A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: 1971 Cincinnati to Kentucky Lake cruise results in momentous moment in Delta Queen lore

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders shares the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This story first appeared in June 2021.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Immediately after the DELTA QUEEN departed the Cincinnati Public Landing for the Second Kentucky Lake Trip of the 1971 Season, the pilot, Captain “Handsome Harry” Hamilton, made the following entry into the Log Book: “ Mon. July 26. 12:40 PM. DEPART CINTI WHARF, 172 Passengers.”

In smaller letters to fit onto the same line, my handwriting revealed that I added, “Scattered Showers, 80 degrees.”

The seven-day Cincinnati to Kentucky Lake round trips were some of the DELTA QUEEN’s most popular cruises. Usually, 192 passengers were aboard for the lake trips, but 172 passengers were almost full and not so crowded as when the QUEEN sailed at full capacity.

Harry Hamilton and Harry Louden in DELTA QUEEN Pilothouse in the 1970s. (Photo provided)

In the 1960s, the steamboat departed Cincinnati for the most awesome of all the TVA lakes at 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and snuck back alongside the Greene Line Wharfboat at one minute past twelve the next Friday night-Saturday morning following the first stroke of midnight and called the cruise “a seven steamboat days event.” A modest continental-style buffet breakfast awaited the next morning before shooing everyone before 11 a.m. By 1971, the lake trips were plugged into the schedule throughout the summer season and were not necessarily back-to-back as they were in earlier years. In fact, the first Kentucky Lake trip of ‘71 left “Ragtown,” as the `old-timers called Cincinnati, on the third of June, over seven weeks earlier than this cruise.

Captains Harry Louden and Handsome Harry shared the steering duties. Captain Ernest E. Wagner was in overall command of the vessel as the Master with Chief Engineer Cal Benefiel in charge of the engineering department. Jim Blum was listed on the Certificate of Inspection (COI) as the Head Watchman and 2nd Mate. Kenny P. Howe, Jr. held down his share of the engineering duties as an Assistant Engineer, while I was the “First Mate,” but actually designated the “Inland Mate” on the COI. All-in-all, the DELTA QUEEN was adequately officiated on the navigation and engineering ends of the crew. The total number of a fully staffed crew was 92 members, again, as required by the COI issued by the United States Coast Guard, the official government agency charged with inspecting the QUEEN.

“I tell ya, Kenny, I keep having this crazy dream where I run back to the engine room, and there’s Forrest Foreman (the other Assistant Engineer) standing at the throttle. Then, when I go back on the fantail, the paddlewheel’s gone. I get so frustrated I throw my flashlight on the deck, and it goes and hits Ernest Johnson (the DQ’s first black Watchman) in the shins… it’s really a nutty dream.”

“Awwwww… Come on… I don’t wanna hear that,” Kenny pleaded after I told him a third time about my maniacal, reoccurring dream.

Radar Screen from the DELTA QUEEN. (Photo provided)

Earlier in the year, as the upbound DELTA QUEEN approached the lower end of Cannelton Lock and Dam during the daylight, I happened to notice the snagged end of a rather large tree stump sticking out of the water on the outside of the red navigation “nun” buoy. Then, on the left of the channel, and in line with the red buoy and stump, bobbed a green “can” buoy old river men, including myself to this day, refer to as a “black” buoy. Not so many years before, all can-type buoys were painted black instead of green — hence the name.

Once I realized how precisely the three objects lined up, I peered into the hood covering the radar screen and seeing how the combination appeared together on the electronic navigational device, I said to the pilot:

“Lookit here, Captain Hamilton. Running by radar on some foggy night, it could be easy to mistake that old snag for the red buoy… the red ’un for the black… and get ourselves in trouble mighty fast.”

Instead of acknowledging my informative remarks, the pilot stared straight ahead and never once offered to inspect the alignment of the snag and the buoys with the potential danger they offered an unwary pilot on some foggy night when all there was for guidance, after leaving the lock a mile above, was a fuzzy picture painted by a beam of light on a radar scope. So the old riverman, a capable veteran of many years of steamboating on the Mississippi and its many tributaries, ignored the warning of what, to him, was just a punk greenhorn possessing a license with the ink not completely dry.

DELTA QUEEN in the locks (Photo provided)

Before Handsome Harry and I reported to the pilothouse for our turn on watch at midnight, Wednesday, July 28, the DELTA QUEEN quickly locked through at Lock and Dam 44 from 8:10 to 8:20 p.m. At 10 p.m., the boat’s official time went back an hour as the QUEEN crossed the invisible boundary line marking the Eastern and Central Time Zones. By 11:10 p.m., Captain Louden bypassed Lock and Dam 45, Mile 663.2, less than a mile above Leavenworth, Indiana. The dam reported 16.8 feet on its guage.

(An interesting question arose while researching this column: If Locks and Dams 44 and 45 were both replaced by Cannelton Dam, why was the DELTA QUEEN still locking through them after Cannelton was officially completed in 1967? After the passage of half a century, all I can surmise is — the pool behind Cannelton Dam had still not risen to the level that it was sufficiently high enough to displace the old locks and dams. Opinions? Facts? Please comment.)

By midnight, at watch change, the DELTA QUEEN was abreast Hudson Hill Light and Daymark, Mile 713.0, some 1.7 miles below Cloverport, Kentucky. Finally, at forty minutes past the bewitching hour, the steamboat entered Cannelton Lock on a clear, cloudless night.

