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The River: There are rivermen and there are rivermen — then there’s the unforgettable Ed Smith

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. This story first appeared

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

How many tens-of-thousands of men, and a lesser amount of women, have the Mississippi and tributaries rivers caused to labor within their fluvial flanks the past two-hundred-plus years? Of those, practically all made whatever contributions they had to impart and then faded into oblivion. Rarely, does one, not of the elite stature, stand out among the multitude and is revered above the rest. Among those scattered few, the late Ed Smith from St. Louis emerges as one of the unforgettable.

Ed Smith from St. Louis emerges as one of the unforgettable. (Photo by Ben Sandmel)

Ed and I had our first contact aboard the excursion steamboat, the Steamer AVALON when I was a forlorn 17-year old sitting on a wooden bench by the bow waiting for the befuddled Chief Steward to finish breakfast while my disapproving father glared from the family car parked ashore. Amid all my misgivings and anxieties of my first day employed as a Cabin Boy on the boat, two veteran black boatmen came around the knuckle forward the cabin of the Boiler Room, and I overheard the conversation they directed toward me:
“Who’s that white boy?”
“I don’t know, but he won’t last long…”
They were firemen Charles “Bubba” Chinn and Ed Smith, the men who kept the fires burning beneath the boilers of the steam-powered riverboat. Before the end of that summer of 1959, Ed and Bubba became treasured, lifelong friends and mentors.  
Just a few years before Ed Smith and I met, he was alone on a very cold AVALON where it was tied up for the winter on the downstream end of the Greene Line Wharfboat at the Cincinnati Public Landing. The boilers shut down after the end of the season, offered no heat to the few men aboard. Besides Ed, Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley had a room, as did Ben Timmerman, a drifter picked up on the Missouri River as a deckhand. Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the Master of the steamboat, went home to New Richmond, Ohio at night and left Cap’n Doc in charge until Wagner’s return the next morning.

On that particular evening, Cap’n Doc was enjoying an evening with river fans at artist Dorothea Frye’s home on Probasco Street, near the University of Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Ben Timmerman was “up the hill” at one of the sleazy saloons atop the silent cobblestone grade where steamboats once congregated in large numbers at the waterfront.

Ed Smith in the lower boiler room attending to the fires within his secluded domain.

Returning to the AVALON later that evening, Captain Hawley found Ed Smith lying in a puddle of blood on the cold, steel deck next to the first crew-quarters room on the port side.
Once help was summoned, not an easy task in those days when the nearest telephone was coin-operated and at the opposite end of the larger-than-a-football-sized floating wharf, the Cincinnati Fire Department emergency services transported Ed to General Hospital where he lingered on the verge of dying. Perhaps it was the blood transfusions from both Captains, Wagner and Hawley, that saved their friend’s life. Over the years, a grateful Ed Smith often reminded Cap’n Doc,
“I got your blood flowing in me.”

After Ed was able to explain what happened as best he could to recall the attack: apparently, a drunken Ben Timmerman staggered back from the saloon and onto the AVALON, where, after finding a long butcher knife in the kitchen, decided in his delirium to run the blade into the bowels of his unsuspecting crewmate. Although some felt the attack was racially-motivated, others pointed out that Timmerman always got along well with all his co-workers, regardless of their color. But whatever caused Ben Timmerman to stab Ed Smith, the reason will always remain speculative, as the perpetrator fled the scene immediately after the crime and was never seen or heard of again.      
While recovering at the hospital, Ed Smith, still fearing that he might die, asked Captain Hawley to do a special favor for him. Ed told the young captain to take a butter knife and work it around the crack in the doorframe of the fireman’s room on the AVALON. There, Ed revealed,

Ed Smith was close pals with the legendary New Orlean jazzman, Danny Barker.

“You will find some money in large bills, folded and stuffed into the crack. If I don’t make it, send the money to my brother John in St. Louis to distribute to my children.”
Once back aboard the steamboat, Doc retrieved a knife from the galley and followed Ed’s instructions. Although he expected to find a “few dollars” within the crack around the door frame, Doc popped fifty and one-hundred bills from the cleverly-disguised hiding place until the money covered the deck in Ed Smith’s room. After recovering enough to be released from the hospital, Ed accompanied Cap’n Doc to the downtown office of the 5/3rd Bank where Mr. Smith opened his first bank account.

Being a clever and frugal man, Ed Smith knew how to make money as well as save it. Besides his meager salary for firing the boilers, Ed capitalized on his access to hot, scalding water and built a homemade washing machine out of a stainless steel barrel. For a modest fee, he washed and ironed clothes for the crew. He also mended and repaired shoes. As the dollar bills trickled in, Ed converted them into large denominations and tucked them into the door frame crack until the steamboat returned to Cincinnati where they were retrieved and added to his growing account.

