The Steamboat Natchez floats brilliantly on the Mississippi River, white sides gleaming, flags waving, the 26 ton red paddlewheel churning the brown water, black smokestacks reaching skyward in celebration of her power over the giant river. And she sings, her voice a melodic cry from the calliope.
When Clarke “Doc” Hawley touches the calliope keys, the French Quarter hears the music. Few listening know they are hearing not just a musician, but a Mississippi River legend. Doc climbs to the top deck behind the pilothouse, flips the lever to send steam from the boat’s boilers into the instrument, then begins playing the 32 keys to create the bright sound from the showboat era.
As Doc plays, the hot steam swirls around him, causing the brass whistles to sweat, their shriek so loud up close that he has to wear ear protection. His fingers pound the keys, because while modern keyboards activate the steam whistles electronically, the calliopes he learned on were hand powered. His fingers had to hit the keys hard enough to pull wires that opened valves to emit the steam. On the dock, passengers in line for the cruise look up and applaud.
“That goes to my mother’s era, the music,” said Barbara Robillard of Springhill, Florida.
“I’m really excited to go on there, because I haven’t been on a steamboat,” added Moe Robillard.
Doc has been playing the calliope for 63 years, yet it was a career that started accidentally in 1952, when the 17 year old saw the steamboat Avalon arrive in Charleston, West Virginia, but her calliope was silent. When he learned the boat had lost its calliope player, he applied for the job.
“I taught myself to play the parlor organ,” Doc recalled. “When I interviewed for the job, I told the captain I don’t need music, in fact, I don’t read music.”
He got the job when he played “Mairzy Doats,” a well known song at the time, and one he still plays, along with “Alexander’s Rag Time Band,” “Here Comes The Showboat,” and other songs from an earlier time.
“I had no dream of ever working on a steamboat,” Doc said. “The Avalon went everywhere. She was like a floating carnival, a circus. In the winter, we went down to New Orleans. In the summer, we went up north. My first year, I worked on nine rivers in 17 states. I was working with guys who got their pilot’s licenses in the 1880s and 90s.”
He learned steamboat history and operations from them, and Doc was hooked, beginning a career of 13 hour workdays, six to seven days a week, becoming a deck hand, then a mate and pilot. By age 22, he was a captain. But the steamboat masters of legend were big, burly guys able to impress a crew by their size. Doc was only five feet, seven inches tall, but he was no pushover, and earned respect in multiple ways.
“On that boat we had a lot of fights,” Doc remembered. “I could duke it out. I ended up with a sore lip.”
“I had plenty of respect,” he added. “Mainly reputation. I had a good reputation in the passenger boat world, first for the calliope.”
“I worked with the crew,” he continued. “I knew everybody’s name. It’s something my father, who was a boss, told me: ‘Treat everybody like you want to be treated. It’ll make your job a whole lot easier.’”
Now Doc is welcomed like a legend, crew members and dining room staff smile and shake his hand in admiration.
“He is the most knowledgeable, has the most experience of anybody on the whole river system alive today. I’m so glad he’s around, so glad he’s here,” said current captain Don Houghton, who was hired by Doc as a deck hand 36 years ago, and worked his way up to master of the boat, with his mentor’s help.
“He was very important to me,” Houghton said. “When I first started here, I didn’t really have a father figure that taught me the ropes. I started here when I was 19, and he taught me about the ropes on the boat, and the ropes in real life.”
“He’s a fine young man, and a damn good pilot,” Doc noted succinctly.
Doc became pilot of the steamboats American Queen and President, captain of the Delta Queen, and returned to the Avalon as captain when she became the Belle of Louisville. But as he steamed across the heartland of America, he never forgot one town: New Orleans.
“I made 63 trips down here on the Delta Queen, as a mate, master, and pilot,” Doc said. “Every one of those trips left me thinking ‘This is an amazing place, this is the best town I’ve ever been in.’”
In 1975, the New Orleans Steamboat Company hired Doc as captain of their brand new steamship Natchez, the ninth to carry that name.
“I quit the Belle of Louisville, and took this job,” Doc said, “simply because I was going to live in New Orleans full time.”
Doc bought a French Quarter town home that was built in 1829, and he treasures the shady courtyard, balconies, and curving stairway. His shelves are filled with steamboat books, including some he has written, and the walls are covered with paintings and pictures of the Natchez, and other legendary boats. His hands caress nick-nacks that came from steamboats.
Doc loves the Natchez. He knows every inch of her, and he even painted the boat name on her sides in 1975. He did a lot of media interviews that spring, including one with a college student, me, for one of my very first television reports. Doc treated me like I was Edward R. Murrow, and I remember the huge excitement he had for his new job, and new boat, and it is still evident today as he mentions the steam engines that date to 1927.
“It’s a very, very maneuverable, powerful boat,” Doc said. “The engines are actually from a boat that pushed barges, just perfect for a boat like the Natchez.”
Doc points out an eddy, a giant swirl in the current close to the Natchez dock. He knows the Mississippi may look placid, but can be unexpectedly violent. He learned to master immense, unpredictable rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri.
“They’re really tough, you can get in trouble easier, especially downbound (heading down river). You are going with the current. Going upbound it is easy to stop your boat, going downbound it is hard to stop your boat. You’ve got to back up a whole lot more.
“The Mississippi is as clear as drinking water from St. Paul to St. Louis, and when you pass the mouth of the Missouri, then you have mud from there on to the Gulf, café au lait water.”
He still feels pain about the worst day, three decades ago, when a ship lost steering and struck the Natchez where she was tied up at the dock. “She had a big hole in the hull,” Doc recalled. “She’s got 33 compartments, and just enough of those compartments had been damaged that we thought she was going to go down. We were really afraid of that. But the Fire Department helped pump her out.”
She went to the dry dock for repairs.
“The biggest catfish that I had ever seen floated out of the Natchez’ hull.”
Doc has seen so much of America up close.
“Different foods, different variations in the English language,” Doc said. “Omaha has great steak. Omaha and Kansas City are steak, that’s beef country. Get a little further north, St. Paul area, a lot more lamb, and stuff that the Norwegians, and the Swiss, and Swedish, would eat. The best chili is Cincinnati, Ohio.”
“Nothing compares to New Orleans. Nothing food-wise can equal New Orleans’ different varieties in the same city. I eat everything.”
He got the nickname Doc as a teenage soda jerk in a drug store.
“I gave my school chums lagniappe. If you were nice to me, I might give you two cherries instead of one. They called the druggist ‘Doc,’ and I was ‘Little Doc,’ that’s how I got the name.”
Steamboats are irresistible, even to celebrities.
“I’ve met President Bush, father and son, I had Gerald Ford on the Natchez, I had Ronald Reagan on the Belle of Louisville, and Jimmy Carter on the Delta Queen, and lots of movie stars,” Doc said. “On the Natchez we’ve had more than any other boat, we’ve had Muhammad Ali.”
I heard you arm-wrestled Muhammad Ali?
You beat him?
“He let me beat him.”
But Doc still raves about the visit one star made to the Natchez for a TV show.
“Dolly Parton, absolutely my favorite person that I’ve met,” Doc recalled wistfully. “Dolly came on the boat, and the first thing I said, ‘Hello Miss Parton,’ and she said ‘Captain, there’s one thing: I am Dolly. Dolly. Don’t call me Miz Parton, that’s my Momma’s name.’ I said ‘Well you call me Doc then.’”
Doc retired as Natchez captain in 1995, but still loves playing the calliope, and living in New Orleans.
“I didn’t leave New Orleans. I’m still here, I wasn’t about to go up north. I didn’t want any more winters.”