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Our Rich History: The legacy of the Bernstein Family, Betty Blake; Alan named to museum’s Hall of Fame

By Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD
Special to the NKyTribune

A part of the occasional ORVILLE (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment) Series

Rivers in American history have offered life, form, and stability to all of us. From indigenous Americans to the millions of immigrants who settled along the Ohio and Mississippi River watersheds to the teeming cities lining their shores today, rivers are the pulse of a vast American heartland. Celebrating the rivers is inherent to specialized museums, including the Ohio River Museum in Marietta, Ohio, the Inland Waterways Museum in Paducah and the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa.

The steam towboat John W. Hubbard. (Elizabeth Marine Ways)

The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium (NMRM&A) goes one step further. Its National Rivers Hall of Fame honors “the stories of the women and men who have had a significant impact on the rivers of America.” Their Hall of Fame includes such luminaries as Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Herbert Hoover, Louis Armstrong, John James Audubon, Betty Blake, Meriwether Lewis & William Clark, Mark Twain, and many others. Meanwhile, their distinguished Achievement Award Honorees include such well-known figures as Captain Alan Bates, Captain Alan Bernstein, Betty Bryant, Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley, Captain Jesse P. Hughes, Captain C. W. Stoll, and Captain Fred Way, Jr.

Today, we begin a continuing series about the innovators and innovations of the Ohio River watershed. It is part of a larger effort of the ORVILLE (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment) Project of the Kenton County Public Library in Covington.

We begin our series with the Bernstein Family, and Betty Blake. This is especially timely as Alan Bernstein is the 2023 recipient of the Achievement Award by the National Rivers Hall of Fame of the NMRM&A. Alan is the son of Ben (1921–1992) and Shirley Bernstein of Cincinnati. Ben was a noted restauranteur in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area, the founder of Gregory’s Steak House (which grew to four locations), El Greco in Southgate, Kentucky, and longtime owner of the floating restaurant Mike Fink in Covington, Kentucky. In 1976, Ben Bernstein purchased the Mike Fink, a steam towboat turned restaurant, from Captain John Beatty (1914–1994).

The Mike Fink floating restaurant, moored at Covington. In the background downriver is the John A. Roebling Bridge.

The Mike Fink had an interesting history. Built in 1936 in Neville Island, Pennsylvania by the Dravo Corporation, the 171.5 foot boat was christened the John W. Hubbard. It was “named for a Pittsburgh millionaire who was financially interested in the Campbell line,” the boat’s original owner (Fredreick Way, Jr. and Joseph W. Rutter, Way’s Steam Towboat Directory Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990). Renamed the Charles Dorrance in 1950, it was purchased by Captain Beatty in 1967, rechristened the Mike Fink, and opened as a floating restaurant. By 1968, it was anchored along Covington’s Riverside Drive, at the foot of Greenup Street (Benjamin L.”; Beatty, John L.”; and “Mike Fink Floating Restaurant” in: Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool, The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

In 1976, Ben Bernstein purchased the Mike Fink and hired his friend Betty Blake as a consultant. On March 15, 1980, BB Riverboats launched its first Ohio River cruise aboard the 400-passenger sternwheeler, the Betty Blake. Originally headquartered at the foot of Madison Avenue along Covington’s riverbank, the operation moved to Newport in 2005. BB Riverboats, an acronym for Ben Bernstein and for Betty Blake, operates daily sightseeing tours in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area, including both scheduled and chartered cruises. The Betty Blake, and two other BB boats, served fairgoers at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, part of the larger Ohio River watershed (“BB Riverboats,” in The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky).

Betty Blake and the boat named for her, March 26, 1980. (Kentucky Post Collection of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington, KY)

Betty Blake was born in 1930 in Lexington, Kentucky (1930–1982). From her state politician father, she learned communication skills that served her well throughout her career. Graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1952, she accepted a position selling ads for WLW Radio in Cincinnati. Later, she was employed in public relations by the owner of the steamer Avalon in Cincinnati, which was later moved downriver and rechristened as the Belle of Louisville.

