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If heredity has anything to do with the bent a man’s life might take, William C. Lepper, Jr. (more commonly and affectionately known as “Billy”) was destined to become a river man. He once said, speaking of his family, “ Steamboating was in our blood”. His grandfather, Benjamin C. Lepper had been involved as an owner and operator of steamboats in the Cincinnatti-New Orleans trade and Billy’s father, and Uncle David had followed in the business. The family had lived in Cincinnati for several years on York Street between Jefferson and Mayo Streets and later moved to Newport, Kentucky just across the Ohio River. In 1863 Benjamin and his wife, Sarah, sold their home in Newport, and moved the family to a farm in Ripley County, Indiana. Three sons, David. Joseph and William C. Lepper, Sr. went with them. It was here Billy Lepper was born. As he put it, “I was born in a log cabin (just as Lincoln was) in southern Indiana at 5 P. M. just in time for dinner and have not missed a meal since”. He had a large, extended family. His grandfather, Benjamin, and grandmother, Sarah, were next door neighbors on one side and his Uncle David and Aunt Hannah Lepper were situated on the other. When Billie came along in the later part of 1870, he made a family of five, his older brother, Joseph, and sister, Lillian, already having their “plates at the table”, so to speak.
Around 1875 farm life must have begun to pall for William, Sr. and his brother David because they packed up their families and moved to Jefferson County, Indiana. David went to Madison and William settled in North Madison on the hill just above. They went back to work on the Ohio River. Grandma Sarah died about this time and Grandpa Benjamin remained on the farm. Perhaps Billy and his siblings spent time with him because they are listed twice on the 1880 census, once with their parents in North Madison and once with Grandpa Benjamin in Ripley County. By this time five more siblings had been added to the Lepper tribe. They were, in order of appearance, Daisy, Josie, David, Walter and Clayton Lepper. Hazel and Guy would follow a little later.
Billy must have been thrilled when William also moved his family “down the hill” to Madison. They settled in a house at 1030 Park Avenue. Now Billy was just two short blocks from the river where he no doubt spent his free time, exploring the levee, watching the boats and extracting stories from the river men. Billy had already decided life on the river was for him. As he explained, “It seemed so easy and fascinating after following a mule on the farm”. Perhaps his father felt it would be better to set Billy on the deck of a boat rather than have him loitering about the docks, or maybe he knew it was inevitable that Billy would take to the river, so at age 14 he joined his father on the “Mountain Girl” on the upper Kentucky River. This would be the first of over fifty boats Billy would serve on. You see, Captain William C. Lepper, Jr. was destined to lead the life most boys of his day merely fantasized. In his memoirs he relates high adventure and near death experiences as most men would discuss a day at the office. This article can only hit the highlights of a life so filled with river history.
After a time on the Kentucky River with his father, Billy signed on with the “Blue Wing” where he was, for the first time, “left to his own devices”. He passed muster and in 1891 found himself on the big steamer, “Thomas Sherlock”. She struck the bridge at Cincinnati and Billy came near meeting his maker. Evidently, all his correct instincts told him to hurry off the boat but his practical side insisted he return to the cabin to retrieve a newly purchase derby hat. His practical side won out and when he struggled back up on deck, he realized he might be wearing that derby to the Promised Land. He was forced to dive into the icy water and swim for shore. Sadly, when he drug himself up on the levee, the derby was no where to be found.
In 1896, while serving on the “Telegraph”, Billy became a full fledged hero, quite probably saving many lives, passengers and crew alike. The “Telegraph” hit the rocks and Billy, serving as third clerk, evacuated everyone in such a calm and efficient manner that many didn’t even realize the boat was sinking. The one exception to the orderly passengers was a young lady who panicked and Billy had to drag her off the boat. After manhandling her onto the shore, the lady thanked him for saving her life and he, in true Billy Lepper manner, apologized for being rough with her. During all the commotion Billy obtained a scar from broken glass that he carried with him the rest of his life.
After the “Telegraph” incident, Billy was disgusted with the steamboat business and he resigned and settled in Newport, Kentucky. He related, “Soon after this I married Miss Sadie Bradbury, of Rising Sun, Indiana, a fine talented young lady. With three other boys, we started a small chewing gum factory and was doing nicely. After three months of married life my wife passed away and is buried at Rising Sun. I sold out my interest in the gum business at a loss and went back on steamboats for a few months to recuperate some of the money I had lost.”
