Friday, January 10, 2014

A Winter and the Clare

The recent exceptionally frigid temperatures in the Midwest reminded me of the infamous winters we had in Greater Cincinnati in 1977 and 1978.  During those winters, I was finally old enough and tall enough to experience the world of driveway shoveling and remember piles of snow far taller than I stood.  I recall sled riding, snowball forts and even tunnels dug through the snow piles.   And I remember the plight of the “Clare E.” 

OK, looking back over recent posts, it appears I have a bit of a keen interest in riverboats—and I do.  Maybe, just maybe, it all started with the “Clare E.”

To be correct, her official name was the Clare E. Beatty and I had never heard of her before January 1978.  But when the Ohio River froze for the second time in two winters, all Cincinnatians learned about a salty, gruff, old riverman named Capt. John Beatty who was kind of the Red Adair of Cincinnati (remember Red?  He was the swashbuckling Texan who went around the world putting out oil well fires.)  When a situation related to the river elevated to a crisis, Capt. Beatty came to the rescue.  Beatty had a fleet of heavy-duty river equipment and could rescue stranded boats, refloat the sunken ones and renovate the historic ones (he was one of the forces that turned the “Mike Fink” into a restaurant.)  The flagship of “Beatty’s Navy” was the Clare E. Beatty, a plucky towboat originally launched in 1940 as the Semet.  Beatty bought her in 1970 and changed the name in honor of his wife.  But I digress…back to 1978…

The Ohio River was in various stages of freezing and huge chunks of bobbing ice had caused several barges to break away from their moorings.  Beatty and Clare went off in chase down the Ohio to round up the barges before they could slam into Markland Dam.  Like a cowboy lassoing steer, the Clare successfully nabbed a few barges before it, too, became entangled in ice.  It soon became apparent the Clare was trapped.  For a couple of days, evening news reports kept viewers updated on the helpless plight of the boat. Nothing could be done and the ice eventually forced the boat to the bottom of the river.  It should be noted that the Clare was lavishly adorned inside with brass and antique furniture and a big oil painting of the real-life Clare Beatty.  I remember one hopeless reporter asking the Captain if he removed the artwork and salvaged the furniture and Beatty snorted, in his gruff way, “you never undress a lady.”  Anyway, Beatty kept his promise, too--later that summer he managed to refloat the Clare and had her cleaned up and fixed.  Hooray!  I remember following the entire story with great admiration.  I wish it had a happy ending.

Recently, I wondered about the Clare and the interesting man behind her.  I remember reading that Capt. Beatty died—indeed, he passed away in 1994—and the following year, his company was up for sale.  In the meantime, however, the employees running it were called to salvage a bunch of half- sunken barges near Maysville.  “Beatty’s Navy” showed up in full force—two WWII Minesweepers, the floating Hercules crane, the Clare—and one by one, the various craft became entangled in the wreck.  Perhaps the absence of the Captain at the helm was too much to overcome. The entourage of vessels would never escape the snare.  Potential new buyers walked away from the sale and the boats were left to deteriorate.  Apparently, plans by the city of Maysville to remove the wrecks were never approved.  As of a few years ago, only the pilothouse of the Clare could barely be seen in the muddy water.  I can only assume the bones still lay beneath the watery blanket.

I’m sure Beatty’s family feels terrible but I’d bet a million bucks, if he were alive, the ol’ Captain wouldn’t let “his lady” meet such an unhappy demise.