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Join me this summer as I travel the country to research the steam calliope tradition on America's inland rivers.
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Travels Across America: June 7-16, Part 2 of 3

Posted 06-26-2009 at 09:57 PM by Jon Tschiggfrie
When I last left you all, Dad and I were enjoying a bit of a detour in Point Pleasant at their river museum. In one of their display cases they have an assortment of steam whistles and engine oilers. One whistle in particular stuck out to me immediately, as the bell appeared to be made not of brass, but of rolled copper, a la Nichol calliope whistles. Could it be a long lost soprano note from an original calliope? I sent some snapshots to Dave, who confirmed my suspicions. The first picture below illustrates this suspected treasure. Now taking bets on what instrument it came from.

From there, it was a relatively short drive to Cincinnati. We ventured out on US-35 toward Washington Court House (I’ll say what you’re all thinking: what an unusual name for a town) and called Tom and Barb McNamara in Cincinnati. Dad assured them we’d be there within an hour. As soon as Dad hung up, I asked him if we were supposed to take the exit to I-71 south. As if following a movie script, I informed him, “Well, there it goes.”

Half an hour later, we rejoined the interstate and made it into town. We arrived at the McNamaras and had a grand time visiting with them. We discovered that, as a young boy, Tom once rode the Island Queen and remembered seeing a big gray steamboat tied up at the Greene Line wharfboat. He must have seen the Delta Queen on its arrival in Cincinnati and made one of the last trips on the Island Queen. That evening, Capt. Jim Blum (Tom’s cousin) arrived and offered us generous hospitality in putting us up during our stay in the Queen City.

Wednesday was a good day at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. We went through all of the City Directories from 1885 to 1933, or at least all of the ones the library had. We were looking for evidence of Thomas J. Nichol’s occupational exploits and his various residences and business locations in Cincinnati. We had hoped to find a picture of the factory district on the waterfront, which would have contained the plant on Pearl and Ludlow streets where the interstate runs now. While we didn’t unearth this particular item, we found a lot more than we bargained for. In addition to census records and city directory listings, we found a death notice mentioning Nichol’s religious involvement in the community. After writing to the current church in Hyde Park, we found out that Nichol was a founding member, an elder, and the superintendent of their Sunday school for many, many years.

Later that day, we ventured out to Spring Grove Cemetery, the final resting place of Mr. Nichol and his family. We photographed his gravesite (seen below) and paid our respects. Later, we drove out to his last residence, located in Norwood. The family wasn’t home, but a letter-drop affixed to the front was patented in 1925, so it’s a good bet this was the actual house at which he spent his final days. Several of his earlier residences were in Hyde Park (near the Presbyterian church he helped to found), which was also the location of the residence of Capt. Tom and Letha Greene. Unfortunately for the imagination, they would not have been living there concurrently, as Nichol passed away in 1931.

We enjoyed a delicious home-cooked meal at the McNamaras’ after a week of fast food. In the morning, we returned to the library to tie up some loose ends in the research, and then, at the suggestion of Keith Norrington and Capt. Jim Blum, headed to the Behringer-Crawford Museum in nearby Covington, Kentucky. Here, we saw the large “Y F B” letters that graced the same boat Tom had seen all those years ago, as well as Capt. Wagner’s uniform from the Avalon. I’ve seen photos and videos of the “Big E,” but I didn’t realize the accuracy of this moniker until I saw the museum’s poor mannequin, unable to support the jacket fully. With time always against us, we cut our visit short and struck out for Tennessee.

We encountered our first major rainstorm on I-71 just outside of Knoxville. Surviving a deluge of Biblical proportions, we rolled into Chattanooga right on schedule. We crossed the Tennessee River and got our first glimpse of the recently-opened Delta Queen Hotel at the Coolidge Park landing. This was the first time we’d seen the boat since our visit in Cape Girardeau last August. Although the sight was bittersweet, I have to report that the boat looks to be in excellent condition. They’ve done a bang-up job with painting the superstructure and re-varnishing all the handrails. The wheel is even a bright, happy red. We took our gear and luggage aboard, checked in, and no sooner found our room on the Texas Deck (No. 203) than we heard the sweet tones of the Queen’s steam calliope, playing a five o’clock concert.

Venturing back to the stern, we met Bill Wiemuth briefly, and, at his invitation, I hammered out a few tunes. The calliope sputters a bit with a good cover of steam condensate dousing the deck below, but all told she sounds pretty good. You kind of have to do a staccato circus style, as the limited pressure available (30 pounds to the calliope) is not at great enough steam volume to sustain chords. Taking a few pictures of the boat (night shot featured below), we headed to McDonald’s, no easy feat in Chattanooga. We drove around aimlessly for a good half hour before spotting what was seemingly the sole fast food joint in the city. Back aboard, Bill and Laura Sable, billed as the “Delta Queen Duo,” were entertaining guests in the Texas Lounge. We listened to their wonderful last two sets and got to visit with the two for a bit. We finished the evening out on the bow of the Texas Deck, enjoying the cool river breezes and music from the River Bend Music Festival from across the river in downtown Chattanooga.

That night was my first time sleeping aboard the boat. Granted, without the soothingly constant rhythm of working steam engines below, I can only imagine what the real thing would be like. As it was, I’m sure I experienced many of the particular highlights of this bunking situation: two inches of headroom in the top bunk, alleged “air conditioning,” an elbow-crushing shelf on the bulkhead, and a vigorously audible bunkmate below. The morning continued this cavalcade of steamboat surprises, with stubbed toes due to space constrictions, an elevated bathroom floor, and a less-than-negotiable bunking ladder. I also discovered that a certain level of agility is required to reliably wash one’s hair in the shower. Now, all of this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy my experience; it was simply new to me. And memorable. I can say with conviction that I’ve spent a night on the Delta Queen, and that ought to be enough to make any of the uninitiated quite jealous.

Continental breakfast in the Forward Cabin Lounge was delightful, especially with the company of Bill and Laura. Bill took us around the boat to see the sights and we also discussed the success that the boat has had in Chattanooga already. Friday morning marked the conclusion of the boat’s first week of reservations, and the community response to the boat’s presence has been very supportive - all encouraging news to us! The current operators of the Delta Queen, Bill informed us, have respected every inch of the boat, both historically and cosmetically. Dad and I agree with this assessment whole-heartedly. It looks like for now, the boat is in good hands all around. Nori Muster commented that Bill is “a gem,” and Jo Ann Schoen agreed that Bill and Laura are “real treasures.” We believe that what everyone has told us is true: the Delta Queen is very lucky to have these two aboard.

That’s all for now. I’ll be posting again shortly about the last leg of our journey in June. In the meantime, I promised you some goodies, and so now I’m delivering on that promise. For the visual learners among you, I’ve started uploading videos to YouTube, as well as continuing the research photo album from last year. The photo album can be found on my website here, with the Summer 2009 photos starting about halfway down: "Notes" From the Road Photo Gallery

Videos on YouTube (only five so far, but more coming) are listed thus:

YouTube - Delta Queen steam calliope 3
YouTube - Steam Calliope 44
YouTube - Steam Calliope 44 2
YouTube - Dave Morecraft works on Steam Calliope 44
YouTube - Steam Calliope 44 4

Stay tuned for part 3: New Orleans and beyond!
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