(as told by Bela)
After my family escaped in 1957 from the Communists thugs who usurped power in Hungary, we moved to Charleston since my father accepted an offer from Union Carbide Technical Center. Dr. Joe Berty ran a group in ethylene glycol studies, for use in Prestone antifreeze. I was in the second grade. Some years later, my father took me to see the hydroplane races on the Kanawha in Charleston.
In 1963, during West Virginia's centennial celebration, my father took me to see the play "East Lynn" aboard the showboat RHODODENDRON converted from the steam sternwheeler towboat OMAR.
In 1966, I graduated from Charleston Catholic High School, one block from the Kanawha River, and, in 1971, I graduated from Morris Harvey College, right on the Kanawha at Patrick Light (the college evolved into the University of Charleston). In 1976, I met Captain Donald Sanders aboard the sternwheeler P. A. DENNY in Charleston. His stories of tramping the str. AVALON fascinated me. I rode with him several times in 1977.
After Don went back to the big boats, I continued my volunteer crewing aboard the sternwheeler P. A. DENNY under Captain Tony Harrison. My favorite times were going out-of-town, either up to Montgomery or going down the Kanawha to Pt. Pleasant, West Virginia, and down the Ohio to Huntington, West Virginia. I remember in particular the time I was in the pilothouse, keeping company with Captain Tony Harrison after a series of charters in Huntington. We all were tired and the night was foggy and we were considering tying up to a tree for a few hours. Tony mentioned that in the old days the flatboats would have tied up a lot sooner under these circumstances. And he mentioned something that made me think for a long time: In ten years, Cincinnati will be celebrating its 200th birthday and a good way to participate in that celebration would be to re-enact the arrival by flatboat of the first settlers to Cincinnati. That stopped the conversation because I was too busy thinking that I could do that. That would be the answer to my yearning for a grand adventure. I had respect for Captain Donald Sanders and for Captain Tony Harrison. I wanted to follow in their foot-steps. So I got a job on the str. MISSISSIPPI QUEEN and the str. DELTA QUEEN
for two years. On my first vacation, I got off the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN in Cincinnati and into Donald Sanders' skiff. He rowed me across the Ohio River to Newport, Kentucky, to deliver me to the houseboat BELLE OF RICHMOND. We hung his skiff from the davits. Donald went back to work for a few days, while I rode up with Bob Limle and company to Charleston for the 1978 Sternwheel Regatta. The houseboat lost her screw, so we dropped the hook until the m.v. MORRIS HARVEY picked us up to take us to Port Amherst for repairs. There I loaded my stuff into the skiff and rowed down the Great Kanawha River to the cityfront to tie up alongside the sternwheelers. Donald drove in to race his boat in the skiff races. I made friends with Captain Clifford Deane, who
showed me his style of rowing a boat (he was never broke during the Depression of the 1930's because he collected a dime from every passenger crossing the Kanawha from South Charleston to Dunbar).
The old man introduced me to the new owner of the sternwheeler WINIFRED. Captain John Hrebenyar hired me as deckhand to deliver his boat to Guntersville, Alabama. That was the first (and shortest) of my four long-distance deliveries of boats. As you can surmise, the Great Kanawha River is a good place to network.
About 1980, an old friend from Camp Cliffside and I built a raft on the Kanawha at the gas company, using ten 55-gallon drums, four pallets, and 100 feet of quarter-inch nylon line. We took our dates onboard and so the four of us enjoyed the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta, drifting down to an excellent spot near the finish line. The waves from the big sternwheels were awesome but no problem for our undulating raft.
The next week, I gathered together a long pipe and a short pipe I found while walking and used them for a mast and a cross-stick. I bent on a sail I sewed from two colorful bedsheets (their prints did not match). I found some lumber to use for a sternsweep
and for a dagger-board (to minimize side-slip). It took me four days to sail this monstrosity the five miles up to Malden to use as a dock at a friend's house. After each day's sailing, I walked home on the Kanawha Boulevard Promenade in an hour. Along the way, the biggest thrill was in crossing the Kanawha to take advantage of better wind. I knew that I did not want to be in the way of a down-bound tow. So I picked a spot where I could see upriver for two miles (about the foot of Ruffner St. on the East End of Charleston) and made my "dash" across the river. Looking back, I could have name the raft the COLD MOLASSES because that is how fast she moved upriver. Half-way across, I see a tow coming down 'round the bend at the mouth of Campbell's Creek. My life is at stake, so I do everything possible to pick up speed:
1. tighten the shrouds to reduce the undulating hogging and
2. use the stage-plank as a spinnaker pole at the clew of the windward side of the square-sail and
3. lay down flat on deck to allow the wind maximum power. It worked.
I estimate that I logged 50,000 miles on the great rivers and intracoastal waterways of America. Then I went home in 1988 to run the flatboat SPIRIT OF KANAWHA on the Kanawha River for Kanawha County's Bicentennial and down the Ohio to the
first TALL STACKS for Cincinnati's Bicentennial.
I went home to Charleston again in 1990 to pilot the sternwheeler P. A. DENNY on the Kanawha for one season. My best day was when Donald and Peggy brought their children Jesse and Jonathan to ride with me on their vacation--a very pleasant turning of the tables and an appropriate completion of the circle.
Thanks to Bela for this fascinating story.