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The River: Dream on, if you yearn for paddlewheeler (there’s much to love), but know they are work

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 a part of a long and continuing story. This column first appeared in February 2019.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Everybody thinks they want a paddlewheeler.

“They’re so cute,” someone gushed. Or: “When I win the lottery I’m going to buy me a paddlewheel boat.”

But if a rookie dreamer had one, how many would have the faintest clue how much maintenance and upkeep a wooden wheel requires to remain functional and looking smart? Perhaps winning the lottery should be a prerequisite to owning a paddlewheel-propelled riverboat. Who knows better than someone who has one?

I love both side- and stern-paddlewheel boats.

Literally, I grew up on them from the time I was a lad riding the ill-fated ISLAND QUEEN to my family sternwheel houseboat, MARJESS, at age 14, to working aboard my first passenger boat, AVALON, when I was a young but seasoned riverman at age 17, to commanding the legendary DELTA QUEEN by the time I was 30.

Don Sanders on DELTA QUEEN wheel, 1972

Other AUTHENTIC paddlewheelers I’ve had full or shared responsibility for, were: the DIAMOND LADY, EMERALD LADY, MISSISSIPPI QUEEN, WINIFRED, P. A. DENNY, GRAND VICTORIA II, and my very own CLYDE., the most-authentic small paddlewheeler on the river. And I’ve also “messed around” on the steamers BELLE of LOUISVILLE and the NATCHEZ  as a steersman.

So what I am saying is, I have a working knowledge of paddlewheel boats.

Maybe it’s that I am getting older and less agile with the passing seasons, but the ultimate joy of climbing into a paddlewheel to make repairs or change parts and pieces holds less and less an attraction with each new calendar tacked to the cookhouse wall.

Though paddlewheels are becoming less complicated as steel replaces traditional White Oak as the material of choice, few entirely wooden paddlewheels, minus shafts, circles, and flanges, remain. At last count, besides my own CLYDE., the DELTA QUEEN, BELLE of LOUISVILLE, W. P. SNYDER, JR., and the LONE STAR are possibly the only remaining Western Rivers riverboats with their paddlewheels made entirely of wood, excepting the anomalies previously mentioned.

The first mention of paddlewheels as a mode of marine propulsion comes from the 4th or a 5th-Century military treatise of De Rebus Bellicis: “Animal power,” he wrote, “turns wheels attached to the sides of the ship … beating the water with their strokes like oar-blades as the wheels revolve.”

But only after the invention of a practical steam engine by James Watt, around 1764, and Robert Fulton’s first commercially successful steamboat in 1807, did paddlewheel-driven ships and boats came into fruition. Just four years later, Fulton partnered with Robert Livingston and Nicholas Roosevelt to build the first steamboat, the sidewheeler NEW ORLEANS, to travel on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Since that first voyage in the troubled year of 1811 when the earth trembled along the rivers as it never had before in the collective memory of mankind and the Great Comet filled the skies with dread, paddlewheels have continued to maintain a prominence on those same rivers the NEW ORLEANS traversed.

NEW ORLEANS Replica, 1911

In spite of their functional obsolescence since metallurgist cast the first screw propeller, paddlewheels remain a fixture because of nostalgic longings for the past as best exemplified by the master of both steam paddlewheelers and the pen, Mark Twain. Without his musings, paddlewheels and the boats to which they are attached would have long disappeared like the candlestick telephone.

For those boats still shoved by a mass of lumber and iron, the old-timers called the “brush pile,” paddlewheels, besides their cuteness, have a couple of advantages over props. Paddlewheels are easy to access to work on without having to drydock the vessel every time the propulsion unit gets dinged, and their wooden parts are expendable and “easily” replaced. For an all-wood wheel, especially a White Oak one, the lumber must be found and custom cut and milled. The CLYDE. Is blessed to have Rick Starker of Vevay, Indiana, a custom woodsmith who finds the materials and makes the parts for the paddlewheel at a reasonable price.

Before I “sat” for my Unlimited Tonnage Inland Mate’s License in 1970, one of the test questions on the written exam was: “Name all the wooden parts of a paddlewheel.” Although my test failed to include that question, I was fully prepared to answer in detail from the knowledge I’d learned working in steamboat wheels with Captains Ernest E. Wagner and Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley on both the Steamer AVALON and the DELTA QUEEN. Over the passing years, I, myself, have made an effort to teach and pass on the authentic names of the traditional paddlewheel parts and how to fabricate and install them correctly.

Let’s look at a self-explanatory diagram drawn by Mate Frank W. Jones, Jr:

Frank Jones drew this for the deckhands on the GRAND VICTORIA II. Yep, that’s me.

Here’s a load of White Oak Wheel Wheel Arms made especially for the CLYDE.by Rick Starker and Assorted White Oak Circle Fillers from Starker’s “Dream Wood Works” Shop.

CLYDE.’s Paddlewheel Team. James Cutter, Capt. Don Sanders.

Hundreds of New White Oak Parts Went Into the Paddlewheel Reconstruction.

The Finished Product of Many Hours of Hard, but Satisfying, Labor. CLYDE on the Licking River.

As we’ve seen, a paddlewheeler requires constant upkeep, maintenance, and care with lotsa love thrown in if the ark remains in a manner such as I was taught so long ago by the masters of the art who have all passed on except for Captain Doc Hawley.

Paddlewheel boats continue to fascinate a river audience and will do so until libraries and booksellers relegate Twain’s musings to the clearance shelves. (Insert laughing emoji here.)

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 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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  1. Connie Bays says:

    It is because of you and your teaching, that I know the parts of the paddlewheel. That’s knowledge I’m proud of, but only a sliver of what else there is to learn. When around you or when reading your writing, I’m like a sponge trying to soak up all the knowledge you show, the things you talk about and the glimpses of a world that sounds amazing to me. I really enjoy your column. Here’s to a lot more stories to come!

    • Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

      Thank you Capt Don for keeping the science & the art of wheel work alive. What Capt Ernie & Capt “Doc” taught you’ve honed & made it art.
      You’ve made it so we all can learn & Enjoy. . God Bless.

  2. Michael Gore says:

    As long as rivers flow, surely paddlewheels will continue to sound their slapping and be gazed at in awe. Thank you, Capt. Don for your dedication to paying forward your love, labor, and art of the paddlewheel!

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