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The River: Finding wealth of history, perspective in a stack of faded papers called Breakfast Serial

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

While rummaging through a box of river-related papers, recently, a stack of faded bluish-green papers filled with type-written text caught my eye.

While rummaging through a box of river-related papers, recently, a stack of faded bluish-green papers filled with type-written text caught my eye. Each sheet was a separate edition of a daily newsletter called the BREAKFAST SERIAL (BS) published each morning aboard the Steamer GORDON C. GREENE (GCG), the premier tourist steamboat belonging to the Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, and the precursor of the DELTA QUEEN. What seemed strange was that these copies of the BS, written and edited by Horace P. Lyle, a name I recall associated with the Greene Line, were published late in the cruise year during September 1944. As the paper only had a name starting with Volume 1, Number 2, I wondered why the newsletter was first published on the last trip of the year, and not earlier in the season.

Captain Tom R. Greene was Master of the sleek steamer named for his late father, Captain Gordon C. Greene, the line’s founder. Tom’s mother, the celebrated matriarch of the Greene family and their steamboat business, Captain Mary Becker Greene, was recorded as a Hostess. The passenger list indicates that Captain Tom Green was joined in St. Paul by his wife Mrs. Letha C. Greene, their daughter Mary, and sons “Masters Gordon and Tommy Greene.” Two decades later, I worked for Mrs. Greene after she assumed control of the company’s management following the death of Captain Tom. Mary and I later served together in 1965, my first year on the DELTA QUEEN. Miss Jane Greene, the youngest daughter, is not on the passenger list. Though I believe Jane was born before September 1944, she may have stayed at home with relatives. At this writing, July 2021, the only surviving member of the immediate Captain Tom R. Greene family is Tom, Jr.

The Steamer GORDON C. GREENE (GCG), the premier tourist steamboat belonging to the Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, and the precursor of the DELTA QUEEN.

On Page 1, Volume 2, September 11, 1944, Editor Lyle notes: “Today we will land in Rockport, Ind., the hometown of our hostess, Mrs. Esther Wohler.” Mr. Lyle, who also lists himself as “Passenger Agent,” added a tidbit concerning the GCG: “Since we have made the Saint Paul cruise only once before, the itinerary… is approximate.”  Captain Frederick Way, Jr. noted in his WAY’S PACKET DIRECTORY, 1848-1994, regarding the GORDON C. GREENE: “Ran a tourist trip Cincinnati-St. Paul in 1944, the first Ohio River boat taking passengers there since the JOE FOWLER ran one from Pittsburgh in 1914.”

This slightly inconsistent information made me wonder if two Cincy to St. Paul trips were run in 1944, but that would be doubtful, I figured, as a cruise of that distance was, apparently, an unusual adventure. Further along in the paper, I would find the correct answer.

Captain Tom Greene and his mother Captain Mary B. Greene at the wheel of the Str. GCG.

Captain Tom Greene had several attributes that made him the perfect Master and Host of the GCG.

Scrawled near the bottom, right-hand column of the page, the editor remarked: “We noted a goodly crowd on the dance floor tripping the light fantastic, among them our Skipper who is equally at home on the bridge of the boat, in the culinary department, or performing the social amenities.”

On the flip side of the paper, Mr. Lyle added this about the illustrious commander of the GORDON: “Captain Tom claims to be an expert on fog as he says he was born in one and has been in one ever since.”

Besides those already mentioned, some of the officers and crew aboard the GCG on the St. Paul round trip included, among others: Robert H. “Bob” McCann, Purser; Capt. Jesse P. Hughes, Ohio River Pilot; Capt. Lawrence “Beau” Allen, Ohio River Pilot; Capt. Sam Folts and Nathan Smith, Mississippi River Pilots between Cairo and St. Louis; Capt. Tom Posey and Bert Lovett, Mississippi River Pilots between St. Louis and St. Paul; Capt. H. W. “Doc” Carr, Mate; Capt. Wm. Horn, Mate, and Carpenter; Will Hunt, Head Steward; Chief Frank Heath, Chief Engineer; Chief W. A. Shahan, Second Engineer; Mrs. J. P. Hughes, Concessions; and Ray Smith and Chas. Rahn, Watchmen.

Robert H. “Bob” McCann, Purser, and Captain Jesse P. Hughes, Pilot, onboard the GCG.