Next, Blake became “the first public-relations executive of Greene Line Steamers Inc., the owners of the Delta Queen.” In his entry for Betty Blake in the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, steamboat historian Frank X. Prudent credits Betty Blake for making “the Delta Queen an institution known around the world” and for keeping “the romanticism of the river and steamboats alive” (p. 92). When a US Congressional Act entitled the Safety of Sea Law threatened the existence of the Delta Queen, Blake mounted a “nationwide letter-writing and signature-petition campaign that became known as ‘Save the Delta Queen.’” Her efforts were successful, giving a reprieve to the Delta Queen, and undoubtedly launching her eventual promotion to president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. She became, as Prudent attested, “the first woman president of a major American cruise line” (p. 92). In 1996, she was inducted posthumously into the National Rivers Hall of Fame (Betty Blake).

With such a family background, it was inevitable that Alan Bernstein would grow up with the river coursing through his veins. Even Alan’s son, named Ben after his grandfather, shares their passion. In commenting on his father’s 2023 achievement, Captain Ben Bernstein of BB Riverboats relates the story of how his father Alan “skipped his High School graduation to experience the river system for the first time aboard the Steamer Delta Queen.” Alan would earn “his first master license in 1981.” He now “holds a master license of 1600 tons, an Inland Master License of 100 tons, and an Unlimited Master of Towing License for Western Rivers.” (“Alan Bates,” National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium).

Alan Bernstein has served as president of the Passenger Vessel Association, on the Executive Board of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, and was instrumental in the original Tall Stacks Festival in Cincinnati, as well as in the National Steamboat Monument on Cincinnati’s riverfront (Shelley Byrne, “Bernstein Still ‘In Love With’ River, More than 50 Years Later,” The Waterways Journal Weekly, June 17, 2023).

The Steamer Delta Queen, when the boat was still operated by the Greene Line Steamers, Inc. This photo, taken in the late 1950s, depicts the boat moving upriver from Cincinnati.

Of Betty Blake, Alan Berstein described her as “my second mother.” In an interview for the Waterways Journal in June 2023, Bernstein fondly recalled that “I had two mothers back then, my real mother and Betty Blake. She was a dynamic lady, and I was honored to be her honorary son.” Bernstein also credits his father for confidence in him. “I said, ‘Dad, we don’t know the first thing about boats.’ He said, ‘Alan, you’re going to learn.’ He said not only that, ‘You’re going to get your captain’s license, and you’re going to drive the thing.’”

River historian, author, and NKyTribune columnist, Captain Donald J. Sanders, has fond memories of Alan Bernstein:

“No one on the river deserves the National Rivers Hall of Fame Achievement Award more than Captain Alan Bernstein of BB Riverboats. Cap’n Al and I go back more than 50 years to when he was a waiter, and I was the First Mate on the Steamer Delta Queen. Alan surprised me one day on the bow as the Queen entered a lock. “Hey, Cap,” said the big fellow decked out in a tuxedo, bow tie, cummerbund, and jacket. “Lem’me operate the backing line,” a heavy, four-inch, grimy, nylon line the steamboat backed against in a lock. Al was so excited he was bouncing back and forth from foot to foot. “Uhhh… sure,” I slowly agreed. Suddenly, off came the tie, cummerbund, and jacket. Rolling his sleeves, the waiter-turned-deckhand snatched up the heavy line as the Queen approached the floating pin recessed in the lockwall. Tossing it across the watery void, he snagged the pin and made the line fast to the deck fitting before the entire weight of the boat squeezed the line down to half its size. After Al’s initial demonstration of his line-handling prowess, he appeared at the backing line whenever the Queen was locking, and his duties in the dining room allowed. Since then, I’ve kiddingly bragged, “Captain Alan Bernstein used to deck for me on the Delta Queen.”

Years later, with his own son Jesse Sanders in tow, Captain Don Sanders recalls “when he and I dropped in unannounced on a busy Captain Al while he was preparing to depart the BB Riverboats’ dock on a VIP charter. Cap’n Al still found time to see us and gave us the royal river treatment. ‘No one has ever been nicer than Captain Bernstein was to us that day. I’ll never forget,’ Jesse added” (Captain Donald Sanders to Tenkotte, email, January 30, 2024).

