Rolling down the Mississippi in style onboard a modern paddle wheel steamship.
Sliding through the mist, the American Queen seems to be floating out of a Currier and Ives lithograph. The boat looks like a many-layered tribute to the scroll saw, but it's only a year old and reputedly the biggest river steamer ever built. Like America's classic river boats, it's pushed by the early-19th-century's cutting-edge propulsion system: a functional paddle wheel turned by a genuine steam engine.
Back in the era of the Robert E. Lee and Natchez, such boats took passengers up and down the river in Victorian elegance. It's the 1990s, but barges are still toted and bales still lifted along the Mississippi—and a very few steamboats still adorn the river.
The American Queen is newest, and possibly plushest, of this small fleet. The boat stretches 418 feet long and stands just over 109 feet from waterline to the crown points atop its two smokestacks. A 30-foot paddle wheel propels it and its 436 passengers at a leisurely eight miles per hour average speed.
Considerable thought and expense have gone into things great and small on this boat, and it shows. The temptation to indulge in kitsch or hokiness, so often given in to with condescending evocations of the good old days, has been resisted completely aboard the American Queen.
High quality and taste are evident in both the interior architecture (duplicated in part from older boats) and furnishings. Public rooms tend to dark wood panelling, floral carpets, lots of stained glass, antique and high-quality antique reproduction furniture. Staterooms we saw had antique furnishings except for the new beds. The effect isn't really museum-like; rather it's akin to a river-going Ritz-Carlton.
But Ritz-Carltons can't deliver you practically to a Civil War battlefield, the front doors of antebellum mansions, or the main streets of historic towns. In the old days, steamboats tended to stop everywhere, and the American Queen renews that tradition.
On our cruise from New Orleans to Vicksburg and back, the boat stopped at a variety of spots (sometimes by the old-time and appealingly casual means of simply pulling up to the grassy river bank and lowering the gangplank) and offered an array of shore tours designed to give passengers a taste of the Old South. Organized tours get you to the sights efficiently, or you can stroll around on your own, or both.
Vicksburg is an especially good place to do both. The Civil War looms large here; Ulysses Grant made his name as a general at Vicksburg, but on first acquaintance, the town doesn't look like a place you'd describe as "The Gibraltar of the West" or that would be called "the key" by Abraham Lincoln. In the spring of 1863 it was the key to splitting the Confederacy and gaining control of the Mississippi. On July 4, Confederate forces surrendered after a lot of fighting. This, coupled with the South's simultaneous loss at Gettysburg, left little doubt about how the war would end.
The town remains somewhat squeezed between river and battlefield, now the big Vicksburg National Military Park. A Civil War buff could spend many days in this park. Its 1,800 acres are strewn with cannons, memorials, and signs detailing who did what when. Buses take you from the boat for a good, if too brief, overview and to the excellent museum and the remains of an ironclad warship sunk during the war and raised in the 1960s.
You'll have time for a leisurely look at the town, too. That prominent clock tower is the Old Court House Museum. It's a good-size establishment full of steamboating and southern life memorabilia. At least stop in at the drugstore (behind the cannon) for a look at its large, informally presented gun collection. And try the many antique shops for a relatively inexpensive piece of the Civil War. Minié balls are only $2.
All along the cruise, restored, museum-like pre-Civil War homes abound. Many are open for visitors; all we visited were worthwhile, but a few stood out, among them St. Francisville's Rosedown.
Hundreds of slaves once worked this 1835 plantation's 10,000 acres. Rosedown is unusual in having about 85 percent of its original furnishings, including a suite of bedroom furniture bought by an unduly optimistic Henry Clay supporter for the Great Man to use in the White House. Clay seems to have been a prized houseguest along the river; the number of places he is alleged to have slept brings George Washington to mind.
This is Audubon country, too. The balconies along each of the ship's decks occasionally bristled with field glasses although the only birds in real evidence on our trip were ducks. Perhaps this is why Rosedown has one of his rare oil portraits of a human instead of a bird.
