Dubuque County Historical Society Images

The River People

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Captain Ernest E. Wagner

Captain Ernie Wagner was one of the last of the old time roof captains, and he played a monumental role in the survival and future of steamboating in America.  Born in 1910, Wagner hopped a freight train at the age of nineteen bound for Dayton, but ended up in Cincinnati working on the Island Maid and then the Island Queen.  He served as a coal passer, ice cream vendor, deck hand, watchman and, by the time he was 25, master.  In 1947 when the Island Queen exploded and burned, Wagner heroically pulled Captain Jim Baker out of bed and threw him overboard and helped others to safety before a second explosion hurtled him into the flaming oil slick, severely burning his back, hands and arms.  Wagner was mate on the excursion steamer Avalon, and then commanded the Delta Queen, which was then the sole surviving tourist steamboat in the country.  He helped refit the Delta Queen to ensure her survival and then was the first master of the Mississippi Queen. During his 49 year career Captain Wagner trained and mentored Captain Doc Hawley, Roddy Hammet, Jim Blum and a score of the modern day pilots, establishing what Captain Fred Way called “the Ernie Wagner school of steamboating.”

Inducted in 2003.

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