A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Memories of winterizing the steamboats for the season and other historic times on the river


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. It first appeared in December, 2019. See below on how to order his 264-page hardback book, a collection of his historic columns.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Back when I was steamboating, the AVALON and, later, the DELTA QUEEN were tied up for the end of the season by early December, this time of the year. No sooner had the steamboats made their last landings, every crewman deemed unessential for winterizing and cleaning the vessels fled uphill packing suitcases, duffle bags, and plastic garbage bags filled with whatever it was they considered precious-enough to tote to the closest bus or train station. Very few flew.

Once the 1960 season ended after the AVALON sprinted dead-head from Pittsburgh to the lower end of the Greene Line wharfboat at the Cincinnati Public Landing, I’d been one of the few designated to stay aboard to drain and winterize the steam engines and auxiliary equipment before the late autumn air turned into chilling wintry blasts.

Once the 1960 season ended after the AVALON sprinted dead-head from Pittsburgh to the lower end of the Greene Line wharfboat at the Cincinnati Public Landing, I’d been one of the few designated to stay aboard to drain and winterize the steam engines and auxiliary equipment before the late autumn air turned into chilling wintry blasts. Though I was thrilled to be selected, I was still a teenager staying at my parent’s home in Covington, Kentucky, across the river from the public landing. After a while, my folks, who bitterly opposed my choice of the river for a career path, pressured me to quit the boat and look for “respectable” employment ashore. So, I ended up as a stock boy at the old Rollman’s Department Store in downtown Cincinnati.

The Rollman & Sons Company had been a mainstay in the Cincy retail market since 1867, and once been called “Cincinnati’s most progressive store.” Soon before I ventured into the world of carpeting, drapes, and household wares, Rollman’s became the property of a retail conglomerate. It was my assignment to help rid the building at the northwest corner of Fifth and Vine Streets of all vestiges of the Rollman inventory sold at vastly reduced prices.

My immediate supervisor was a dropout from the University of Kentucky, who was about as enthusiastic as I was for the department store game. As the floors grew bare with the stock flying out of the historic building, Mr. Bossman and I had less and less to keep us occupied. One vast room under our keeping possessed a false wall with the outer partition lined in sheets of pegboard punctured by many small holes.

On Friday, 20 January 1961, I watched from a circular table as poet Robert Frost, blinded by the brilliant Washington D. C. sunshine on a bitterly cold day, was unable to deliver a new work written specifically for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the 35th President of the United States.

Deep inside the unlit faux wall, I dragged a chair where I could sit and loaf or nap. The darkness allowed me to look out from behind my hidey-hole, but those in the brightly-lit outer room could not see me. After I knew the supervisor well-enough, I confided in him about the location of my secret place. One afternoon, as I slipped between the walls, and felt my way into the shadows, I touched the body of someone nestled in my chair where I discovered my boss sleeping soundly in my hiding place.

Rollman’s hosted an excellent employee dining room, where I looked forward to eating during lunch. A black and white television set of that era entertained us while we dined. On Friday, 20 January 1961, I watched from a circular table as poet Robert Frost, blinded by the brilliant Washington D. C. sunshine on a bitterly cold day, was unable to deliver a new work written specifically for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the 35th President of the United States. Instead, the 86-year-old elder poet recited a poem from memory that became one of the highlights of President Kennedy’s ascension into the highest office in the land.

All my time at Rollman’s must have had some positive value; not all wasted loafing. A supervising manager of Federated Department Stores, the new owners, extended an invitation my way to stay on with the suggestion of advancement further into my retailing career. To his dismay, though, I declined and returned to college for the Spring Semester.

Officers double-checked to guarantee every human soul was off the boat, onto the shore, and accountable. Then the DELTA QUEEN was placed into the care of a team of technicians wearing gas masks and protective clothing.

Many years ago, when the DELTA QUEEN called Cincinnati “home,” a curious but essential ritual accompanied the end-of-the-season return of the famous steamer. Before all the passengers and crew were off the boat, the Chief Engineer ordered his firemen to procure a full head of steam in the boilers. Turning every steam radiator throughout the steamboat to full-blast, the Chief increased the interior temperature to the roasting point. Before banking the furnace fires and securing all equipment, Officers double-checked to guarantee every human soul was off the boat, onto the shore, and accountable. Then the DELTA QUEEN was placed into the care of a team of technicians wearing gas masks and protective clothing.

