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'He was a giant': Capt. John Beatty ruled the river with his iconic towboat, riverboat restaurants

Legendary riverman was bigger than life
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Mar 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-11 12:16:14-05

CINCINNATI -- Capt. John Beatty took to the Ohio River as if he were legendary keelboater Mike Fink and wrestled with it like Paul Bunyan would a mighty tree.

At least that’s how Cincinnati artist Tom Lohre saw it when he was a Covington Catholic High School kid. Along with twin brother Chuck, Lohre worked for Beatty’s marine rescue and salvage company during summers in the early 1970s.

“He was a giant, like Mike Fink or Paul Bunyan,” Tom Lohre said. “We were naive, but we knew not to second-guess him.”

Those who did, such as officials with the Army Corps of Engineers who often called on Beatty to help solve problems along the river, learned just how he “could muscle his way to get his way,” Lohre said. “He took chances the Corps wouldn’t take. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. He really pushed the edge.”

 

Tom Lohre painted this portrait of the Clare E. Beatty towboat early in his art education days and displays it in his Clifton Home.

The big man -- Beatty’s daughter Beverly Acree of Hebron said he was 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds at his largest -- had a fun side, too, Lohre said. The captain and his crew, for example, called the diminutive Lohre twins either “Pete and Repeat” or “Handy and Dandy.”

Beatty was described by local writers as rough and always ready. Beatty’s greatest enemy, he told a reporter for a 1950 Cincinnati Times Star article, was fog. One quote by Beatty sums up what being him must have been like: “The way to know a riverman is that he talks of nothing but women when aboard and nothing but boats when ashore.”

Woman on the shore

The balance weight in the barrel-chested Beatty’s life was his wife, Clare E. Kinzeler, a college-educated school teacher from Dayton who led the male staff of what was known as “Beatty’s Navy” on those many days when her husband was out on the river.

Clare Beatty, called “Elsie” by her family and friends, was graceful, stylish, poised and always polite, Acree said, whether in a social setting, hosting at the couple’s two riverboat restaurants -- Captain Hook’s at the Public Landing and the Mike Fink in Covington -- or managing their Columbia Boat Harbor’s schedule, staff, equipment and records.

She moved easily from the down-and-dirty dock to the fancy Fink, which had been a Mother’s Day gift from her husband. In its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, Clare led tours of the converted paddle wheeler for school children and charmed celebrity guests such as Bob Hope, Perry Como, Mickey Rooney and Raymond Burr.

 

The Clare E. Beatty wrecked on an ice floe at Markland Dam in January 1978.

“She was a lady,” said Acree, whose blood mother died when she was 5. Clare Kinzeler married the widowed John Beatty the next year in 1944 and became Acree’s beloved mother.

Clare was a formidable leader as well as a parent and wife. She was listed in the 1966-67 “Who’s Who Among American Women” and belonged to Zonta International, an organization of professionals whose mission is to advance the status of women in the business world. It has been said she was the first woman on the Ohio River to operate a short-wave radio.

Third-generation riverman

Capt. Beatty’s edgier personality was shaped by the river. Born in Ironton, Ohio, in 1914 to riverboat salvager W. Campbell Beatty -- himself the son of a riverman -- and his wife, Bertha Baker, John built his first vessel out of scrapped tin and riverbank clay at age 4. His family moved to Cincinnati in 1929 when he was 15, and he enrolled in an electrical trade school but was expelled after an altercation with a school staff member.

The remainder of Beatty’s education occurred mostly on the river where he worked with his father, salvaging and recycling old bridges, pipelines and sunken vessels until taking a job as a salvage engineer with Neare, Gibbs & Co. of Cincinnati. Soon after, Beatty founded his own company and went on to become the top man in his field for more than 40 years.

Beatty, Lohre said, developed sharp people skills as a businessman. “He crossed all barriers, testifying before Congress or dealing with his deckhands,” Lohre said. Beatty even tried to get into politics in the mid 1960s but lost two races for Cincinnati City Council.

 

Capt. John Beatty and an unidentified member of "Beatty's Navy" survey the wreck on the Clare E. Beatty tow boat in the winter of 1978.

Beatty and his crew built and bought many boats over the years. One was a party boat that accommodated 100 people. Another, the Miss B, was named after his daughter. But his flagship was the Clare E. Beatty, a 1940s towboat the captain purchased in 1970 and decorated with brass and antique furniture and a big oil painting of its namesake.

The Clare E. Beatty was an Ohio River fixture for almost 25 years but almost didn’t make it beyond eight when the second straight river freeze engulfed it in January 1978.

Wreck of the Clare E.

No Edmund Fitzgerald was she, but Clare E. Beatty was a beautiful and powerful towboat capable of chasing down and rescuing runaway barges. It was during the blizzard of January 1978 that the Clare E. Beatty became stuck in an ice floe.

It happened at Markland Dam, Acree recalled, and the ice eventually broke one of the tow boat’s portal windows, sinking the Clare E. Beatty. The story made the local and national news, but months passed before Beatty and his men could wrangle the Clare E. Beatty from the river and transport her by a Sikorsky helicopter to an Indiana repair station, Acree said.

The Clare E. Beatty did return to duty, but following John Beatty’s death at age 80 in 1994, it sunk along with its snarled salvage near Maysville, Ky. Last reports were its pilothouse still pokes out above the muddy water of the Ohio River.