Another stop, Natchez, is particularly rich in antebellum homes. While Vicksburg withstood a 47-day seige before surrendering, Natchez surrendered shortly after the Union navy arrived. Spared wartime destruction, it now has some 600 antebellum buildings, many of them restored homes.
Audubon lived in Natchez for a time, and, not surprisingly, Henry Clay was a frequent guest, especially at the 1830s mansion called Devereux. It's frequently among the tour options. But so are many other equally impressive homes, most of which can conjure in the irreverent mind an image of Carol Burnett descending the grand staircase while wearing a gown with the curtain rod still attached. In some of the homes, current residents become the tour guides. It's all redolent of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks and magnolia-scented speech.
Try to see Longwood, the jumbo octagonal mansion started just before the war but never finished. It's often on the tour list and among the most famous (and eccentric) of the southern showplaces.
Things aren't quite so mint julepy at Baton Rouge. The boat ties up downtown, beside a collection of government buildings. The old capitol (now a museum) is a 19th century Gothic creation widely derided as ugly in its time. Now it looks agreeably quaint in contrast to the nearby collection of mid-20th century architectural misfortunes that only a bureaucracy would perpetrate. Much of Baton Rouge's downtown life has moved to the malls, so it's best to try one of the organized tours here.
We enjoyed the "Cajun Heritage" tour. Cajuns are descended from French Canadians ousted from their colony (Acadia, now Nova Scotia) by the British in the 1700s. Many of them settled in bayou country and evolved distinct customs, way of speaking, and cuisine.
An hour's bus ride takes you to a road house on stilts over a bayou in what appears to be good-old-boy country-Spanish moss all over the place, violin-accordion-guitar band on the porch, pickups parked in the dirt lot. It was reminiscent of the party scene in "The Big Easy."
Many were the Huey Long stories spun within. There also were opportunities to try Cajun food (such as alligator), learn a Cajun dance, hear a lot of Cajun accent (from bayou versions of "Bert and I" types), and generally have an easy good time in the sort of place very few of the steamboat passengers would venture on their own on a dare.
Not far away is perhaps the most famous of Southern mansions, Oak Alley. One of the favorite 18th century gardening schemes locally appears to have been planting parallel rows of oak trees along the front drive. It takes patience, but eventually the trees meet overhead to form a jumbo tunnel to your heirs' porch. One of the best of the few remaining is Oak Alley—the very place that Louis Philippe of France visited and Tom Cruise filmed "Interview with a Vampire."
This must be the most photographed of all the plantations. Picture opportunities are the greater when the gleaming white gingerbread American Queen parks right in front of it. All this down-on-the-levee ambience is enhanced further by the prospect of mint juleps, for sale on the mansion's back porch ($4.25 for the family size). They're two parts bourbon and one part "homemade mint syrup" over crushed ice; people with an alcoholic sweet tooth are best attuned to such pleasures.
The American Queen is one of three paddlewheelers operated by the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. Their Delta Queen is a more intimate boat. It was built in 1927 and for many years made nighttime runs between San Francisco and Sacramento. The recently refurbished Mississippi Queen, built in 1976, approaches the American Queen in size.
There is a variety of themed cruises. Many begin at New Orleans, and others originate in Cincinnati, Little Rock, St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, or another river port. Cruise themes include "Dixie Fest," "Old-Fashioned Holidays/Country Christmas," "Big Band Vacations," "Fall Foliage," "Great American Performers," "Civil War," and others. Rivers include the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, and Arkansas. We took an "Old South" inaugural run.
Our fellow passengers were a congenial bunch-the average age probably was around 60. World War II stories figured in more than a few conversations, perhaps in part inspired by the copy of Reminisce magazine everyone found on his night stand.
Photo by John Goepel
This article was first published in September 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.