Around the boat, they went taping and sealing all cracks and seams, making the QUEEN as air-tight as possible before they entered the vessel and discharged canisters of deadly cyanide gas that penetrated every nook and cranny of the venerated steamer. Their work complete, the masked agents departed by way of the swinging stage onto shore while the lethal vapors they left behind exterminated any living creature within the sealed recesses of the DELTA QUEEN. After a few days of allowing the toxic gasses to finish their purpose, the assassins returned, removed the tapes, ventilated the vessel, and, when finished, announced the boat free of any, and all, creepy-crawlers.

New Orleans was the DELTA QUEEN’s home port when I returned to the steamboat in 1970 after four years and three months of military service. In September of 1965, I left the QUEEN in the company of Mrs. Letha Greene, the primary owner of the boat, and her daughter Jane. In Mrs. Greene’s book, “Long Live the DELTA QUEEN,” she recalls leaving the boat at St. Louis with Jane after a thrilling run down the Upper Mississippi River aboard the steamer in record high water. Of course, there was no mention of me.

The last trip from Cincinnati to St. Paul, and then from St. Paul to New Orleans, was a true classic with tens of thousands of well-wishers cheering the DELTA QUEEN along every segment of the route.

The Crescent City was where the DELTA QUEEN tied up after the end of each season. As many of the crew hailed from the Queen City, they partied from New Orleans to Washington D. C. on the Southern Railroad’s “Southern Crescent” passenger train with Captain Ernest E. Wagner hosting the jolly festivities. I was never aboard for the memorable train ride to Washington, where most of the revelers continued the celebration aboard the “Cardinal” to Cincinnati while I volunteered to stay behind with a few trusted deckhands to remove all items abandoned by the crew before giving the DELTA QUEEN a thorough cleaning.

Anything left behind in the crew compartments, below in the Hold Deck, was fair game to either toss into a roll-off dumpster ashore, or keep as spoils forsaken by the former owners. Usually, I had more volunteers than needed for the task. More were sent home than allowed to stay. The enticement, it became apparent, was the exceptional amount of “weed” stashed by those who either abandoned the illicit cultivar or else figured it would be waiting when they returned the next season. Or as one “toker” confided, tightly hugging a shoebox he prized once the cleanup detail finished, “I got me enough ‘shit’ to last all winter.”

The best end-of-season cleanup had to be in November 1970 when the DELTA QUEEN tied-up at New Orleans for what could have been its last time following the thrilling and eventful “Save the DELTA QUEEN Year.” The QUEEN needed an exemption to the “Safety at Sea Law” that threatened to force the steamboat out of business, and the possibility of getting an exception seemed uncertain.

Crescent City fireboats, bands, and hundreds of well-wishers welcomed the QUEEN on the 2nd of November.

The last trip from Cincinnati to St. Paul, and then from St. Paul to New Orleans, was a true classic with tens of thousands of well-wishers cheering the DELTA QUEEN along every segment of the route. Crescent City fireboats, bands, and hundreds of well-wishers welcomed the QUEEN on the 2nd of November. The televised Johnny Cash Show that night featured a particular segment dedicated to the DELTA QUEEN. There was not a dry eye watching the television sets brought aboard just for the remaining passengers and crew who stayed one last night before departing the following morning. I can still hear Cash’s manly voice lamenting above the sobs in the Forward Cabin Lounge, “Farewell old DELTA QUEEN…”

After the departure of the last of the guests and the crew not needed to move the steamboat from the wooden wharf on the Mississippi River to the backwaters of the Industrial Canal, Captain Wagner ordered, “LET ‘EVERYTHING GO!” The boat sadly slipped away, and all-too-soon made itself fast inside the canal. Once assured the QUEEN would survive the New Orleans winter, nearly everyone, including the volunteer cleaners, left. Besides myself, all remaining onboard were Purser Gabriel Chengary, Assistant Engineer Kenny P. Howe, Jr., Benton Roblee Duhme, a most interesting chap from St. Louis who crewed on the “Last Trip” as a porter and kitchen helper, and Joyce Sanders, who drove from Covington to carry me home.

With his doctor’s permission, Benton finished the final segment of the “Last Trip” as a hard worker and earned his way more nobly than did others in the Steward’s Department who resented his presence and shifted their share of the load towards him. 

Benton, the scion of the St. Louis family owning a major shoe-manufacturing company (Buster Brown and Roblee Shoes), was the premier steamboat buff anywhere on the river although he suffered from a fatal disease which would soon claim his short life. With his doctor’s permission, Benton finished the final segment of the “Last Trip” as a hard worker and earned his way more nobly than did others in the Steward’s Department who resented his presence and shifted their share of the load towards him.

