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The River: Memories stir like river mud — of Patty Boy, of Camps, of long swims, of new wonders

(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 January, 2018. Purchased The River hardback book, a collection of Capt. Don’s columns below.)

By Capt. Don Sanders

Special to NKyTribune

During the summers of our youth, my brothers Dick and Bob and I spent much of our time swimming and playing on the Licking River or at Walt’s Boat Club aboard our family’s paddlewheel houseboat, the MARJESS. On one of those now-distant days, our father brought home a disappointedly older, overweight beagle dog, but after he began running and playing with us boys, the dog soon trimmed up and became our constant companion. And it was in those times, between when the dog first found a new home with us and the middle of that summer, we realized how much we really loved this old dog named Patrick.

Patty Boy, the river dog

We just called him “Patty Boy” and he turned out to be a natural river dog who loved following along with us to the Licking River. While we swam, Patty Boy watched from the shore. On especially hot days, Patty waded into the river until the cool water was around his neck, but not once did I actually see him swimming. He was the best dog we ever had, at least I have always felt that way.

Patty naturally loved the MARJESS, too, where he found his own special place on the outboard side of the boat, back by the paddlewheel, where no one else was allowed to go. There he had his own private domain. Anytime he wanted to go ashore, he just went. Sometimes he would chase a rabbit on the riverbank, as chasing rabbits was a beagle’s nature. On the scent of a rabbit, his baying became a melodious song heard down the shoreline, across the water, and back to the boat.

After the first season at our Licking River camp, we naturally became curious to find what new wonders lay further upriver. On one such day, we boys set out along a very narrow trail through the woodlands overhung with branches and through thickets of tall ragweed. Past the old city dump, later filled in to become a baseball park, the path was interrupted by a wide open area surrounding the Ashland Oil Terminal where oil barges were unloaded into huge metal tanks high on the hill above. We never lingered in the exposed opening very long for fear terminal workmen would see us and think we were up to no good, as most kids hanging around the facility usually were.

The Licking River near camp (Tom Schiffer photo)

A little further up the river another field opened that would be, we figured, a cinch to traverse, but once we were halfway across, a terribly-loud commotion behind us caused us to look around. Two mammoth Saint Bernard dogs with stout, steel chains fastened about their necks that connected to hefty, concrete blocks, were charging at us so swiftly the cement blocks bounced behind the beasts like rubber toys.

We ran for our lives toward the safety of the woods before us. Eventually, we sensed the dogs were slowing down. After plunging into the overgrown grove, far enough away from the edge of the open field, we saw to our relief, the Saint Bernards were unable to venture into the woods dragging the cinder blocks behind them. We were safe. After that first encounter, enough distance was reckoned between us and the giant dogs to make a game of out-running them as the heavy cinder blocks bounced behind until the pair of jumbo pups were exhausted and abandoned their pursuit. After a time, the Saint Bernards grew to recognize us and ceased to give chase… much to our disappointment.

Going further up the river, we came to the embankment of the L&N Railroad tracks that crossed the Licking River on a very high bridge. On one side, closest to the outside of the bridge, a wooden walkway with a handrail provided safe passage to pedestrians. Patty Boy, we found, was terrified to walk across the high bridge. So I picked him up and carried him in my arms across to the other side.

Down another steep embankment and a short distance upriver was another bridge that had no accessible way to get onto it on either side of the river. A rusty, massive iron pipe running from the deck of the bridge, down and alongside a cement pier, disappeared into the ground. A pool of clear water bubbled from beneath the earth in line with the submerged pipe that carried the drinking water supply from the reservoir at Ft. Thomas, across the Licking River on this bridge, and to the City of Covington on the west side of the river. The riverbank and the area around the “Water Bridge,” as it was called, was overgrown with trees and thick underbrush.

The Pipe and Railroad Bridges. The mouth of Three Mile Creek.”

