Tag Archives: Gamblers

Last of the Riverboat Gamblers

“…Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds,

You robbin’ my pocket, of silver and Gold..”

(19th Century Alabama work song)

 

Steven Davis grew up on the Savannah River.  He was born at a time when the river was still important – the turn of the century when it was a major highway for just about anything headed for the port of Savannah, Georgia or back up to Augusta and beyond.  The railroads and the superhighways were killing the traffic on the old waterway and over the span of his lifetime, Steven Davis was destined to be a witness to the passing of this era.  He also became a part of the legend of the river.  To most who knew him, Steven Davis was a simple hand on a riverboat called the “Kathryn S” that ran on the river from Augusta to Savannah. He would tend the engine, tidy the passenger cabins, haul cargo on and off at places like White Woman’s Landing and Kill Devil Bend.  To a select few, however, he is still remembered as something more – the last of the river boat gamblers.

 

The Riverboat ‘Katie” – the Kathryn S would have looked much like this on the Savannah River
Stern wheel of the Kathryn S on the riverbank at Sandbar Ferry below Augusta Ga.

Davis was a tall black man – half African American, half Indian, with a palsied right arm and hand.  When the sun set on the Savannah and the “Kathryn S” pulled to the bank to moor for the night, the passengers and the crew would sit at a table in the big captain’s cabin on the second deck. By the light of kerosene lanterns they would drink whiskey and talk of cotton and politics.  When the conversation and the whiskey waned, out would come a deck of cards.

Davis was in his thirties when he began to crew on the “Kathryn S.”  By that time he already knew how to handle a pack of cards.  For most of his life he kept these skills a secret – a ploy that made him appear much less dangerous to the passengers who fancied themselves as skilled players.

The “Kathryn S” was a stern wheeled paddle boat built on the remains of an Augusta Canal barge in 1932 by “Gummy” Harrison and named for his wife.  Montgomery Harrison was the town’s only millionaire during the Depression.  The riverboat was an engine room, a galley and half a dozen tiny cabins.

The boat ran the river for more than twenty years under its Captain, Reggie Dales.  In the 1950’s Gummy sold her to “Big Roy” Simkins, another Augusta businessman. Big Roy ran the “Kathryn S” for thirteen more years, using it to haul general cargo and to pull snags from the river. By now the old riverboat was showing her years of hard use – her hull sagging at the bow and stern.

Big Roy took advantage of the flood of 1963 to drive the old riverboat onto the bank below Augusta.  When the flood was over, Simkins planned to overhaul her. Time passed and the work was never done.  The “Kathryn S” continued to sit on the riverbank under the watchful eye its only crew member – caretaker Steven Davis. Even though the old riverboat was hard aground, Davis continued to profit from the cards.

Throughout the sixties and the seventies, it was well known around Augusta that the game in town was the one that started every Friday night on board the “Kathryn S” down at SandBar Ferry.  Steven Davis ran a high stakes game that wasn’t open to just anyone.  You had to be a pretty well heeled businessman, or one of Augusta’s growing community of doctors from the Medical College or an Army officer from Fort Gordon’s Signal Corps to get an invite to the game.

By late Friday night, the air was thick with kerosene fumes, cigar smoke and the smell of the sweat of the early losers. Davis would coax his marks along with consummate skill.  The lightweight pockets were emptied by well into the night.  By Saturday, only the well-heeled players were still in the game. Over the next twelve hours Davis would coax them into staying with a pot here and there – but by dawn on Monday – most of them would wearily step off the side of the “Kathryn S” with barely enough cash to buy coffee and grits on Broad Street before starting their workday.

Davis always saw to it that once in a while a big winner walked off the boat.  These were the gamblers that spread the news of the game and convinced other would be players that it was honest.  Sometimes there was a sore loser.  If he couldn’t be convinced that Lady Luck had dealt him a bad game – Steven Davis would reach back into his pocket with lightening speed and brandish a small nickel plated .32 caliber pistol.  The only time his palsied hand held real steady – was when the little peacemaker was pointed at another gambler.  No one argued with Davis once that gun was in his hand.

Few people were ever close to Steven Davis. Once in a while, during those last years before he disappeared and when weekend long poker games were becoming a thing of the past, Davis would boast about his skill with the cards.  He would pull a fresh pack from the pocket of his denim overalls, break the seal, and shuffle. His hands would spin the cards out across the tabletop, usually five hands plus his own.  He would then describe each hand and how many cards each ‘player’ would draw to try and better it.  Then he would describe the hands again – all the time the cards were laying face down.  Players one and four have a short stake – they will only play a sure thing to conserve cash to ante up. Player two has two low pairs – he will raise to get a feel for the other hands being played.  Players three and five have a full house and a high two pairs between them. The dealer will match their raise to stay in the game – they will both think he’s bluffing. Player two will fold.  The game will go at least two more raises before three and five realize the dealer may have something.

Davis would then lay over his hand – a royal flush. Then he would turn over the other five hands – they would be exactly as he described them.

Davis did pretty well with his gambling from all accounts.  Each Friday morning he would send a messenger to a bank in Augusta to bring him $75.00, never more, never less.  On Monday that same messenger would carry back anywhere from $3000 to $6000 to be placed in four or five different accounts – Davis liked to spread his risk even when it came to banks.

Big Roy died some time ago and so did the money for the upkeep of the old riverboat.  As it fell into disrepair an aging Steve Davis was forced to move.  He disappeared from Augusta – and people figure he must be dead by now.  There are some who wonder if he was ever a cheat or a card sharp, doing as well as he did. Most people hope not – they would like to think that the last of the riverboat gamblers on the Savannah died standing pat.

Stern construction of the Kathryn S – exactly matches the drawings for Augusta Canal barges
Bow construction and cabin features for the Kathryn S from my field notes
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