The following article appeared in the September 2014 issue of The S&D Reflector. It was written by John “Corky” Bickel. Subscriptions to The S&D Reflector can be purchased here on our website.
I don’t remember when I was not wild about steamboats. My father, John P. Bickel, grew up the son of a grocer in the small northeast Iowa river town of McGregor. One of his jobs was to accompany my grandfather delivering groceries to steamboats making regular stops for provisions in McGregor. Growing up he loved steamboats and all things connected to the river, and I suspect that my love was partially genetic and partially as a result of the endless tutorials given by my father about the sternwheelers and river men who made their lives on the boats.
At about the age of nine I accompanied my father in his friend’s Chris Craft. We sped out of Harpers Slough north of McGregor/Marquette, Iowa chasing after the GORDON C. GREENE. We had to get a last look at her as she made her final trip south on the Upper Mississippi River. What an elegant sight to see this magnificent lady with her graceful lines and the powerful rollers in her wake. My father expressed great sadness at the passing of an era with this last southbound trip.
By the time I was thirteen I was an accomplished river rat, and with two river friends, embarked upon the “great journey” taking our outboards up the Mississippi. We passed the Twin Cities, Lock and Dam #1, and went as far as Taylor’s Falls on the St. Croix. One of our stops was in Fountain City, WI to visit the long retired Capt. William Henning who had made his life as a steamboat captain on the Upper Mississippi. Capt. Henning was very gracious in sharing with us his extensive collection of photographs of steamboats and his memories from more than three quarters of a century working and piloting on the river.
On occasion during the summer, my buddies and I would have a chance encounter meeting the steamer AVALON taking day cruises out of Prairie du Chien. We marveled at her size, the sound of her calliope, and fantasized about “steamboating” every time we saw her. One particular evening, my father, mother, and a group of friends (I was never invited on evening outings) were enjoying a cruise on their Chris Craft at 11:00 p.m. watching the AVALON as it prepared to land in Prairie du Chien at the end of the moonlight excursion. As they watched they witnessed several young male passengers who had apparently had “one too many” pick up and throw a number of wooden deck chairs off the port side of the texas deck. My father steered his boat to the area where the chairs were floating in the river and fished them out. The next day I accompanied him to Prairie du Chien in his boat, where the six plus deck chairs were stacked on the motor hatch. Pulling up to the bow of the AVALON, he asked if he could speak to the captain. A very formidable giant of a man, 6’4”, dressed in un-ironed wash pants and short sleeved open collared button down shirt appeared on deck. In his mesmerizing drawl Capt. Ernest Wagner asked my father how he could help him. My father indicated that he had something he believed belonged to the captain and pointed to the stack of chairs. Capt. Wagner expressed both joy and surprise, exclaiming that he had never had anyone return anything belonging to the boat which had been stolen or thrown overboard. He graciously thanked my father as crew members offloaded the chairs onto the deck of the AVALON. Pointing to me he addressed my father asking “What does that young man have planned for the afternoon?” “Nothing special,” was the reply. “Why don’t you let Corky (introductions had already been made) take a ride with me this afternoon?” This was the beginning of lifelong friendships which endure today.
I spent the afternoon on the heels of Capt. Wagner (now in more officer appropriate dress, white shirt, black shoes, black trousers, black tie and his Master’s cap) watching him orchestrate the operation of an excursion steamer, and listening to him call out orders to his crew. It was not long before we were in the pilot house and I was introduced to the second “best friend” I made on the boat that day, First Mate “Doc” Hawley. I trailed Doc while he played the calliope to entice aboard the afternoon guests. I still recall vividly the smell of live steam and classical “melodious sounds” which came from his pushing hard on the brass keys that day. Back to the pilot house after the concert was concluded, I alternated between quietly and respectfully sitting on the visiting pilot’s bench, or standing out of the way watching the pilot on watch skillfully steer the AVALON, and listened to the conversation between the pilots. Capt. Wagner and Doc would periodically appear in the pilot house. It was the best day of my life. At the end of the cruise, my father came in his boat to Prairie du Chien to retrieve me. I thanked both Capt. Wagner and Doc and bid them a fond farewell.
