Riverlorian turned author

Author Jerry Hay releases new book
about life on the river

By Ruth Wright
Staff Writer

MADISON, Ind. (June 2004) – When Jerry Hay heard in 1970 that the Delta Queen steamboat would be put out of commission because federal legislation had outlawed wooden construction, the Terre Haute, Ind., native decided he had to first see it. Traveling on his own in a small johnboat for more than 200 miles from Terre Haute to Paducah, Ky., Hay said farewell to the historic vessel for what he thought would be the first and last time.

Jerry Hay

Photo by Ruth Wright

Author Jerry Hay during a stopover in Madison.

Hay, 57, didn’t know then that he would see the Delta Queen again. After countless letters and petitions, the steamboat was granted a congressional exemption, under which she operates to this day. Hay also didn’t know that he would one day work aboard the boat, sharing with its passengers his memories of that youthful journey down the river.
Hay has worked for the past four years as a riverlorian, a “river historian,” for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. of New Orleans. The first two years were aboard the Delta Queen. He now works on the Mississippi Queen, pointing out to its passengers places of interest and relating anecdotal details. “They don’t always know if I’m telling the truth,” joked Hay in a recent interview.
Hay has always been fascinated with rivers and riverboats. When he was 14 he built a boat. Unfortunately, it sank on its maiden voyage. “I’ve done better since,” said Hay, who has made many successful river journeys. They have included travel on nearly every major U.S. river and navigation of the entire lengths of the Mississippi, Ohio, Wabash and White rivers. During his trips Hay kept journals, which resulted in the publication in 1997 and 2002 of guidebooks of the Wabash and White rivers.
Hay’s most recent foray into the realm of writing has been two books, one of which will be published this year. His first children’s book, “A Goose Named Gilligan,” is scheduled for release in September. It is based on the true adventures of a wild goose that Hay rescued from a trotline.
Gilligan has since lived mostly at Hay’s cabin on the Wabash, providing a number of funny and interesting stories which Hay often relates to passengers aboard the Mississippi Queen. In fact, it was when Hay was telling a Gilligan story that the idea for a book was proposed by a passenger who worked for publisher HB Kramer of San Francisco. She suggested that Hay write a book about Gilligan for her company. Hay ultimately traveled to San Francisco, where he signed a contract for the book. Gilligan sequels are already in the works.
In 1997 Hay began working on “Beyond The Bridges,” a comprehensive volume about river life, travel, history and lore based upon the many years Hay has spent exploring rivers of the United States. He hopes to have it completed next year.
Editing the book is writer and historian Barbara Huffman of Vevay, Ind. Huffman became acquainted with Hay about two years ago when he came to see The Barbara H., the historic sternwheeler owned by Huffman and her husband, Steve.
Huffman called Hay “a great story-teller,” and said that his river knowledge is “extensive.”
“I think Jerry’s book is going to have universal appeal,” she said. “I was disappointed when I had to put the manuscript down.”
Included in “Beyond The Bridges” is a chapter about Hay’s top 10 favorite river towns. Ranked No. 3 is Madison. Friendly people, good docking facilities, easy access to downtown and the many things to do and see were what put Madison near the top of his list, said Hay, who said he prefers small towns despite the fact that he ranked Louisville, Ky., as his No. 1.
In addition to author and riverlorian, Hay occasionally takes on the role of historic re-enactor. He has portrayed Capt. William Clark for both the Delta Queen and for events surrounding the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. “I think I relate to him,” said Hay about Clark, who with Capt. Meriwether Lewis and crew led the now-legendary 1803-1806 expedition to map new U.S. territory west of the Mississippi.
Hay, a father of two sons and a daughter, lives in Terre Haute when he is not traveling on the Mississippi Queen. His children’s book will be available nationwide this fall.

•  More information about is available online at www.indianawaterways.com/beyondthebridges.htm.

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