Interestingly, Volume 1, Number 2, also put the GCG landing at Rockport, Indiana, Mile 747 on the Ohio River. Still, the next day, September 12th, edition Number 3 of the BREAKFAST SERIAL boldly announced:” Today will find us on the ‘Father of Waters,’ and we will notice the water is a deep chocolate color.” The distance by way of the river from Rockport to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi is 234 miles, so my first instinct was to ask – was that possible? 

Cairo Point, where the rivers meet, is mile 981 on the Ohio. Figuring an uninterrupted run of 24 hours, the GCG would have needed to be paddling along at 9.75 miles-per-hour – reasonably a realistic speed traveling downstream with the current helping shove the boat along. Rockport, however, was in the pool behind Old Lock & Dam 46, Mile 757.3, while the last set of locks was L&D 53 at Mile 962.6. What about all those locks and dams in between? Could the GORDON have locked through them and still be at the Mississippi the next morning as the newsletter announced? Possibly, but with a delay for each lock, the GORDEN would have lost several hours and been at the Mississippi the next afternoon instead of the following morn.

What all this suggests, I figured, the Ohio River was running at a high-enough level of water that the old-style wicket dams had been lowered in sections to the bottom of the river, and the GCG bypassed the locks on what was called “open water.” On an open river with plenty of current shoving the boat downstream, the GORDON was probably doing better than 9.75 mph. On a swift Lower Mississippi River, I recall the DELTA QUEEN averaging a slight bit faster than 20 mph over a six-hour run – believe it or not.

The old-style wicket dams could be lowered in sections to the bottom of the river.

Above the Mouth of the Ohio where it joined the Upper and Lower Mississippi Rivers, Mr. Lyle asked: “Want to Make a Wish?  Tradition states that whoever flips a penny into the water at the junction of the rivers at Cairo Point, at the same time making a wish, shall have his wish come true.”

Decades later, onboard the DELTA QUEEN, the tradition continued wherever the QUEEN crossed that distinctly visible boundary where the clear water of the Ohio refrained from mixing with the mud brought down from the Heartland of America by the upper river waterway. Down on the main deck of the DELTA QUEEN, my deckhands usually joked about stringing finely woven fish nets alongside the boat to catch the coins tossed over the side. Deckhand-Watchman Clifford Poddorf, of Big Bone, Kentucky fame, recalled in a captivating narrative about the time, as he noted, “Me and ole John Hartford wuz throwin’ silver dollars in tha river off the DELTA QUEEN as she passed from the Ohio into the Miss-ah-sip’.”

Volume 1, Number 4, September 13, 1944, announced: “About noon yesterday, we finally turned into the Mississippi at Cairo heading upriver towards our destination, St. Paul.” Editor Lyle further related: “We will make feeble, if any, attempts to try to tell you about the points of interest, shore stops, or matters pertaining to shore affairs on this Upper Mississippi River. In the first place, we are not qualified as this is our first trip to the Upper Missippi….”

Clifford Poddorf, of Big Bone, Kentucky fame, recalled: “Me and ole John Hartford wuz throwin’ silver dollars in tha river off the DELTA QUEEN as she passed from the Ohio into the Miss-ah-sip’.” 

Now I’m wondering, was Mr. Lyle revealing that this was the first trip of the GCG to the Upper Mississippi, as Captain Way noted, or was he saying that this was his first trip on the Upper and referring to himself using the editorial pronoun, we?

The newspaper writer also confessed: “In the second place, Bob McCann is much more widely and accurately informed on such matters than we are, and we know we can depend on him to give us all the ‘dope’ over the public address system at the proper time.”

Mr. McCann, the Chief Purser on the GORDON and later onboard the DELTA QUEEN was famed for his announcements over the PA system. Of particular mention was his description of the picturesque town of Aurora, Indiana, situated on a perfectly formed, 90-degree turn of the Middle Ohio at Mile 498.

Aurora lays claim to be the “City of Steeples” — church steeples. Standing in front of the Purser’s Office with one hand holding onto the long-chorded microphone, Bob would grip firmly onto the top of a mahogany stanchion post with the other. Then, as he talked while the DELTA QUEEN slid around the sharp bendway, Bob would watch out the side window as the town while he continued his monologue. By the time the QUEEN completed the right-angled, left-handed maneuver, Bob had spun around the pole at least a revolution or two, while adding to the amusement of those watching — especially certain crewmembers who always gathered to observe the spectacle every time the QUEEN passed Aurora on the downstream run.