Shortly after going back on the river, Billy met up with two old friends from Cincinnati, J. H. Mathews and G. N. Roberts. They were enamored of the Klondike goldfields and were preparing to make the trip there. They asked Billy to join them and, what with his recent disappointments, it sounded like a good idea to him. It was, as he said, “A beautiful dream”. After reaching a certain jumping off point, they arranged for supplies and loaded up their sled, purchased three horses and headed into the frozen north. The first night out, two of the horses died and things looked pretty serious but this was just the beginning of adventures he would experience in the snowy wilderness. After several heartbreaking, hair-raising and near fatal exploits, Billy skedaddled for hom, never to approach the snowy north again. He arrived home without a cent to his name but he never regretted his sojourn in the north. In his memoirs he states, “ It is my great desire to visit this country after an absence of fifty years.”
While up north, Billy’s brother, Ben passed away. This fulfilled a premonition Billy had experienced while so far away from home. He ehad written in his diary the date of Ben’s death. He and Ben had grown up together and shared a love of life on the river, both going on steamboats at an early age. At his death the local newspaper said of Benjamin C. Lepper, “He was a good man in all the relations of life, and was one of the most valued and efficient steamboat clerks on the river. His last service was on the steamer Hattie Brown in the Madison and Warsaw trade.” His loss remained with Billy all his life.
Again Billy felt the urge to settle down with a wife and family. Maybe his adventures in the Klondike had mellowed him and he was soon married to M. E. Edith Klooz on April 1, 1901. Perhaps Billie would have recognized the irony of being married on April Fool’s Day. Their first and only child, Margaret, arrived two years later during a relatively calm period in Billy’s life. He was acting as purser on the “E. G. Ragon” for Captain George H. Wilson and helping Captain Wilson plan the cabin for the new steamer, “Morning Star”. Domesticity agreed with Billy and he went into the wharf business at Evansville and was agent for the Louisville and Evansville Packet Company and the E. & P. Packet Company. He purchased a home in Evansville and settled into the life of a businessman, soon operating his own wharf boat. In 1908 he was appointed receiver for the Green River Coal Company. The coal company was sold at auction by order of the U. S. Court in 1910.
In 1911 Billy’s wharf boat was destroyed by fire while waiting out the winter freeze on the Green River and he soon moved the family back to Louisville where he and Captain Pope, owner of the “Fowler”, decided to equip the boat for excursions and place her in the local trade at Louisville. This was the first independent boat to enter the local excursion trade and she met with opposition from other organized companies. She turned a fair profit, though, and Pope sold the “Fowler” and Billy once more moved on.
Billy got entangled in a situation with the Ohio and Mississippi Navigation Company which left a bad taste in his mouth the rest of his days. It seems newspapers and local inspectors had tried to put the blame on him for the loss of the “Queen City” near Louisville. Billy was exonerated of all charges but the ever honest Captain Lepper extricated himself and headed for the west coast where he remained for a short time, finding things not to his liking on the west coast.
In 1914 he and his family moved to Cincinnati where he captained the “Ohio” until the Security Steamboat Company sent for him to take charge of the office of the “Homer Smith” and her second season Billy came out as her captain. The “Homer Smith” was a popular boat, all decked out with colored lights which gave of a lovely glow as she floated along the river at night. At the end of the season Captain William C. Lepper left the river boats to take the position of Marine Inspector for the Neare-Gibbs Insurance Company of Cincinnati.
In his new position Billy was to inspect all vessels insured by the Neare Gibbs Company and to ascertain if sunken boats could be salvaged. If so, it was his job to secure divers and equipment and get the job done. As with any job Billy undertook, he threw himself into the work, learning and improving every step of the way. In short order, he began to excel at the job. He continued in this capacity until his retirement, becoming one of the most respected men working on the inland waters.
Captain Billy Lepper was a common site on the inland rivers for well over fifty years but in 1945 he retired from the river work he obviously loved. He had outlived many of his old river acquaintances but as he had said himself, “God willing, I fully expect to join them on the other shore”.
The Madison Courier once said of Captain Lepper, “There is no better clerk, or a more clever and accommodating gentleman on the river than Capt. Billy Lepper. He has been continuously employed on the river for nearly forty years, and has always enjoyed the respect and esteem of the public and the highest confidence of his employers. He is a moral, upright gentleman, and does not possess a single immoral habit-a reputation very few enjoy.” This would be a fitting epitaph for Captain William C. Lepper. He is buried in the family plot at the Evergreen Cemetery at South Gate, Kentucky. The date on the tombstone reads, April 28, 1952.
NOTE: The picture of Billie as a young man was taken at Madison, Indiana and is dated June 3, 1889. It was sent by Billie from St. Louis to Willard Clashman of Lexington, Indiana. Most of the men of the Lepper family worked on the river. His grandfather, his uncle David, father (William, Sr.) and brothers, Benjamin, Walter and David, all were respected river boat men. It was truly a river dynasty.