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Remember when the Ohio River froze over . . . here’s a riverboat captain’s remembrance of that and more

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to KyForward

Winter is officially here, and the frosty temps the Ohio River Valley has experienced since early autumn has river rats wondering if the Ohio is going to freeze before the lilacs bloom in April. The sudden and lingering chill so early in the season, evacuated the summer boaters from my paddlewheeler CLYDE.’s marina as surely as had the plague been discovered residing among the fancy yachts.

The perils of winter always make a life lived floating atop a liquid that turns into a solid at only thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit — just cold-enough for a sweater and a medium-weight jacket; gloves are optional. Besides busted pipes, slippery decks, and heaven-forbid, a frozen engine block, winter makes life on the river umpteen times more difficult than do balmy summer temps.

For instance:

Sometime in the 1950s, when I was a lad working at Walt’s Boat Harbor in my hometown of Covington, across from the west end of downtown Cincinnati, the river became choked with floating ice grinding its way downstream. As this was before Markland Dam spanned the width of the river, the old wicket-style dam was “thrown” and lay on the bottom as the ice flowed freely overhead. Walter Hoffmeier, the wily old riverman who’d spent the majority of his life afloat since the day he was born on a shantyboat on the Licking River, knew to beach the entire marina, boats and floating docks ashore as the level of the river dropped once the dam was down, and the grinding ice bulldozed everything in its way. After the ice had passed, the government lockmen at Lock & dam 37, below town, raised the wickets back into place and Walt’s and all its contents floated off the riverbank. With today’s high-lift dam in place, such a clever maneuver in the face of crushing ice may no longer be an option.

The entire marina, boats and floating docks beached ashore as the level of the river dropped once the dam was down, and the grinding ice bulldozed everything in its way.

Then, of course, there were the two nasty winters of 1976-’77 and 1977-‘78 when the Ohio froze solid. That October of 1977, I piloted the P. A. DENNY Sternwheeler from Charleston, West Virginia to New Orleans. On the morning after the DENNY stayed overnight in Louisville, ice formed in the water was frozen solidly between the paddlewheel bucketplanks. That discovery was a harbinger of what was yet to come.

By January of 1977, twenty-six consecutive brutal days of below-freezing temperatures gripped the Ohio Valley. On January 18th, a record temperature of Minus 25 degrees paralyzed the valley, and the Ohio River froze solid for the first time since 1958 and only the 13th time in recorded history, the evening newscasts announced. Towboat traffic stopped, and when an occasional brave captain etched a watery path through the frozen river, the ice regathered and froze as solidly as before.
Only a year later, another blockbuster winter socked the Ohio River Valley when what was likely the “worst blizzard in U. S. history” slammed into the region. At the moment the ‘78 Blizzard struck Covington, I was on the roof atop my house chipping ice from the front gutter that was causing water from melting ice next to the warmer metal roofing to find its way inside. As the record wintry blast stuck, I was 35feet above the ground holding onto a lifeline I’d strung from inside the attic, across the roof ridge, and down to the gutter on the street side of the Victorian home.

“Damn it’s cold,” I remember saying to myself not realizing I was in some of the most bone-chilling weather ever to hit the Middle Ohio River region while hanging by a slender thread on a steep metal roof so very high above the ground. Hearing about what I’d done, once the weather abated, The Kentucky Post newspaper featured my exploits in a story complete with a photograph of me atop the roof recreating the treacherous event.   

That October of 1977, I piloted the P. A. DENNY Sternwheeler from Charleston, West Virginia to New Orleans.

According to the record books, the month of January 1978 ended with 31.5 inches of snow, and the Winter of 1977-’78 finished with nearly 54 inches of the white stuff. Those two winters, 1976-’77 and 1977-’78, are the coldest and snowiest winters on record. Since then, the Ohio River has yet to transform into an entirely solidified state.