As a stroke of luck would have it, when we arrived in our family boat later that summer in Stillwater, MN on the St. Croix, I saw the AVALON again. I begged my father to take me over to the boat so I could say hello to my “good friends.” Reflecting at the present time on that chance reunion in Stillwater, much to my amazement (as a 13 year old there was no doubt in my mind they would remember me), both of them warmly greeted me by name and invited me aboard for the afternoon cruise.
This same scenario was repeated the next summer when the AVALON visited Prairie du Chien. The boat’s visit was without question the highlight of the summer of my fourteenth year.
I was fifteen when the scenario repeated itself, but with a life altering twist. I arrived at the boat with my father and was again warmly greeted by Capt. Wagner and First Mate Doc Hawley. After appropriate pleasantries were exchanged, my father and Capt. Wagner visited about the state of the river in the Prairie du Chien area, and the boat’s northbound itinerary. Then he looked at my father, smiled and said, “How would Corky like to work for me this summer?” He explained to my father that I would be bunking with Doc in his cabin. The officers and crew would keep an eye on me to make sure that I was safe and I would be returned in good condition. My father asked me if I would be interested in working on the boat for the rest of the summer as a crew member. “Absolutely yes, you bet I would” was both instant and euphorically affirmative. The plan was to join the boat on her downbound trip when she returned from the north.
After the boat departed northbound and arrived in St. Paul, there was a “disturbance” on the landing when the AVALON docked. Rival motorcycle gangs from St. Paul and South St. Paul engaged in a major brawl and arrests were made. The event was deemed newsworthy by the Twin City newspapers and several other newspapers along the river to the south. Somehow my grandmother, who lived in McGregor, became aware of the “river front riot,” which the incident was now being called by the press. Grandma Bickel, an “old school Methodist,” did not approve of drinking or dancing, let alone the wild life of a river man. When my father announced to her that I was “shipping out” as a crew member on the steamer AVALON, her response could not have been more negative. My summer as a crew member proved Grandma wrong on all accounts.
On a warm summer day my mother, father and sisters drove me to the riverbank in Marquette, a mile above McGregor, and we waved at the boat as she passed on her way south. We headed back to McGregor, passed through town and onto the highway to Guttenberg where we raced down river to Lock and Dam #10. After the AVALON pulled into the lock, I hoisted my bag over the lock wall railing to a waiting crew member, swung myself over the rail onto the second deck of the steamboat, the place of my first full time employment. As a crew member on the steamer AVALON I had been directed to bring black tie and trousers, a pair of black shoes, and white shirts with me as part of my duties would involve contact with the passengers. I was a trim, athletic, blond fifteen year old ready for a new adventure. I was on my own, alone, and knew I was up to the job.
Upon arrival at the boat I was issued my station card. My emergency station was on the texas deck and today my station card is proudly framed, and cherished as one of my most valuable possessions. Originally it was bright orange, but the side which has been exposed to the sun for decades is badly yellowed, while the back side is still a prominent orange color.
Doc was assigned to take me to his cabin where there were two bunks along its inside wall, bottom and top. I was shown the top bunk which would be mine for the summer. The cabin was no longer than the bunks and between the bunks and the outside wall was room enough for only one person to squeeze in. The bottom bunk had space under it to stow my suitcase. Reflecting on this in later years it was an obvious sacrifice for Doc to share his cabin as there was such limited space. It was under this bunk where he had to store all of his own belongings and gear for the entire season. But never once did he exhibit any indication of irritation or displeasure with the fact that his usable personal space had just been reduced by 50% or more. To the contrary, he was extraordinarily hospitable and gracious during my entire time on the boat. I understood that I was privileged to be staying in an officer’s cabin, this one located on the port side of the texas deck. The boat had no air conditioning but our cabin did have a window on the outside wall which was shuttered and never opened along with transom windows which did open. A powerful brass-bladed old fashioned fan was mounted near the top of the back wall. A small sink hung on the low wall. Hot water came from the river, cold water from tanks located just overhead our ceiling on the roof. Our linens were washed every week. We turned our sheets over during the week so that we would have “clean” linens. A maid (we had very few female crew members) would bring us our clean sheets. My sense is that those crew members who lived in the confined steel walled rooms with no ventilation on the main deck did not enjoy such luxury. The summer was very warm, no blanket was ever needed. Living on the top bunk, my head was only three feet below the bottom of the pilot wheel and when underway, I was lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the calipers which stopped the rotation of the wheel.
