River rambler

Retired steamboat captain Russell
recalls life on Ohio River

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(August 2007) – The majestic Ohio River stretches 981 miles from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill., where it empties into the mighty Mississippi River. Few people can claim to have navigated the entire length of the historically important Ohio River, and even fewer can say they’ve done it too many times to count.

Captain Russell Hall

Photo provided

More than 200 people celebrated
Capt. Russell “Bubby” Hall’s 85th
birthday when the Belle of Cincinnati
stopped in Carrollton, Ky., in May.
Hall spent five decades working on
the Ohio River as a riverboat captain.

Retired riverboat Capt. Russell Hall of Warsaw, Ky., can make that claim. Known as “Bubby” Hall to most, he spent a lifetime getting to know every bend and turn on the Ohio. For his last 20 years as a licensed captain, he worked for BB Riverboats, in Cincinnati giving tours of the river on luxury boats.
On May 1, BB Riverboat’s grand Belle of Cincinnati paid a visit to Carrollton, Ky., where more than 200 people boarded her for a lavish celebration in honor of Hall’s 85th birthday. “I was totally surprised and thrilled about the party,” said Hall.
When Hall retired from the company five years ago, BB Riverboats owner Al Bernstein sent the boat down to Carrollton, where 400 people came aboard and celebrated with him. “Hall is a good person,” said Bernstein in a May telephone conversation. “We really appreciate him.”
Hall’s river career began in the mid-1950s when he took a job for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which was building the Markland Locks and Dam. “I was in the restaurant business before that, and I needed some extra work,” he said.
He hauled the project workers around on boats and decided to get a captain’s license to transport passengers in 1958. By 1961, Hall opened the Warsaw Ferry, where he hauled people back and forth across the river. He owned that business until 1977. At that time the Markland Dam’s bridge across the river had opened just a few miles down the river and put him out of business.
Hall then worked a variety of other jobs, piloting boats up and down the river, including work as a towboat captain hauling barges. His career also included a 21/2-year stint as a captain at Belterra Casino & Resort when it first opened in Switzerland County, Ind.
In his career at BB Riverboats, Hall took passengers on cruises up and down the river and gave speeches about river life and history. He knows exactly how deep and wide various parts of the river are, the locations and specifications about the locks and dams on the river and all kinds of interesting tidbits of information about river development.
Although he was spent much of his time away from home, Hall said he loved his work.
“I raised four children, made lots of friends, and bought a nice home,” he said.
As far as adventures on the river, he said he certainly had his share. “I was just working on a boat during the late 1970s that got stuck in ice on the river and sank. I tried really hard to be the first person off, but ended up third instead.”
In another incident when he was actually piloting a cruise boat, a woman choked on a chicken bone and had to be shipped ashore for emergency help. “That was a tough situation trying to keep everyone calm and get her help,” he said.
Unfortunately, too, Hall had one tragic experience while captaining his ferry. In 1963, exactly one week after President John F. Kennedy was shot, one of Hall’s crew members fell off the ferry and drowned. “Oh that was just horrible,” he said.
“Overall, life as a riverboat captain was good,” he said. “It was sometimes dangerous work with a lot of responsibility, but I would choose to do it all over again if I had to.”

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