The mention of the frozen Ohio River during that bitter January immediately brings to mind familiar images of Captain John Beatty’s towboat, the CLARE E. BEATTY, looking like a toy tossed against a snowbank, but in reality, the 185-foot flagship of “Beatty’s Navy” was pictured lying on a small mountain of broken ice packed against Markland Dam. Cap’n John and his crew scrambled across the frosty ice pack with the aid of extension ladders, and everyone made it safely atop the lock wall just before the ice shifted; taking the beloved towboat to the bottom.

Cap’n Beatty and I weren’t communicating that winter, as we did at times. But had Mrs. Beatty called and asked me to find a way to Markland Dam and give her husband some assistance raising the boat bearing her name, I would’a found a way to get there although the snow and ice had paralyzed nearly all modes of conveyance in the region.

My thoughts of frigid temps and John Beatty, together, take me back further in time to the last week of December 1979 and the early days of January ‘71 when I was one of the CLARE’s first crewmen attempting to raise sunken coal barges lodged against the ice piers at Gallipolis, Ohio. The ambient air temps stayed below zero for much of the time; especially in the mornings when I was up before first light pumping slushy bilge water from Beatty’s leaky floating equipment.

The Kentucky Post newspaper featured my exploits in a story complete with a photograph of me atop the roof recreating the treacherous event.

Without periodic attention given to the leakers, the cranes, twin minesweepers, and assorted barges would have joined the wrecks we were sent to Gallipolis to raise. Immediately after stepping outside the CLARE and into the morning Arctic blast, I felt my long handlebar mustache instantly freeze rigidly with a slightly audible “ping.” Temperatures were so cold and conditions aboard the salvage fleet so miserable that memories of those days at hard labor in sub-zero weather recall passages I’d read in Solzhenitsyn’s, “The Gulag Archipelago.”

The palatial sternwheel gamblin’ boat, the 330-foot GRAND VICTORIA II, arrived in Rising Sun, Indiana in the Fall of 1996 under my command. That coming winter was unusually frigid with temps hanging around the zero marks. Along the shores, on both sides of the Ohio River, long fingers of ice poked towards each other. In spite of the river and weather conditions, and to keep our cruise-rate ratios high, the GRAND VIC continued making underway trips although the Indiana gaming rules allowed for the boat to remain dockside in adverse circumstances. We were leery of stopping the 26 by 52-foot double-paddlewheel between rides fearing the wheel would get icebound. So the paddlewheel kept turning ahead on a dead-slow bell while the boat lay securely moored to its landing barge during the interim when passengers recently relieved of their money departed, and eager, fresh-faced rubes clambered aboard seeking their fortunes.

After many hours of continuous rotations, an accumulation of clear ice began coating the surfaces of the gigantic sternwheel. As the wheel dipped into the river, another layer of ice formed over countless other layers, and within a couple of days, the gathering of ice looked spectacular! Never had I seen such a sight before. After a time, the weight of the ice was such that huge pieces broke off the wheel and crashed onto the fantail or splashed into the river. Still, the GRAND VICTORIA II was directed to keep cruising until the time the crew was clearing the aft-decks around the wheel of broken chunks, and a huge piece sailed off a bucket and narrowly missed taking the Mate’s head with it as it kerplunked into the Ohio River. Following such a near miss, we stopped the paddlewheel, and before long, it was frozen solidly into the ice pack that quickly surrounded the boat.

Some days later, Chief Engineer Mike Taylor calculated that the paddlewheel carried at least ten additional tons of ice coating its many surfaces. The next summer, the center bearing housing supporting the two sections of the mammoth wheel sounded like broken glass filled it. With the help of a representative of the bearing manufacturer, our people removed the busted component and replaced it with one fresh from the factory. More than likely, we figured, the supplemental tonnage of ice, the winter before, exceeded the limits of the bearing and the additional stresses upon the mechanical device caused it to fracture and fail eventually. All-in-all, the problem was nothing $50,000 couldn’t fix — not counting the cost of the labor provided by our crew.

The 330-foot GRAND VICTORIA II, arrived in Rising Sun, Indiana in the Fall of 1996 under my command.