We cruised down the Mississippi River, part way up the Illinois River and then back down the Mississippi, making stops at all the river towns of any size. Sometimes we stopped at the larger towns for several days. Otherwise we left a town after the evening moonlight cruise and journeyed through the night to the next stop.
The day began at 7:00 a.m. with breakfast handed to the crew members through a small galley window that was located ahead of the engine room, but near the stern of the main deck. Picnic tables provided the seating for meals. The food we ate was not fancy but very ample and I liked it. Immediately after breakfast I joined fellow crew members in mopping the decks, picking up trash from the night before that had been missed after the crew’s night cleanup, and readying the boat for the next afternoon cruise.
When I was not working, I was occasionally allowed to go to the pilot house. During these off times when I was there, I talked with the pilots and listened to the rich conversations they had with an occasional visiting pilot, and other “specially invited” passengers who were fortunate to have the privilege of experiencing firsthand where the Avalon was operated. As a young crew member, you sat quietly, and engaged in conversation only when invited to. You remained silent and enjoyed the privilege of being in the presence of veterans including Capt. Archie Maples who was piloting the boat. On one afternoon excursion, Capt. Sewell Smith was in the pilot house engaged in conversation with Capt. Tom Craig who was on watch. Captain Smith had long before retired from his illustrious and lifelong career on the river. The two pilots were reminiscing about their career experiences when two women and a gentleman appeared in the pilot house. The women were verbalizing their excitement about being in the pilot house ad nauseam. After several minutes of talking, one of the women exclaimed “This is just like being with Mark Twain piloting a steamboat.” Captain Smith had heard enough. He responded: “Ladies, my father was a pilot when Mark Twain was a cub pilot on the same boat and I can tell ya Mark Twain warn’t much of a pilot.” The women stood in silence. The pilot house returned to normal.
I would often accompany Doc on the texas deck’s hot tar paper roof to stand near him during the pre-boarding calliope concerts. The smell of the live steam and the shrieking melodies that rang out from the calliope whistles were pure heaven. To this day live steam and calliope music still evokes in me the strongest emotions.
In preparation for each cruise, I made my way to the dance floor deck, starboard side, at the bow. I took up my station for the cruise behind the concession counter, which was explained to me as an important and responsible job. Running the popcorn machine, selling candy bars and pop to the passengers was indeed very important. It was explained that the passengers liked salt on their popcorn. “Be sure to use plenty of salt,” was the instruction from the highest authority. No one explained, and it did not dawn on me that the more salt, the more pop (and beer) is sold. I was good at my job and enjoyed it.
Being at the front end of the dance floor gave me a great view of the elevated bandstand located at the stern. I could clearly hear every note the band played and every word of each song. It was a wonderful band, comprised of all black musicians from the South who sang all of their numbers loud and clear, there were no separate instrumentals. During breaks, I was allowed to provide the band with popcorn and soft drinks. They became regular customers and good friends. Soon I memorized the words to the songs, and quietly sang with them to myself while serving my customers. I never tired of those songs, not even to the present day. Several of the band members told me of playing with legends including Louis Armstrong.
In the larger towns and cities along the river there would occasionally be an offer by band members for me to accompany them “up town” to get ice cream. One or more of the band always walked back to the boat with me to ensure my safe return. There was never inappropriate discussion in my presence. However, in the larger cities I somehow understood that band members who sometimes did not return to the boat had been making inquiry about the location of the local fun house (the same type of house that had been reputed to be located on the foot of Main Street in McGregor in generations past).
I was a number of years younger than the other crew members. For a period of time Capt. Wagner’s daughter Sandy, who was close to my age, worked on the boat as a maid. But because of limited crew quarters for women, she had to sleep on a cot in the women’s bathroom, behind the bandstand on the dance floor deck. She was pleasant and good looking, but we had few opportunities to visit.