My own memories of Alan Bernstein date from 1991. Steamboat historian Vic Canfield and I, members of Mother of God Church in Covington, were preparing for our parish’s 150th anniversary. Vic wanted to re-create an 1842 event, when clergy and celebrants from Cincinnati ferried across the Ohio River to Covington to dedicate the original Mother of God Church. On Sunday, October 6, 1991, BB Riverboats’ Mark Twain ferried parishioners and friends of Mother of God Church in an Ohio River crossing.

Alan Bernstein. National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.

The Delta Queen, which was in the Cincinnati harbor at the time, “blew its steam whistle and played its calliope in honor of the thousands of steamboats over the intervening years that had used Mother of God’s two massive bell towers in navigating the river channel at Cincinnati” (Paul A. Tenkotte, Victor J. Canfield, and John Morrison, Cradle of the Arts: Mother of God Catholic Church, Covington, Kentucky. Cincinnati, OH: Stevie Publishing, 2016, p. 221). “I will be forever grateful to Alan Bernstein, who generously provided the service of his boat and crew for this historic event,” stated Vic Canfield.

The Mike Fink restaurant closed in 2008. Although the Bernsteins invested $500,000 in repairing the hull of the boat, the national economy sank into a recession in 2008, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Purchased in 2018 by Bellaire (Ohio) Harbor Service, the boat now serves as a shop barge (H. Nelson Spencer, “Former Restaurant Boat Mike Fink to Become Shop Barge,” The Waterways Journal Weekly, February 8, 2019).

With its Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) exemption nearing its end, the Delta Queen — then owned by Majestic America Line — was discontinued from service at the end of the 2008 season. Laid up in New Orleans, the Queen steamed to Chattanooga, Tennessee (also part of the larger Ohio River watershed), where she became a docked hotel, thereby not subject to the operating vessel restriction of SOLAS. In 2014, the Delta Queen Hotel closed.

Purchased by a “group of loyal supporters” with a vision to preserve the historic vessel, the boat was granted a new ten-year exemption to SOLAS in 2018. Currently, the Delta Queen is moored in Houma, Louisiana, as its steadfast supporters seek funding to restore the boat and return it to service (Delta Queen Steamboat Company).

From the Bernstein family to Betty Blake, and from the Mike Fink to the Delta Queen, the Ohio River watershed has defined our region. In return, we owe it to ourselves to embrace, renew, and restore the mighty Ohio and its vast resources.

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Editor of the “Our Rich History” weekly series and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He also serves as Director of the ORVILLE Project (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment), premiering in Fall 2024. ORVILLE is now recruiting authors and documentarians on all aspects of innovation in the Ohio River Watershed including: Cincinnati (OH) and Northern Kentucky; Ashland, Lexington, Louisville, Maysville, Owensboro and Paducah (KY); Columbus, Dayton, Marietta, Portsmouth, and Steubenville (OH); Evansville, Madison and Indianapolis (IN), Pittsburgh (PA), Charleston, Huntington, Parkersburg, and Wheeling (WV), Cairo (IL), and Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville (TN). If you would like to be involved in ORVILLE, please contact Paul Tenkotte at tenkottep@nku.edu.

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  1. Cap'n Don Sanders says:

    Great story, Paul. Congratulations, again, to Captain Alan Bernstein for this richly deserved achievement award bestowed by the National Rivers Hall of Fame in Dubuque, Iowa. No one is more worthy of the honor than Cap’n Al. My best wishes also go to the Bernstein family and the crew and staff of BB Riverboats. Hearing the exploits of “Cap’n Betty” Blake and “Cappy” Ben Bernstein, two river legends I knew well, was delightful.

  2. Mary K Sward says:

    This is a wonderful tribute to Captain Al, who richly deserves this achievement award. He and his family have built a wonderful company. I have been fortunate to briefly work with Captain Al, and anyone who knows him is lucky. Thank you for highlighting an important part of our community.

  3. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Awesome article Paul. Thanks for sharing such a great & well deserved tribute to Capt Alan Bernstein. His work at the initial TALL STACKS & subsequent ones was phenomenal..
    Yet as busy as he always is, he sits down & visits when the “riverrat”‘ framily’ is aboard..
    God Bless him.

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