Family Stories

Captain Pink Varble – Riverboat Captain

For those of you unfamiliar with the term ‘Falls’, it was a series of rapids on the Ohio River at Clarksburg, Indiana, across from Louisville, Kentucky, allowing the river to drop 26 feet over a distance of two and a half miles – very dangerous for river boat traffic. Today much of the original falls have been flooded and it is not quite the problem it used to be.

from Perrin’s Kentucky, A History of the State, 1888

Jefferson County, Kentucky

Captain Pink Varble is one of the best known river men in Louisville, and one of the safest and best Falls pilot ever on the Falls, having piloted more boats over the Falls than any one man in the business. He was born near Salisbury, North Carolina, September 5, 1828. He is the son of Henry and Alia (Catha) Varble, both of North Carolina. His parents moved to Kentucky in 1831 in wagons, and located in Oldham County, near Westport, Kentucky. Subject remained on the farm until 1842, then moved to Louisville and engaged in driving a wood wagon for J. M. Collins; remained with him for three months, after which he engaged himself to the old Falls pilot, Eli Vansickle, which was the foundation of his present occupation. He worked for Mr. Vansickle for six months, then made a contract with him to work four years for his board, clothing and three month’s schooling each winter and the learning of the Falls. The second year he was with him he took charge of the business, which was buying and selling flat-boats and lumber. Before his time was out Captain Vansickle established a ferry line between Portland, Kentucky, and New Albany, Indiana, young Varble taking charge and running the boats for two years, then selling out and retaining one boat. His time being out with Mr. Vansickle he was re-engaged, at $400 per year, to run his boat up Salt River to bring out pig iron. Having found a purchaser for the boat he sold out and went to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the fall of 1851, and opened a coal yard for J. H. Mulford, of New Orleans, Louisiana, and stayed there until April, 1852, but came back to Kentucky. On April 28, of the same year, he was married to Frances Littrell, of Ghent, Kentucky; eight children were the result, four of whom are now living: the eldest, Mary, the wife of John A. Stratton; second, Nelson L. Varble, the junior member of real estate firm of John A. Stratton & Co.; third, Pink Varble, Jr., the junior member of real estate firm of S. J. Hobbs & Co.; the youngest, Melvin Varble, is engaged with a collecting agency. Captain Varble was elected by the city council of Louisville to the office of Falls pilot in September, 1853, and has held that office ever since. In 1859 he built the tow-boat Pink Varble, and in 1860 bought the tow-boat Charles Miller; since that time he has built and owned fifty-seven steamboats. In 1861 he transported fifty street cars to New Orleans (first used in that city) on barges, having to get permit from the Secretary of War to go through the lines, also to get proper papers to come back from the Confederate authority. These papers read in this way: “By authority of President of Confederate States of America, the steamer Charles Miller is permitted to pass into United States without molestation. Signed, Governor Moore, State of Louisiana.”

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