One of my first jobs on the boat was one of the most unpleasant. As a skinnier crew member I was assigned to position myself at a hatch, which was approximately four feet in diameter, out on the head of the boat. I stood inside the hatch with my head and shoulders sticking out above deck. My job was to hand cases of beer down to someone below me in the hold. The work itself was not particularly heavy but it was hot in the sun and there was a steam pipe which ran along the underside of the deck which had a leak. Live dripping steam condensate is very unpleasant when it spits onto your back on a hot day. Fortunately that job was not a regular one as we did not “take on” beer that often.
Getting to know the crew members was quite an experience. They were without exception nice to me. One of the deck crew, Leroy Battoe, from Louisiana, was a particularly strong, stout man who embellished in detail the “riot” which had occurred in St. Paul. In the middle of his story he said, “Wait a minute,” rushed to his cabin on the main deck and returned to show me with pride his well-worn, unlaundered white t-shirt with the blood spatters that resulted from that “row.” Leroy explained that a toggle (a two-foot long 2 x 4 used to secure a line) had been put to good use during the fight. Some unfortunate gang member made a big mistake picking a fight with Leroy.
Work on the boat involved long hours but there were moments of glamor and excitement. Glamor came during the cruises with me working the popcorn machine on the dance floor. Normally the formica topped tables, lining the sides of the dance floor, were bare. On special occasions we covered the tables with freshly pressed snow white linen tablecloths. One night the boat had been chartered in Memphis by a “colored” organization. (“Whites and coloreds” were the socially accepted terms of reference at that time on the river.) The passengers that night came in their Sunday finest and were good looking, gracious passengers. A special effort was made by those of us on the dance floor to have our cleanest and nicest looking clothes on in order to serve them. The group had an auction on the dance floor during the cruise and the highlight of the auction was a pony which was led willingly up the grand staircase from the main deck to the dance floor. The auction came to an end and the boat landed. It was time for the pony to descend from the dance floor to the main deck and leave the boat with his new owner. At the top of the staircase, that pony took one look down the stairs and wanted no part of it. Capt. Wagner directed First Mate Hawley (put in charge of logistics for the pony), to summon at least four of the strongest deck crew and watchmen, including Leroy, to pick up the now-petrified pony and carry it down the staircase. Fortunately, no one including the pony suffered injury. What an unforgettable spectacle to behold!
Each evening after the last passenger had disembarked, there was a nightly ritual at about 11:30 p.m. or so, which was particularly enjoyable. The crew, with the exception of the pilot, engineer, firemen and others on-duty, would congregate at the picnic tables on the first deck for our midnight snack. Two hot dogs each and two cans of beer for each crew member, in my case pop. After the beer and pop everyone turned in at midnight for a few hours’ sleep, until the ritual began again the next morning. Breakfast at 7:00 a.m. sharp.
Upon arrival in New Orleans in August, I bid my fellow crew members farewell. With my newfound wealth ($27 per week, most of which I saved), I checked into the Roosevelt Hotel on Canal Street. My intention was to spend the night in N’Orleans before heading to the airport to fly to Chicago and then board a passenger train for Prairie du Chien, across the river from McGregor. After checking into the Roosevelt Hotel, a tour of the French Quarter would be my next experience. As a veteran river man I had become worldly (I thought). I walked across Canal Street to the French Quarter and began enjoying the sights. After a period of time a thin, nondescript young-looking man started to follow me. I went in and out of several shops but this guy was still trailing me from a distance. This experience totally unnerved me. I took off on a dead run up Canal Street, back to the hotel, checked out, took a cab to the airport, and that afternoon flew directly to Chicago. (The hotel did not refund my room charge.) I spent the night on a bench in the Chicago train station, which may have been as dangerous as walking alone in the French Quarter in New Orleans. I caught the first train out to Prairie du Chien the next morning. So much for my new level of worldliness.
I worked hard as a crew member and believed that I would have the opportunity to return the next season, but as fate had it, I did not return to the boat. To this day I can still hear the sounds of the calliope, smell the fragrance of live steam, and enjoy salt on my popcorn.
My strong friendship with Capt. Wagner and First Mate, now Capt. Hawley, remain cherished memories. After the AVALON no longer “tramped,” it was my privilege to visit them both regularly when they came back to the upper river on the DELTA QUEEN. My deep feeling of affection for the AVALON, Capt. Wagner, and Capt. Hawley endure today as do my memories of the best job I ever had.