The fourth edition also notes: “Captain Tom tells us we should arrive in St. Louis by noon today.” Additionally, the paper disclosed: “After two days on the boat without a shorestop, most of us welcomed the opportunity to go ashore at Cairo. Our party invaded Cairo like ‘Our Boys’ are invading Germany,” a reference to the Second War War coming closer to an end following the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy, France on D Day, June 6th, 1944, only three months earlier. This piece in the newsletter reinforced my earlier suspicion that the GCG was running nonstop to arrive in Cairo at the meeting of the rivers. Though the paper doesn’t say, the river level of the Ohio was probably up enough that the series of locks were bypassed.

“Mark Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri,” Mr. Lyle added: “is sort of a shrine for rivermen.” (Anna Schnizlein Photo. 1902)

Volume 1, Number 5 of the BS was missing from the small pile of faded papers, and that would have been the St. Louis landing publication.

Edition Number 6, 15 September, tells of visiting Mark Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri. Mr. Lyle added: “Hannibal… is sort of a shrine for rivermen. Unfortunately, we do not feel competent to write about it as we feel we might profane it with any remarks we make.” Editor Lyle’s observations stand in stark contrast to those who have spent a lifetime mimicking the bard and feel they are, somehow, notable for their masquerades.

Volume 1, Number 7, September 16, 1944, reflected on The War and the passing of a town called Victory, Wisconsin: “On our Spring cruise to St. Paul last June, a very singular coincidence happened on the downstream trip on June 6th [when] word came over the radio that the long-awaited invasion had started. The news was further accentuated by a great theatrical moon shining down on Black Hawk Valley, lighting up the entire town. Will Hunt, our Head Steward, who is an old-time Anchor Line steamboatman running in this very trade, said, and we quote, ‘When this boat returns to Victory, Wisconsin, the war will be over.’ We hope he was right. And even with a ‘near miss,’ don’t you think it makes a good story?”

Regrettably, the war in Europe would linger on until May 7th, 1945 – another eight grueling months.

On September 28, 1944, Mr. Lyle published a highly sentimental final edition of the BREAKFAST SERIAL. He started by saying: “AU REVOIR. This is the toughest assignment we have had since this little paper was established twenty days ago. The time has come to say farewell.”

The Steamer GORDON C. GREENE, the premier tourist steamboat belonging to the Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, and the precursor of the DELTA QUEEN. (Original Artistry by Matthew Cooper.)

The editor credits Captain Roy L. Barkhau, formerly the General Passenger Agent aboard the GCG, but serving in the U. S. Coast Guard at the time, with publishing onboard newspapers until he left the boat for military service. Captain Fred Way also received recognition for publishing a paper on the Spring cruise to St. Paul, the first passenger run from the Ohio River since 1914.

Horace P. Lyle ruefully concluded: “Many times, in fact, practically every day, we looked on the publishing of this paper as a distasteful chore, particularly when the entertainment and dining were going on and we had to ‘sweat this out’ in our ‘office,’ the engineroom. Now we find that we give up publication with regret. Thanks a million — everybody. H. P. L.”

Before I paid close attention to Mr. Lyle’s BS, I had a notion to give the faded bluish-green mimeographed papers to anyone willing to take them. But now, I intend to cherish them and may even make more of my counterpart’s words from aboard the GORDON C. GREENE echoing across time, space, and the river since they were timelessly written nearly 77 years ago.

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.

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  1. Jo Ann Schoen says:

    WOW!! That’s one heck of a read!!! So much history in one little newspaper. Thanks so much for sharing! And kudos to Artist Cooper. A fine job of the GCG and DQ.

  2. Toots says:

    I don’t always comment, but want to take the opportunity to say how much I always enjoy your articles. Having spent 40 years on the water with DQSC it is like learning about family ancestry. You do a great service for the river & steamboat community. A heartfelt thank you goes out to you!

    Until next time,
    See you on the two,

  3. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    This is another great telling of day to day life on a steam passenger vessel but not at all hum drum. I’ve often wondered how the GCG
    crew & activities compared to the DQ & now you’ve give us a glimpse. The way you tie the boat into history is great as well. Kudos to Matthew for his GCG& DQ sketch. I hope to more of the GCG.

  4. June Wiley says:

    Another great writing of life on the steamboats during WWII ….Very enjoyable tale Captain!

  5. Patrick B Mullins says:

    Very interesting. i would have thought that is those days of government-mandated rationing that the fuel would have been unavailable for any non-war-related activities. Live and learn – thanks!

  6. George Georgandas says:

    This is a very interesting historical article
    Thank you Cpt.Don

  7. Walley Morse says:

    Living in a river town, GREENVILLE MS , love the rivers history. Thanks

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