Lying on the ground near the bubbling spring, actually, a leak in the pipe somewhere deep underground, was an extra section of iron pipe at least ten feet long, several inches thick, and with at least a two-foot inside-diameter that lay uphill with one end of the pipe higher than the other. We quickly learned that when a wood fire was built inside the lower end of the spare section, the difference in height of each end of the pipe caused a natural draft like a chimney, and it wasn’t long before a hot fire turned the iron nearly cherry-red. As soon as it got that hot, we dipped from the spring with cans lying about and threw the cold water onto the outside of the hot pipe, instantly creating a great column of steam rolling upwards higher than the tops of the trees. The pipe and steam-making process became our “boiler.”

Though the boiler had no practical purpose, it was just fun to do in spite of all the work required to make it happen. “New Camp” soon became the name for our recently acquired territory.

Beneath the twin bridges, a white-water rapid, known as “Three Mile Riffle,” roared with a thunder heard a long distance away. Here, in the 1830’s, next to the mouth of Three Mile Creek, a dam was under construction on the river. Due to economic problems within the Federal Government, however, the dam was never completed. When John Augustus Roebling was building his engineering marvel, the now-famous suspension bridge on the Ohio River between Covington and Cincinnati, great limestone blocks were removed from the dam and barged to the bridge site, just over three miles north, where they were incorporated into the structure of the south pier of the bridge. Whenever the water level of the Licking River was low at the riffle, we could walk on the smooth basement stones of the foundation of the old dam left in place and not taken for the construction of the pier.

River Rapids, a white-water rapid similar to ‘Three Mile Riffle’

Looming high above the New Camp territory rose the solitary prominence of “John’s Hill.” During the Civil War, Wiggin’s Battery, also known as John’s Hill Battery, a Union artillery fortification, was dug into the hillock to protect the Cincinnati area from possible incursions by Confederate forces approaching north along the Licking. During our own occupation, we climbed a particularly tall tree atop the hill and sat in awe amongst the highest limbs where the tall buildings in downtown Cincinnati, some three miles away, were in clear view.

Except for the time my brothers and our cousin Ray Cooper swam through the white water rapids, while I, the eldest, stood lifeguard over them, New Camp was not our swimming hole, but it was an area where we explored the surrounding neighborhood and built fires, for fun, in the boiler. Rather, we swam downstream at Old Camp, but swimming there was made difficult when walking over the broken, tilted slabs of limestone rocks until we discovered, about a hundred-feet upstream, an outcropping of smooth, blue shale that crumbled into small, soft pieces where it met the water. This was a near-perfect beach and immediately became our swimming hole we dubbed, “Shale Camp.”

When we brothers began playing on the banks of the Licking River, I was the only one who could “swim,” and I use that word lightly, but on hot, humid days our curiosity first enticed us to wade knee-deep in the river, and before long, we stripped off our clothes and immerse ourselves entirely in the cool, spring-fed water. We learned to hold onto logs with one arm and paddle with the other. With practice and by trial-and-error, we eventually became excellent swimmers and survived into adulthood with few, if any, narrow escapes on the river.

John’s Hill has since been ripped apart for fill material.

The muddy shore on the opposite side of the river had to be easier on our feet, unlike the shallow Old Camp side where we had to wade across rocks – even shale can be sharp – to reach swimmable depths. Over on the far shore, a few feet from the brown, clay bluffs, the river dropped off straightaway to twelve or fifteen feet in depth where cold springs kept the water cool on the hottest of days. Until we became proficient swimmers, the far shore we called the “Ohio side,” was reached from the “Kentucky side” with the help of a handy log. After a couple of seasons, all of us could swim the width of the Licking River underwater.

Cousin Ray, who was like another brother, swam for the prestigious Coca-Cola Swim Team after honing his aquatic skills on the Licking. The clay banks were also perfect for building “mudslides”– long, slippery paths that ran down the inclined shore and ended with a plunge into the river. The slides were kept slick by a constant splashing of water onto them by the ones awaiting their turn. The outer layer of mud that made the mudslides possible had been laid down after the last spring flood overtop the leaves and sticks of the previous autumn. Painfully, we soon found that the thin coating of slippery mud was rapidly worn away from all our sliding, and the skeletal remains of last summer’s’ greenery turned the slide into a sharp bed of thorns.