Ed Smith’s place of business on a steamboat, as has been noted, was in the Boiler Room, or “firebox.” Long before I met Ed, he kept the safety valves hopping on the modernistic Streckfus steamboat, the ADMIRAL, in St. Louis on the Upper Mississippi River. Though Ed called the “Gateway City” home, he was born in tiny Parkin, Arkansas on May 10, 1914, along the St. Francis River, but less than 30 miles due west from the busy steamboat landing at the foot of Beale Street in Memphis. As far as Captain Hawley can attest, the ADMIRAL was the only steamboat Ed was on before the AVALON, and later, the DELTA QUEEN where he continued practicing his specialty in the firebox until he retired from the river in the late 1980s.
During his long career on the riverboats, Ed enriched the many lives he touched. I for one, indeed, as a young Mate on the DELTA QUEEN, out on the bow making a lock where Ed could be counted on to be close by and ready to lend a seasoned hand if needed. No one else on the boat could throw a heavy lock line with such accuracy as he; especially if a couple of greenhorn youngsters missed the lock pin and the wind was sailing the vessel across the chamber to the outside wall.
Ed would then appear from seemingly nowhere grinning from ear to ear: “Here, lemme try,” he’d say as he coiled the line in his powerful arms before firing the length of wet rope towards the floating pin. With a “SMACK” the eye always snagged its mark, and Ed would depart the deck and return to his territory leaving wiser novices in his wake. I was thankful knowing that he was close-by in case I needed to call upon his experience and skill as an all-around great riverman.

Captain Hawley recalled another time, in the 1960s, as the QUEEN was shoving briskly upbound through a lower lock gate somewhere on the Tennessee River.

Nor was I the only one who could call Ed Smith a teacher and mentor as well as a friend. Mate Mel Hartsough remembered:
“Ed Smith was one of the finest men I’ve ever known. He used to watch me get frustrated with the steam bilge siphons trying to get them to pump, and then he’d say, ‘Now I ain’t gonna show agin,’ but he always would.”
Cap’n Tony Espelage recalled:
“I hung around with Ed quite a bit during night watches. When he could pick up jazz on his radio he would put on sunglasses, sit back in his chair, and groove to the music.”
Speaking of jazz, Ed Smith was close pals with the legendary New Orlean jazzman, Danny Barker. Whenever Danny played the DELTA QUEEN, he hung out with his friend Ed Smith in the firebox between sets.
Ben Sandmel, of Cincinnati and New Orleans, a former DELTA QUEEN deckhand and eventually a musician and journalist, said of Ed Smith:
“I can see how Danny and Ed would have hit it off. It seemed that Ed would find jazz stations on the radio even when the boat was way out in the sticks, far from big cities. I vividly remember Ed sitting in his chair grooving to the music. After I stopped working on the boat I would still go see Ed, which was guaranteed to lift my spirits”

Ed Smith’s place of business on a steamboat was in the Boiler Room, or “firebox.”

“You probably realize that Ed Smith saved the DELTA QUEEN from disaster a couple of times,” Captain Doc Hawley mentioned almost matter-of-factly after I called him for some information about our mutual friend. After I replied that I was not aware of such a feat, I became curiously eager to know what had transpired that prompted Ed Smith to save the famous steamboat; not only once, but at least twice.
According to Captain Hawley, that during the summer of 1967, the DELTA QUEEN was upbound on the Ohio River below the Simon Kenton Memorial Highway Bridge at Maysville, Kentucky. Doc was in the pilothouse with the pilot, Terry Litton, a heavyset fellow who barely had room to sit on the tall, wooden chair that eventually ended up as a display in the Ohio River Museum at the Campus Martius in Marietta, Ohio. Captain Wagner was off-watch and below in his room resting. Ahead, coming downbound toward the DELTA QUEEN on the one-whistle side, was a string of empty gasoline barges towed by the EXXON WEST VIRGINIA with Captain T. Joe Decareaux at the towboat’s controls.
Without warning, the DELTA QUEEN’s tiller lines broke causing her rudders to run hard-over to port as the steamboat made a screaming dive toward the head of the gas barges. Instinctively, Captain Litton rang a signal to the engineers, three levels below, to stop the two-thousand horsepower steam engines, but Captain Hawley screamed:

“Back full astern on a double-gong! Back her, Cap, with all you got!”
Although the DELTA QUEEN was rapidly slowing as both it and the EXXON WEST VIRGINIA were backing as hard as their engines would allow, it was evident that a collision was imminent between the empty gasoline barges and the venerable steamboat loaded with elderly passengers within its wooden superstructure. Were the pointed bow of the steel-hulled riverboat to penetrate the skin of the fast approaching barges filled with explosive fumes, the ensuing aftermath would be catastrophic.
Unknown to the DELTA QUEEN’s pilothouse crew, down below on the Main Deck, Ed Smith realized what was transpiring before him. Without being told what to do, and knowing the consequences if he did not act, the veteran steamboatman grabbed a hefty, woven rope bumper and stood firmly in place at the impending point of impact where, at the precise moment, he placed the “possum” in-between the two colliding metal surfaces as they smashed together.