Benton also collected all sorts of souvenirs from the DELTA QUEEN. When he wanted a fire ax, the Captain told him the boat would be needing the tool after getting her exemption, so Benton bought a Coast Guard-approved duplicate from a ship’s chandler on Canal Street. Carefully, the steamboat aficionado re-lettered the handle with the boat’s name and swapped the two with Captain Wagner’s approval. Young Duhme wore the funniest-looking officer’s boat cap he found in the trash that puffed up and made him resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy. Especially odd was the fact that Benton always dressed immaculately in a tweed jacket and bow tie -even when he was scrubbing pots and pans in the dish room with a yellow, rubber apron thrown over his expensive clothing.

That night, Benton treated Joyce and me to a spectacular dinner at Antione’s Resturant on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter, including their celebrated Oysters Rockefeller. After eating at the 1840-ish “Grand Dame of French Creole dining,” we drove Benton to the airport where he had reservations on a flight home. When our friend boarded the small twin, propeller-driven, American Airlines aircraft, the crew stopped him as he was carrying the fire ax while wearing the doughboy hat.

Benton Roblee Duhme and me at New Madrid, MO on “The Last Trip,” October 1970.

But after Benton explained the plight of the DELTA QUEEN and what his intentions were concerning the ax, the Captain allowed him to place it inside the crew’s cabin. Then, as all the aircraft crew assembled atop the boarding ladder, Benton ceremoniously pasted a brilliant orange, “Save the DELTA QUEEN“ bumper sticker onto the fuselage of the plane. Shortly after returning to St. Louis, Benton reported the bumper sticker was still intact when he deboarded the flight.

A few months later, Benton accompanied Captains Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley and Robert James “Roddy” Hammett on the QUEEN ELIZABETH 2, or “QE2,” the Cunard transatlantic liner and cruise ship from New York City to Southhampton, England. Once in the UK, according to Captain Hawley, Benton suffered excruciating headaches. Thinking the maladies resulted from the fact that Benton’s eyeglasses remained in St. Louis where he’d forgotten them, Cap’n Doc made his first transatlantic telephone call to the Duhme ophthalmologist who quickly dispatched a prescription for the young man’s glasses. A new set of spectacles failed to alleviate Benton’s suffering, so he was flown home where his doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor.

On the 23rd of May 1971, Benton Roblee Duhme died at the young age of 23 years and two months. Aboard the DELTA QUEEN, an article I’d written of his passing, and published throughout the year in THE STEAMBOAT TIMES, memorialized an exceptional young steamboatman, who had he lived, would surely have known no bounds.


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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ORDER YOUR RIVER BOOK HERE

Capt. Don Sanders ‘The River: River Rat to steamboatman, riding ‘magic river spell’ to 65-year adventure’ is now available for $29.95 plus handling and applicable taxes. This beautiful, hardback is 264-pages of riveting storytellings, replete with hundreds of pictures from Capt. Don’s collection — and reflects his meticulous journaling, unmatched storytelling, and his appreciation for detail. This historically significant book is available just in time for Christmas gifting — and for the collections of every devotee of the river.

You may purchase your books by mail from the Northern Kentucky Tribune — or you may find the book for sale at all Roebling Books locations and at the Behringer Crawford Museum.

Order your Captain Don Sanders’ ‘The River’ book here.


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3 Comments

  1. Michael Gore says:

    Winter’s drawing nearness, the end of another season, laying up and prepping for those below freezing temps and accompanying forms of precipitation with yon spring to look forward to. Kind of like the ending of another of Capt. Don’s stories and the looking forward to the spring of next week’s story!

  2. Cora Reade-Hale says:

    Thank you NKyTribune for resharing one of Capt Don”s most poignant memories. So much heart felt joy & sadness as the Delta Queen crew celebrated her & mourned what everyone felt was her end. Capt Don makes the mundane of “winterizing” come to life as a special ” moment in time”..while also celebrating a young man with so much heart for the grand Delta Queen he spent some of his last days caring for her.. Thank you Capt Don for reviving memories for some, adding to those memories for others & telling it all in a way that future generations can feel the “enthralle” we all knew.

  3. Ted Welty says:

    Winters were always harsh along the banks of the Mississippi in Eastern Iowa. One of the reasons being the absence of the graceful and stunning Delta Queen. I remember those days of wondering if we had seen her “last” trip southbound in 1970. It is always a joy to read Captain Don’s stories of what was happening onboard and with the crew. His stories are always riveting and have me waiting for more!!

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