A new mudslide was quickly fashioned alongside the worn-out one and the fun continued until long shadows stretched across the narrow river from the “Kentucky side” and told us it was nearing time to go home before our parents got off work and arrived before we did. During all those years, they never knew about our Licking River escapades, and only found out when Bob betrayed our oath of secrecy, and even then when I was in my 30s, our father gave me a stern lecture for subjecting my younger siblings to the hazards he imagined we faced two decades earlier. Dad could be a stern man.

Old Blue Log

Now and then an ancient “Blue Log” bobbed by on its lazy, ponderous way to the sea. Logs by that strange name began their drifting on long-before episodes of high water and then were stranded ashore after the water receded, sometimes for years, until another flood fetched them afloat and continued their downbound journey seaward until they were again beached and the process repeated itself year after year. Logs of this sort were always of a generous girth as skinny logs would have rotted and disintegrated seasons earlier. Between times afloat, these logs became the home to legions of various orders of wood-boring insects that built a woody apartment complex within the soft, moist interior. After many seasons buoyed on the water and exposed to the sun and earth elements while reposing on the shore, the doddering logs, once magnificent tree trunks, became so waterlogged that, in the same manner as icebergs, only a small portion of the overall mass was above the surface of the water as one drifted leisurely by.

Many long years of seasoning gave them a bluish patina and hence, their name. We relished the enjoyment of climbing aboard and sharing a Blue Log with the insect tenants that came out of their apartments to crawl over our legs. But whenever the party turned ugly and they began biting, a simple roll of the log ended the ruckus as the attackers were washed away to the delight of awaiting sunfish and minnows. The ole Blue Log’s ride toward the sea was merrily shared until it drifted far enough away from camp that we respectfully turned it loose, swam to shore, and walked back to where we belonged.

Those were just a few of our days on the Licking River, and like the song said, “we thought they’d never end” … but they did. Not only did those glorious, halcyon days of summer end, but nearly six decades have come and passed since any of us last played at Camp or swam in the invigorating waters of the Licking River. Since our last immersion in that stream, Three Mile Riffle and the basement stones of the ancient dam lie deeply submerged beneath the backwaters of Markland Dam. John’s Hill has since been ripped apart for fill material for the construction of Interstate 275, and where we played at “New Camp,” an attractive park built and operated by the City of Wilder, named “Frederick’s Landing,” is where my sternwheeler CLYDE visited on two autumn weekends, on recent, consecutive years.

Happily, the last time the CLYDE was at Frederick’s Landing, brother’s Bob and Jeff and their wives Shirley and Betsy joined my youngest son, Jonathan, and me aboard the paddlewheeler for a sentimental cruise on the timeless Licking River.

Jeff, Bob and me aboard the CLYDE at Frederick’s Landing Park.

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, sharing his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

• • • • •

Enjoy Captain Don Sanders’ stories of the river — in the book.


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 and the St. Elizabeth Healthcare gift shops.

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

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  1. Joy Scudder says:

    What a marvelous childhood. How great to have experienced it with your brothers and cousin. Reading your words, one could almost have been there. Thanks for sharing another great memory, Captain Don.

  2. Michael Garrity says:

    What an incredible story. Kids don’t get to explore and play like that much anymore. Even if they could, they’d probably rather stay inside to play video games..

  3. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Oh what glorious adventures! One can feel the cold water, hear the hiss of steam & feel the thorns. You bring it all to life.Thanks for sharing your great youthful adventures & reminding us of a safer,saner & far more fun time.

  4. Michael Gore says:

    Capt. Don’s gloriously vivid stories of childhood surely carries each reader back to their days of child and youth with play shaped by inventive imaginations. His stories especially ring true for those of us who grew up in and around The River. Thanks, Capt. Don and NKYTribune for the continuing flow of these weekly “Blue Log” Specials!

  5. John Bender says:

    Carries me back to the mid 60’s and our days running the banks of the Little Kanawha between Happy Valley and the new and perpetually under construction I-77. There is great value in our ability to reminisce. Neither our youth nor the days of our youth will return again. Thanks be to Cap’n Don and the N Kentucky Tribune.

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