The beloved fireman stayed on the DELTA QUEEN until sometime in the late 1980s when he left the river and retired to his home in St. Louis to be with his extended family and friends. (Ted Guillaum Photo. )

The resulting jolt caused the DELTA QUEEN to shudder like a massive iron bell struck by a giant’s hammer. The force of the collision threw the burly Captain Litton, pilot chair and all, against the gate at the top of the stairs leading down to the officers’ quarters as Captain Wagner emerged barreling from his room clad only in his skivvy drawers and undershirt.
Miraculously, in spite of thousands of pounds of impacting steel meeting at one exact location, there was no penetration into the fume-laden barge. The rope bumper cushioned the impact and prevented any dangerous sparks as metal-met-metal; thanks to the attentiveness, foresight, and courage of Ed Smith. Captain Hawley still firmly believes, these many years later, that had it not been for Mr. Ed Smith, the DELTA QUEEN and countless souls would have met their quietus that day within sight of Maysville, Kentucky.
On another occasion, the DELTA QUEEN, its passengers, and crew were, again, saved from injury by the quick thinking and prompt action of Mr. Smith. Captain Hawley recalled another time, in the 1960s, as the QUEEN was shoving briskly upbound through a lower lock gate somewhere on the Tennessee River. When the pilot rang to back the engines, nothing happened as the steamboat was moving smartly toward the looming upper gates. The three-ton swinging stage, also called a “gangplank,” projecting another fifty feet beyond the stem of the bow of the QUEEN, was tied-down instead having the gunnel and heel ties, one pair to each side, unfastened so it could swing, port or starboard if necessary. In essence, the stage was like an oversized battering ram aimed for the approaching gates with the entire volume of the higher lake of the Tennessee behind them.
As Ed Smith always did when he was on the Main Deck level of the boiler room and the steamboat was approaching a lock, he stood at the large open door to observe the operation of the deck crew and was invariably poised to lend his assistance should his expertise be needed. Instinctively, Ed realized the boat was not going to stop in time to prevent the extended stage from battering the gates although the steamboat was finally backing as hard as the engineers could add steam.
By then, the terrified deck crew, running from the bow, screamed like frightened children as Ed Smith shot past them toward the deck they had just deserted. As Ed reached a steel drum filled with deck appliances such as shackles, toggles, pry bars, and such, he snatched a sharp, long-handled ax kept there for such an occasion. Just moments before the massive stage battered the right-hand lock gate above him; the muscular steamboat fireman chopped the port side gunnel and heel ties where they fastened to the deck.

Within a short time after Ed Smith’s retirement, he died on the 3rd of June 1989 at nine-thirty in the morning.

The stage swung quickly to starboard. Its leading outboard corner slammed the cement lock wall with the sound of a cannon firing as a great cloud of chalky-white dust arose from the blow. As the stage rebounded, it walloped the corner of the upper right-hand gate, but the cement wall absorbed the full force of the allision and the waters of the lake above, remained behind the steel barriers.
With the stage swinging hard to the starboard corner of the lock chamber, the DELTA QUEEN had ample room to come to a full stop before striking the cement gate sill. The QUEEN and the lock suffered only cuts, scratches, and bruises. By the time the deckhands reclaimed their territory on the bow, Ed Smith was in the lower boiler room attending to the fires within his secluded domain.
The beloved fireman stayed on the DELTA QUEEN until sometime in the late 1980s when he left the river and retired to his home in St. Louis to be with his extended family and friends. At home, Ed was also called “Seth,” a name never heard on the river that anyone could recall; not even Captain Doc who knew him long before any of the rest of us came along. Within a short time after Ed Smith’s retirement, he died on the 3rd of June 1989 at nine-thirty in the morning. Ed left behind a loving, extended family – both ashore and on the river.
Over 30 years have passed since Ed died. Still, he is remembered and cherished by all who knew him. There’s even some chatter going around about nominating Ed for the National Rivers Hall of Fame in Dubuque, Iowa.

If anyone ever on the river deserves the honor, it is undoubtedly Ed Smith.

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.

Click here to read all of Capt. Don Sanders’ stories of The River.    

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  1. Virginia Rhynders says:

    Once again, I’m sent back in time to earlier days, and the people who made the famous steamboat live. Thanks to Capt. Don, I get to know and honor these people.

  2. Michael Gore says:

    My old Master would only say this about just a very few crew members, “Now, they were a great boat man or a great river man”.

    Capt. Don, what a delightful and endearing story about one such great boat man and river man!

  3. Ben Sandmel says:

    I knew Ed Smith and this is a great remembrance of him — yet another excellent article, Don Sanders, I always look forward to reading what you write about the river.

  4. Bob Sanders says:

    Well written tribute to a vert special man.

  5. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Wow,yet again Capt Don transports us back in time & makes it come alive! We old timers remember or learn & the new “kids” can experience the joy of river life in a far different time.. My dad always stopped to talk to Ed when we boarded. I guess cause he’d fired on the Chris Greene when first went to the river, he had a special affection for a ‘soul mate’..
    Yes,he should be in the Inland Rivers Hall of Fame. Do we sign a petition?
    I can’t wait to see what comes next .

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