Inducted in 2012
William Shakespeare Hays was born in Louisville and attended Hanover College. He was a poet, songwriter, and steamboat master of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. His sheet music sold more than six million copies. His “Mollie Darling” of 1866 was a best seller.
Although Hays’ music will now seem dated and maudlin, much of his melodies still exist. Hays’ influence on bluegrass music was a particular interest of Grandpa Jones and John Hartford, both of whom were intrigued by this steamboat man’s influence on contemporary bluegrass music.
Hays incurred the wrath of the larcenous Union Army General Benjamin Butler in New Orleans for his “My Southern Sunny Home,” which was viewed as being seditious. One unresolved issue is the authorship of “Dixie.” There is a significant corpus of documentation, which supports Hays’ being the author of this song, usually attributed to Dan Emmett. There were two steamboats named for this man. He was a reporter for the Louisville Democrat and gained fame for his stellar “River and Weather” in the Louisville Courier-Journal.
His river column is gossipy, informative, and occasionally outrageous. His writing is an incomparable source of information for the steamboats built in Jeffersonville, New Albany, and Madison, Indiana.
If you are a serious researcher of steamboat history, Hays’ writings are perhaps the best sources available. He gives far more definitive information about steamboating than Samuel L. Clemens.
The colonel was a gadfly amongst steamboat men and women. He pushed for river improvements long before the notion was generally accepted. He played the piano on the J. M. White when she made her first trip from Louisville to Cairo in 1878. On February 14, 1904, he was aboard the Sprague when she left the Portland wharf in Louisville with one of her early big tows. Hays died in1907 and is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.
The man’s steamboating experience is beyond belief. His writings, poetry, and songs are voluminous.