By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Among the dozens of paddle wheelers and other riverboats at Tall Stacks is one that is the least conspicuous, the least ornate and likely the most used boat of all.
Capt. Clarence Walker pilots the Collin D.|
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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The Collin D Clipper, better known as "The River Taxi," is sandwiched between the Chattanooga Star and the Showboat Majestic on the Cincinnati side.
Not far away is the enormous General Jackson sternwheeler of Nashville, which can seat 1,200 people and is known as "the grandest showboat of them all" because of the ornate Victorian Theater on the main deck.
But the captain of the river taxi, Clarence Walker, doesn't have an inferiority complex, though his 65-foot boat stood on its end would still be shorter than the General Jackson.
"To me it doesn't make any difference which boat I'm captaining," says "Captain Junior," as he calls himself.
"If it's got a wheel on it, I can use it. I've done it all my life. Some people are just naturally born to be captains."
The Cincinnati native now captains the 318-foot Belterra casino boat from Switzerland County, Ind. But in all, he's spent 56 years on the river, piloting commercial boats for 52 of those years and working all five Tall Stacks as a river taxi captain.
At the helm Wednesday afternoon, Captain Junior says he's already made 11 trips back and forth across the Ohio River. By closing time, he estimates he'll be at 30 trips total. It's a popular amenity, people say, because the river taxi allows them to avoid parking on the more expensive, more congested Cincinnati side.
"You pay $10 for parking in Newport, and $5 for a round trip (river taxi) ride, and you get a great boat ride out of it," said Jerry Levin of Colerain Township, who was riding the Collin D Clipper with his wife, Diane.
"And it's a great way to get out on the river," added John Duncan, dressed in period clothes.
The diesel-powered river taxi carries up to 300 passengers. It operates from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily during Tall Stacks.
Captain Junior says this is the most congestion you'll ever see on the Ohio River, which, incidentally, is his favorite river to boat on.
"Hey, Rick," Captain Junior shouts into his CB radio. "We about ready?"
"In just a minute," his deckhand shouts back. "We got a few stragglers."
"OK, just give me a wave when we're ready to go," Captain Junior shouts in reply.
A minute later, they're set. The captain takes a gulp of coffee, fires up the engine and radios Tall Stacks control: "I'll be departing from the Ohio side to Newport in a minute."
"Roger roger," says Tall Stacks control. "Gotcha good. Stand by. All set."
Captain Junior uses a foot-long handle to steer the rudder toward the Kentucky side. He's going slowly, 4 or 5 mph (top speed of the river taxi is about 11 mph).
Four minutes later, Captain Junior docks at Newport.
"That's all there is to it," he says.
Passengers get off, new passengers get on, and it's back to the Ohio side.
"It never gets boring, not for me," he says, taking a drag from his Doral Light cigarette. "Not with this type of festivities going on. It's really become an art to me, driving a boat. And I just enjoy it so much."
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