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By Toni Collins
One of the most respected pilots on the Suwannee River and the waters surrounding the Cedar Keys was Dan McQueen. Born into slavery in Alabama in July of 1860, his family moved to Old Town, Lafayette County after the Civil War.
In 1871, at the age of 11, McQueen signed on to work on the river boat Wawerock as a dishwasher. Later he worked for six years on the river boat David Yulee receiving a salary of $3.00 a month and also worked on the Bertha Lee.
When McQueen was promoted to Mate on the David Yulee in 1879, his salary was increased to $40.00 per month. He also took a wife, Mollie and the couple went on to have four children. A son James, was the only child to live.
In 1904, McQueen was asked to captain the Helen Denham, a stern-wheeled paddle steamer built in Eustis, Florida, in 1889. The sturdy vessel had been purchased for service in building trestles for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The railroad line sold the Helen Denham two years later for $1,000 and McQueen returned to the West Coast of Florida to pilot river boats on the Suwannee.
When the Tilghman Cypress Company established a single band-sawmill at Lukens, a community located on the mainland at No. Four Bridge, the company acquired the Helen Denham and relocated the vessel to the Gulf Coast. During the six years the vessel was in service for Tilghman in the waters surrounding the Cedar Keys, Captain Dan McQueen was at the helm.
The vessel plied the waters of the Suwannee and Wacasassa Rivers towing log rafts of cypress to the sawmill at Lukens. The Helen Denham was scuttled in 1918 when Tilghman ceased operations at Lukens. McQueen retired from life on the water and opened a school in Old Town where he taught.
It is said that when boat captains and owners had a problem with the river or their boats, they would come to McQueen for help. It appears he knew the river better than any man alive at that time.
McQueen died in Palm Beach County in 1945.