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Captain Don Sanders: Riverboat deckhands worked hard for little and didn’t want to cross the Captain


By Captain Don Sanders
Special to KyForward

Deckhands started at $21 a week on the Steamer AVALON; nineteen after taxes. That was for a seven-day week, 30 or 31 days a month except for February, and even that changed every four years. There were no set working hours per day. No shifts.

Deckhands started at $21 a week on the Steamer AVALON; nineteen after taxes.

Deckhands worked as long as needed, which depended on how many rides the front office booked. Usually, there were two trips, an afternoon ride and the “Moonlite” departing at 8 p.m. and back within four hours. Sometimes a “Midnite Ride” or a Charter excursion came unexpectedly at the usual end of a long day. Either way made no difference. “Deck apes” remained at their duty stations or nearby, as long as needed.

Four men each shared tiny, oven-like rooms alongside both sides of the boilers. Each man had his own rack. An oscillating fan sat atop a four-drawer chest of drawers with a drawer for each occupant. The rest of the men’s plunder remained in their suitcases, duffle bags, or gunny sacks stowed beneath the lower bunk on whatever side of the room they slept. When sleep eventually came, it was often interrupted by the Night Watchman, “Dirty Shirt Harold,” banging on the steel bulkhead,

“LOCK TIME… GIT YER ASSES UP AND OUT…”

Deckhands worked as long as needed, which depended on how many rides the front office booked. Usually, there were two trips, an afternoon ride and the “Moonlite” departing at 8 p.m. and back within four hours.

No room slept with their door shut. The heat made that judgment. Though seemingly dead to the world, a seasoned hand woke at the slightest encouragement. To oversleep meant the possible visit of the Captain, a grizzly bear-like giant who harbored little solicitude for a slacker. A single surprise visit from him was enough to make the most fervent sleeper the first out of the rack and onto his feet at the slightest scuffing sound of the approaching Night Watchman’s shoes on the metal deck. I know from experience, for I received such an unnerving visitation from the grizzled master bear when I failed to make an appearance at a fire and boat drill following a double shift in the engine room besides working at my regular deckhand chores.

Making matters worse, the General Alarm Bell was right outside my room on the bulkhead just below the overhead. Only a dead man could have deliberately ignored the screaming of the bell.

Pompeians living within the shadow of Mount Vesuvius couldn’t have been more surprised and shocked in 79 AD when the mountain erupted than I was when the Captain barreled into my tiny quarters raging like a human volcano. The lava-like fire within his white-hot glare was more frightening than his thundering voice rumbling so loud that the sides of the small, steel cubical seemed to shake in his fury.

“WHAT ’A YA DOING SLEEPIN’ DURING THE FIRE DRILL? COME OUTTA THERE…” And so forth that I will spare the reader’s ears.

When sleep eventually came, it was often interrupted by the Night Watchman, “Dirty Shirt Harold.”

I knew enough to remove myself from the top rack as I wrapped the woolen Army blanket around my naked self while I rolled off the bed, into space, and twisted in midair so that my bare feet landed on the soiled throw rug on the dirty, painted steel deck between the dual sets of bunks that filled most of Room 12.

Additionally, I had enough presence of mind to know that I needed to commence my defense as to why I slept through the Fire and Boat Drills while the General Alarm Bell that could nearly arouse the dead was merely a few feet away from my top bunk on the after side of the crowded compartment.

“That General Alarm Bell never sounded,” I began my defense in earnest. “I never heard a thing… I swear. You know, Captain, I’d never ignored the alarm bell. You know me well enough.”

In desperation, I insisted by playing on every emotion I could conjure to penetrate the mindset of the Skipper who had already labeled me as guilty of the unforgivable sin of deliberately sleeping through, or ignoring, the alarm bells meant to broadcast the warning of a fire, explosion, collision, man overboard, or the dire announcement to abandon ship before the steamboat sank beneath the angry tide of an unforgiving river.

Old Preacher, once known as the “best coal firemen on the river” who started his steamboat career at age 14 with Captain Tom Ryman of Nashville fame, the builder of the historic Ryman Auditorium.

As I stood outside my door beneath the General Alarm Bell wrapped only in the thin wool Army blanket, the Captain called to the Engineer standing at the gate to the engineroom, only several yards away,

“Chief…Gimme a ring on that alarm bell.”

By then, a crowd of my fellow workers stood at a tolerable distance, watching it all. The AVALON, deadheading between towns, had no passengers aboard to witness what was essentially a trial whose outcome would decide my future within the steamboat community. If found guilty, I might as well pack the heavy footlocker resting beneath the bottom bunk and walk up the hill in disgrace to the Greyhound Bus Terminal at the next stop. The Captain would never forgive me if he could prove the General Alarm Bell was without fault, and the guilt lay heavily on me like a hundred woolen Army blankets. Gone forever would be my steamboatin’ dreams.

“Standby… here goes, Cap’n,” the Chief Engineer called as he gave the signal to Old Preacher Lollar standing by the brass actuator handle that activated the General Alarm Bells throughout the AVALON, from the pilothouse to practically every space inside-and-out the sternwheel excursion steamer. As Old Preacher, once known as the “best coal fireman on the river” who started his steamboat career at age 14 with Captain Tom Ryman of Nashville fame, the builder of the historic Ryman Auditorium, pulled down on the General Alarm Switch, the AVALON practically vibrated with the reverberations of the bells ringing their warning cries.

Old Preacher, once known as the “best coal firemen on the river” who started his steamboat career at age 14 with Captain Tom Ryman of Nashville fame, the builder of the historic Ryman Auditorium.

Beneath the General Alarm Bell outside my room, the Captain looked up in anticipation of hearing the questionable steel bell ring out its warning voice along with all its brethren screaming throughout the boat.

One cry from the bell would finish me.

“You got that alarm switch all the way engaged, Chief?” the Captain hollered at the Engineer still standing at the gate to the engineroom where he could watch the proceedings unfolding by my door while keeping in contact with the venerable steamboat veteran holding the General Alarm Switch in the open position. As soon as the Chief Engineer understood the Captain’s request, he left the gate and walked to the console to satisfy himself that the switch was fully activated. Pleased that it was, the Chief returned to his place at the gate and reported his findings to the Captain,

“She’s all the way open, Cap’n.”

Beneath the General Alarm Bell outside my quarters, the Captain, myself, and several interlopers who joined us, including Harry Ricco, a Dancefloor Watchman, stared in wonder at the errant bell. While every other red-painted bell was thundering their alarming cries throughout the steamboat, the one above us stood defiant in stony silence. Nary a peep resonated from the hushed emergency device bolted to the bulkhead above our heads.

Captain Ernest E. Wagner, had plans for me as I would discover in due time. 

“Okay… shut ‘er off, Chief,” the Captain ordered. “Get yer ladder and some tools and git this-here bell workin’.”

A couple of the deckhands standing by watching immediately rushed by to help the Chief Engineer gather what he needed to get the Alarm Bell back online. Happily, all that was wrong was a wire had come loose. After another test of the system, the Captain seemed satisfied the bell was working smartly, again. To my relief, I proved that I had not slept through the sounding of the alarm signals outside my room. More so, I was delighted that the Captain was confident that it was the faulty General Alarm Bell that caused me to miss the drills, and I had not disappointed him.

The Captain… Captain Ernest E. Wagner, had plans for me as I would discover in due 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. Now, he shares his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good. 


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