The River: Cap’n Jack remembers his many years on the river and his death on a canoe
The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will share the stories of his long association with the river – from discovery to a way of love and life. It is part of a long and continuous story.
By Captain Don Sanders
Special for NKyTribune
“I suppose you heard that they found Cap’n Jack’s body – or what was left of it – on this so-called ‘mender’ from his last week.” “Who?” “Captain Jack…Jack Beehman. He was a big man on the river not too long ago. He started deckwork right out of high school and worked for Ernie Wagner on the DELTA QUEEN before moving to tugboats for several years before the gamblin boats came out. ”
“No, I didn’t know him personally, but I heard about him. What happened?”
“They say he probably got too old and too tired of it all – and the way they found him looked like he could kilt himself. So the world probably got him. outdated. It happens all the time.”
Captain John L. “Jack” Beehman, Jr. was born just two months and days before the Cincinnati Coney Island sidewheel excursion steamer, the ISLAND QUEEN, exploded and burned on the Monongahela River at the foot of Wood Street in Pittsburgh. Jack’s mother, Anna Belle Hartley, met her future husband, John Langdon Beehman, Sr., on the ISLAND QUEEN dance floor one summer earlier, shortly after he was discharged from the military. Anna Belle loved the Coney Island boat – especially the orchestra with the Big Band sound and the smooth, shiny dance floor. John often thought of working on the river and becoming a pilot. But once he proposed to Anna Belle, those dreams were put on hold but not forgotten.
Young Jack grew into adolescence fueled by the stories his parents told on the graceful side-wheel steamer where they met and danced to the tunes of the Clyde Trask Orchestra. The Beehmans even acquired a clunky fiberglass outboard motor boat that broke down every time they took it for a spin on the river. A few days into Jack’s high school start, he applied for a job as a deckhand on a sleek tug pushing neatly painted barges filled with petroleum products from the Ashland, Kentucky refinery to southern ports.
Although Jack hid a packed suitcase under his bed, ready for a moment of departure, a response to his request did not appear in the return mail. Frustrated, Jack Beehman soon found himself at Cincinnati’s public landing stage, not far from where the old Coney Island steamer once picked up passengers for the amusement park a few miles upriver. Nearby, tipped over the heavy steel rings sunk deep into the cobbled slope, was a different steamer, the DELTA QUEEN, the last of the paddle steamers carrying overnight passengers on the river.
When Jack first came into the world in the summer of 1947, the DELTA QUEEN was new to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The sleek steamer had recently arrived in the Queen City after a long and arduous journey from distant California via the Panama Canal around the same time Anna Belle painfully docked baby Jack at Clifton General Hospital, a affluent neighborhood of Cincinnati.
Near the shore of the long ramp, known as the ‘stage’, extending from the forward bow area of the DELTA QUEEN to the cobblestones, a standing sign warns, NO VISITORS. Jack ignored the warning and walked to the bow of the boat where an older man, obviously a crew member as indicated by his white shirt with a set of shoulder pads wearing a thin stripe, stood up in response to the sudden appearance of the intruder.
“Yeah – What do you need?” the guard wondered.
“Are you looking for help here?” Jack replied.
The crew member immediately brought images of Popeye-the-Sailor from the cartoons with his craggy face and protruding chin although a toned body spoke of years of hard work. “Popeye” immediately began scanning the newcomer from terra firma to determine if he would make a good crew member before responding.
“Stay here, and I’ll see,” Jack Popeye finally informed after admitting that he seemed physically capable of becoming a member of the deck service and that he was neither drunk nor on drugs and alcohol. Within 15 minutes another officer appeared, but this time he was wearing four stripes, was well over six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds. He introduced himself.
“Wagner is the name,” the giant man said as he reached out a huge paw and started pumping Jack’s hand up and down. “If you’re looking for work, I need a good sailor. So if you get back here with your suitcase before four o’clock, the DELTA QUEEN leaves for New Orleans and you’ve got a job.
And so, Jack Beehman began a long, and for the most part, rewarding career on the river. Within a year and a half, he “sat for” and obtained his unlimited mate inland license. His master’s ticket for “all gross tonnage” followed as quickly as he acquired the time required for government accreditation. Jack achieved an overall average of 96.5 across five exams. “You don’t have to get all 100s on your tests,” chided his US Coast Guard examiner. But Jack Beehman wanted perfect marks on all his tests and nearly got them. So when someone asked, “Why?” he replied, “Why the hell not?”
Captain Jack Beehman traveled by steamer on the DELTA QUEEN for a few years until he ran into disputes with the general management of the main office. Later, he was offered a niche with a tug company on the lower Mississippi, piloting a tug hauling coal, grain, scrap metal, and general cargo. He held on until casino ships began operating in Iowa in the early 1990s. Jack went on to captain five gambling ships. Yet he spent nearly 20 years on one of them before this casino was ‘onshore’, firing the licensed crew and selling the boat to international gangsters in Southeast Asia.
Along the way, Cap’n Jack married several times, but both marriages only lasted long enough to have a son in the first arrangement and a daughter in the last. None of the children lived with their father, who saw them very few times during their childhood. The half-siblings have never met, Jack once revealed in a reflective moment, but he remembers hearing that they found successful lives as adults.
Captain Jack’s health was reasonable for his age as he had stopped drinking and occasionally smoking a cigar while still young enough for it to help him quit. He had seen, he recalled, too many of his buddies “getting drunk to the first grave.” The only woman Jack ever really liked was a red-haired girl he met while she was cooking on one of his play boats. He recalled that their relationship never really worked out and she is eventually died of lung cancer after chain smoking when still a relatively young woman.
After the casino business failed for much of the river industry, Cap’n Jack found himself in a dilapidated barge he called his “mender” and lived a life apart from the most of society except for a kayaker or occasional hiker who stumbled upon his remote residence.
According to Captain John L. “Jack” Beehman, Jr.’s brief Last Will & Testament, no funeral service will commemorate his 75 years on this earth. The Sunflower Creek Volunteer Fire Department set fire to Jack’s canoe and its contents shortly after removing his remains. Cap’n Jack’s ashes await disposal in accordance with state regulations and the availability of a boat to transport his ashes to where he wanted them to be scattered on the waters of a particular river.
Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He was a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before learning 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 and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories from the river. Hang on for the ride – the river has never looked so good.