloted in ice was the 400-foot GRAND VICTORIA on the tiny Fox River in Elgin, IL, west of Chicago. The weather changed so quickly, there, that I watched the Fox go from liquid water to solid ice, thick-enough to drive a pickup on, within the short span of three hours. When the casino first began operating in October 1994, and the emphasis was on maintaining a high “cruise rate,” the boat was underway in all but the worst weather and river conditions. We had but a short distance to “cruise” on the Fox. What we did, mostly, was go upriver a few boat lengths, stay in position until close to landing time, and then returned to the dock.

The first boat I piloted in ice was the 400-foot GRAND VICTORIA on the tiny Fox River in Elgin, IL, west of Chicago.

As the GRAND VICTORIA was a massive boat, it quickly broke the ice with its bulk and the aid of three powerful “Z-drive” thrusters on each end of the hull. When I arrived on-station at the far end of the route, I usually entertained myself by maintaining a position as accurately as possible considering wind and river currents. But the first day the Fox was frozen, I tried something new. Instead of breaking the ice alongside with the thrusters, I figured if I pushed the layer of surface ice between my hull and the steel pilings along the shore where the shipyard had been when the boat was built, the immense pressure would certainly squeeze and bust the ice. As I applied the throttles to the six powerful thrusters, a terrible scream, the likes I’d never heard before, rent the air like the wail of a wounded banshee. Instead of breaking, the ice compressed and let out that terrible squeal I feared would disrupt the games inside the boat. The last thing any gambling boat captain wants is to interrupt the “gaming” inside the casino, where doing so is a sure way of losing a well-paying gig.

In the winter of 1996, after the sister vessel to the Elgin boat, the GRAND VICTORIA II, opened for business on the Middle Ohio River at Rising Sun, Indiana, management, again, insisted on a high cruise rate. The captains could cancel a cruise depending on weather, river, or mechanical conditions. Still, when the casino boats were new, a casino boat going out as often as possible was seen as superior to one not cruising as much. Our management outfit, different than the casino owners, favored high cruise rates often higher than what the owners wanted.

The winter of 1996-97 was ferocious with record snowfalls and bitter temperatures throughout the midwest. Despite the extreme weather conditions on the river, we kept cruising. The biggest fear we had, was the paddlewheel completely freezing solid if it stopped, so the 58-foot-wide by 26-foot-deep wheel was kept slowly turning on a “dead-slow bell” between trips

In the winter of 1996, after the sister vessel to the Elgin boat, the GRAND VICTORIA II, opened for business on the Middle Ohio River at Rising Sun, Indiana.

After a few days, blue ice formed on the steel and wooden sternwheel until the wheel’s mass increased several tons. When Deckmate, now Captain, Roger Hilligoss, went astern to check on the massive propulsion unit’s condition, a thick block of ice broke from the bucketboards and narrowly missed taking off the top of his head. The piece was so heavy, a robust deckhand couldn’t lift it from the deck and had to scoot the frozen chunk into the river. Soon after Roger’s narrow escape, management finally gave the Captains permission to cancel the cruises and wait at dockside until the weather modified.

Eventually, it did, but that following summer, the center paddlewheel bearing failed. Some onboard engineers believed the extra weight on the bearing from the additional tons of ice on the paddlewheel the previous winter caused the failure. On my first day back from “days-off,” I discovered the bearing was shattered like broken glass. With a boatload of passengers and crew aboard, I declared an emergency. Without a paddlewheel and with Security officers standing by ashore, I gingerly maneuvered the GRAND VICTORIA II safely back to her mooring barge — but that’s a story for another time.

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.     


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One Comment

  1. Brack Marquette says:

    Captain Sanders. Brackmarquette here in Lexington. Could not have been more entertained by your article. Reminded me of our family story that when my German Marquard//MARQUETTE/Klingner family arrived in Cincinnati from Prussia by way of Bremen and Baltimore in the winter of 1856 on their way to join other family members in the Short Creek community in rural Pendleton County, they told the story of crossing the frozen Ohio River from Cincinnati to Covington on foot. They told there was a tavern in the middle of the river that has been pulled out on the ice, and it was in the tavern they stopped to warm up before they completed their crossing. The story matches local reports from those same years which were extraordinarily cold and at which time the Ohio River, not being at its modern dam-managed depth, would freeze over in the harshest winners. Your excellent article brought all of this to mind, and I thought you might enjoy this family tidbit As well. Best to you. Brack

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