In December of 1995, a week before I was to leave the GRAND VICTORIA I in Elgin, Illinois to take command of her Rising Sun sister-boat, I took the 400-foot faux sidewheel out for one last spin on the narrow Fox River, some 35 miles west of Chicago. A relatively-thin coat of fresh ice covered the surface of the Fox, and though my experience with boating in ice was nil, I wanted to see how the leviathan handled in the hard stuff. The six Dutch-made Schottel Z-drive propulsion units, (three on each end) easily cleared a path to the side of the boat as I thrust off the dock. The 400-foot long GRAND VIC # 1 was so immense, or the Fox River so small, that when the 100-foot wide casino boat was in mid-stream, only about a hundred feet of distance was between either side of the Colossus and the shores.

Centered in the middle of the Fox, the GRAND VIC I easily crumbled the four-inch thick ice as I pushed ahead on the Z-‘s. Once into place at the far end of the 1,600-foot stretch of the river gouged out of the shallow stream for the titanic boat to sail upon, there was nothing to do but to keep the vessel in place until it was time to return to the dock. The 45-minute wait allowed me enough time to play with the controls to see how the gamblin’ boat acted in the ice.

Surely, I thought, if I shoved the entire weight of the all-steel watercraft against the smooth sheet of ice and the shore, the ice pack would crumble and fold upon itself like a pack of card.

“Let’s see…”

The Winter of 2013-’14 was even colder than before – so cold I stood on the ice next to CLYDE.’s paddlewheel.

As both sets of the powerful, electrically-driven Z-drives pushed the thousands of tons of floating metal sideways against the frozen scum atop the Fox River and the steel pilings driven into the riverbank alongside, a terrifying banshee scream filled the crisp winter air!

“What the hell was that scream?” the frightened mate called over her handheld radio.

Within minutes, I expected frantic calls from below and feared that the casino would empty with the patrons spilling on-deck to find the source of the terrible cry. None did, so I tried to crush the ice again, and nothing but a hideous scream arose, again, as the ice compressed with a shriek that sent icy chills up my spine colder than the Northern Illinois winter air. After returning to the dock and the GRAND VICTORIA made fast, I never operated her underway again… ice, or no ice.

My stern paddlewheeler, the Rafter CLYDE., built on the Minnesota shores of Lake Pepin, knows what winters can be, but little did she expect, could she reason, what was in store for her on the Middle Ohio River Valley. The month-long trip from Alma, Wisconsin to Aurora, Indiana in the scorching heat of the torrid summer of 2012 pushed the boat and its two-man crew to their limits.  But only six months later, the CLYDE. was entrapped in solid ice at her berth at the Aurora Waterways Marina. After another year passed, the Winter of 2013-’14 was even colder than before – so cold I stood on the ice next to CLYDE.’s paddlewheel. , although a 2×4 plank laid on the frozen pond helped distribute my hefty bulk — just in case.

Will the Ohio River freeze as solidly as it did over 40 years ago? That’s difficult, to impossible, for me to predict. Lately, in the first half of December 2018, there have been several below normal temperature days, but several average, to above-average, days are predicted for the week ahead. And there’s still another week before winter officially arrives. My guesstimation is, it’s too early for even the talking weather heads to foresee what is in store. With the Sun at its minimum activity, some wags are also suggesting the Earth is slipping into another “mini-ice-age.” Heaven forbid!

With all the extremes and changes in the weather patterns lately, all any of us can do is wait and see. Hopefully, the words of my old Captain and mentor, Cap’n Ernest E. Wagner will not ring true when he’d exclaim:

“It’s Katie bar the door!”

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 Rafter CLYDE., built on the Minnesota shores of Lake Pepin, knows what winters can be.

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One Comment

  1. Susan Moore says:

    I remember when the river froze. I was in an apartment for 8 days with infant and toddler!!! My Poppow walked across it and was so thrilled! Oh how I miss him especially this time of year. God bless you all in 2019. Thank you so much for the memories!

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