The Log Book recorded: “Arrived Cannelton Lock. 30 Feet. 12:40 AM. 11.2’ F”

“Departed Cannelton Lock. 1:55 AM.”

(Another strange question I have no answer for is: Why did it take the DELTA QUEEN one hour and 15 minutes to lock through Cannelton? There is no reason given in the Log, nor do I recall any difficulty at the lock. Comments?)

What I remember as though the moment happened last night was… as soon as the lower lock gate opened, the DELTA QUEEN pilothouse staff was ogling an impenetrable wall of fog completely shrouding the river before them. Apparently, the air below the dam was colder than the atmosphere over the upper pool, and once the boat dropped down into the cooler air, it was surrounded by the thick mantle of condensed water vapor. As the QUEEN had no choice but to traverse through the shut-out fog layer, the only way the pilot could see what lay before him was to watch the green face of the radar screen.

A newspaper article announcing the DELTA QUEEN needing a tow. (Image provided)

“Remember,” I reminded the boatman many decades my senior, “there’s that stump to the outside of the red buoy, and It’ll be easy to confuse the two and go between them instead of between the red and black buoys.”

Again, my concerns fell on unhearing ears. Still, I faintly heard the oldtimer muttering, “Been out here before he was born… etc. and so forth,” until the head of the DELTA QUEEN slipped between the stump and the red buoy instead of between the red and black buoys… and stuck tight on the stem.

“I’ll go down on the bow and sound the head with a pole,” I told the pilot. “Don’t do anything until I let you know where the deep water lies.”

Before I left the pilothouse, I called both night watchmen, Jamie Hansel and Greg Menke, to the wheelhouse and instructed them to standby with the pilot. As soon as I was on the bow, deckhand Ed Duemler fetched a 20-foot sounding pole, and we began searching for the location of the deepest water so the pilot could maneuver the DELTA QUEEN toward that direction.

Suddenly, the force of moving water nearly thrust the pole out of my hands, although the spiked end had buried itself deep in the unseen river. The cantankerous pilot was backing the boat hard astern after we agreed he would not operate the engines until I returned from on deck with my report of what was found with the sounding pole.

Then, from the engine room, the bells of the Engine Order Telegraph immediately jangled wildly as the pilot rang for a “double-gong ahead” once the bow broke loose and the DELTA QUEEN was flying full astern toward a bluff riverbank on the Indiana shore. As soon as the seasoned wheelsman realized he was heading hard for the peripheral ashore, he rang for all the steam the engineers owned in a feeble, unsuccessful attempt from smashing butt-first into the elevated shoreline.

Quickly throwing the sounder on deck, I turned and raced toward the stern of the DELTA QUEEN as time slowed to a crawl and everything around me appeared in slow motion as it had in my dreams.

The DELTA QUEEN’s damaged paddlewheel. (Photo provided)

In the Engine Room, Assistant Engineer Forrest Foreman stood unmoving and nightmarish at the throttle for the two Evans, non-condensing, cross-compound, steam engines.

Outboard on the starboard fantail, I entered into a surreal world. Instead of the paddlewheel being cleanly gone as it was in my dream times, it was a mangled mess of wood and steel. The metal deck outboard the desecrated paddlewheel lay covered with a three-foot layer of yellow-clay earth from the Indiana shore. With trunks thicker than a rouster’s forearms, several willow trees stood straight and tall as though they had rooted and matured there.

As I turned and reentered the engineer’s realm, in an unsolicited reaction to the frustration and anger over what had just happened, I tossed my flashlight as hard as I could. The hard plastic case filled with three heavy batteries scudded along the neatly painted deck until I heard someone scream, “AWWW-CH!” The light came to rest and spun round and round after striking Watchman Ernest Johnson on his shinbone. While “Cap’n” Johnson was hopping and howling in pain, he let out another “OUCH!” as Fireman Ed Smith’s flashlight struck him on his other shin.

Amazingly, Captain Wagner remained professionally composed after I knocked on his door at 2:30 a.m. and broke the dreadful news. The first words out of Cap’s mouth were: “Did you drop the anchor?” I hadn’t — yet. Thankfully, the stern was tightly grounded, and, best of all, no one was hurt.

The next morning, the towboat EUGENIA P. JONES came alongside and towed the disabled DELTA QUEEN to the Tell City, Indiana waterfront. Ahead lay one of the most momentous achievements in DELTA QUEEN history.

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.

Related Posts


  1. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Captain Don brings to life the happenings on the river and on the Steamer Delta Queen in an accurate yet lively tale. One feels they are there.You’re feeling the fog on your face,the jolt as the boat is aground & the awful moment of mangled & tangled wood & steel. Thank you for sharing this so old timers can relive & new folks can learn of the glory & mundane of river work.

  2. Jessica Yusuf says:

    Another enlightening and entertaining read!

  3. Interesting Commentary on the Results of “Experienced” Pointy End Mentality. Awaiting the Results.

  4. Ken McLemore says:

    Consistently entertaining! Keep ‘em coming!

  5. Michael Gore says:

    A fine piece of river writing! The descriptive term “prudent mariner” is the model for safe navigation and conduct but since humans are involved, it’s not always the case. In this captivating story, we have a prudent mate, but an imprudent pilot!

  6. Luv, luv the information you give in these letters Donald . Thanks so much

Leave a Comment