The following article recently appeared in an issue of The S&D Reflector. Subscriptions to The S&D Reflector can be purchased here on our website.
Today, October 6, 1995, is the first anniversary of operations for the casino boat GRAND VICTORIA on the Fox River in Elgin, IL; about thirty-five miles northwest of Chicago, where the famous Elgin watches were made. The watch factory is now long lost in the past, but the casino boat seems to be as important in this age as the watch factory was in earlier days. The GRAND VICTORIA is a 400-foot leviathan, fashioned in the mold of an old-time sidewheel Mississippi River steamboat. Floating on a meager stream normally better suited to tiny fishing boats and jet skis, a fifteen-hundred foot channel dredged into the Fox allows the GRAND VICTORIA to make regularly scheduled trips.
The weather is cold and blustery, so we are dockside and not sailing as the gaming laws allow us to do when the winds are raising whitecaps on the water. In the dark pilothouse, under the glare of my desk light, I am thinking about where I was twenty-five years ago on the DELTA QUEEN, which was, in those days, the last overnight steamboat operating on the inland rivers. Now the DELTA QUEEN has two sister ships that never could have been imagined: the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN and the AMERICAN QUEEN, which is even bigger than the GRAND VICTORIA.
An October night like tonight, in 1970, must have been around the time of the DELTA QUEEN’s “last trip” from Cincinnati to St. Paul and then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The QUEEN was operating on a waiver from the so-called Safety- at-Sea Law or SOLAS, and if an extension was not forthcoming, that steamboat with the marvelous wooden superstructure was doomed to be tied up forever when she reached the Crescent City. The DELTA QUEEN left Cincinnati in a cold rain. Only a few people stood on the cobblestones of the Public Landing to see her off, likely for the last time. It was surprising to see so few well-wishers considering that Cincinnati was the homeport of the QUEEN, and the odds were the steamboat would never again return to its hometown as an overnight boat.
We backed out and into the current of the Ohio River, and as soon as my deck was in order and the landing stage tied down, I ran up to the pilothouse were Capt. Ernest E. Wagner, Master of the DELTA QUEEN, and Capt. Harry Louden, Pilot, were on watch. Gabriel Chengery, presently the DELTA QUEEN’s Master, but then the boat’s Purser, was standing around watching. Capt. Marion Frommel, a Cincinnati businessman who held a Master/Pilot license and had been a close friend of Capt. Tom Greene, the man who bought the DELTA QUEEN and brought her around from California in 1947, was there, too. Capt. Frommel was usually aboard whenever the boat left town.
Capt. Louden had just gotten the QUEEN turned around and headed downstream when I bounded up the steps, through the gate at the top, and into the pilothouse at the precise moment when Wagner, a great bear of a man, reached past the pilot and grabbed hold of the whistle handle with those great paws of his, and slowly pulled down against the pressure of the steam valve. The four stripes on his coat sleeve showed golden in the dim glow of the lights of the city above the landing.
A low moan arose behind us from the gilded steam whistle atop the smokestack bonnet. The sound deepened and grew louder as those strong hands of the Captain pulled until the full force of the steam within the boilers, four decks below, surged through the whistle valve, around the cup, and across the three chambers of the great bullet-shaped, brass whistle.
After blowing a long blast, as smooth as a belt of aged Kentucky bourbon, Wagner paused until the echo of that eruption came back across the water like a lost ghost returning home. Then Wagner blew one short whistle, paused; then another, and the echoes that returned to the DELTA QUEEN were mournful wails of farewell for the last of all the steamboats that had been coming and going there for over one hundred seventy-five years. The last pull aroused all the sleeping spirits along the ancient steamboat landing as specters of lost steamboats, forgotten captains and pilots, engineers, and roustabouts were immediately assembled there … in the midst of all that, came the sobs of crying and moist eyes.
Looking around the tiny room perched high above the Ohio River, as whispers of the last steamboat whistle blown there swirled around the hot, sizzling chimney outside, I slowly realized that it was us, inside the pilothouse, who were crying and making those soft, sobbing sounds. Gabriel was crying aloud. His cheeks ran wet with the tears that streamed forth unashamed.
Capt. Wagner, however, was revealing no outward emotions although he may have been more deeply concerned for the fate of the DELTA QUEEN and leaving the Cincinnati landing for the last time than were all the rest of us combined. Wagner had been, in years before, at this same landing, acting as the Mate on the steamers ISLAND QUEEN and ISLAND MAID. He had been there, too, as the Captain of the excursion steamboat AVALON, which he tied up at the lower end of the long-gone Greene Line wharf boat for the final time when the AVALON quit running as the last tramp excursion boat in the early 1960’s. Capt. Ernest Wagner was more a part of the DELTA QUEEN than anyone else except Capt. Tom Greene. The boat was fortunate to have many good captains, but Ernie and Tom were the absolute best, and they remain for all times the ones most closely identified with the DELTA QUEEN.
As Capt. Wagner blew the final farewell salute to the home of the DELTA QUEEN on that cold, wet October night in 1970, he was really all alone in the pilothouse. Alone with his boat, the DELTA QUEEN’s steam whistle had never been blown like it had that night; never before, or since. Ernest Wagner and his steamboat were one together as they had always been. His farewell salute sealed a bond between the two, tied like a lover’s knot, while the rest of us were merely spectators watching.
Cap held onto the whistle handle until the last echo bounced across the river and back, again and again, until it became a faint whisper before joining the phantom echoes of all the steamboat whistles ever blown among those ancient cobblestones.
As I turned and peered into the Captain’s face, I saw a look of deep concentration and intense meditation. Though I was staring at him, he saw only his own visions, and without voicing a word to anyone, turned and went outside onto the starboard wing bridge and stood at the far rail.
Capt. Wagner, clad in his black uniform jacket with the gold-braided sleeves, raised his arms high over his head and waved a two-handed “river salute” to the loyal friends of the DELTA QUEEN gathered in the rain. Their shouts of farewell came across the dark Ohio River from the Cincinnati shore as Cap waved and waved until the steamboat passed downstream and away from the Public Landing “for the last time.”