Pilot Troy Delaney, 47, focuses his binoculars upriver, scanning the muddy Mississippi for floating logs and debris. Spotting no immediate hazards, Delaney monitors the marine radio for barge and tanker traffic, and prepares the steamboat Natchez—with 400 passengers aboard—for departure.
When Capt. Don Houghton, 47, shouts the order “back and slow,” Delaney eases the three-deck sternwheeler away from the dock at the Port of New Orleans and steers the riverboat toward Algiers Point, the most treacherous turn on the lower Mississippi.
“Once we are under way, it’s my responsibility to get her down the river and back,” says Delaney as the Natchez’s 25-ton steel and oak wheel thrashes the silt-laden water behind the boat.
The 265-foot-long Natchez, the ninth steamboat to bear the name of the American Indian tribe and port on the Mississippi River, is among the last in a long line of steam-powered paddlewheelers that once dominated the nation’s rivers, lakes and canals.
In the 19th century, paddleboats transported millions of passengers and megatons of freight between bustling ports, serving as the buses and 18-wheelers of their day. By the 1850s, thousands of steamboats were plying the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers and their tributaries, as well as large lakes and coastal waterways.
Today, only a few steam-powered sternwheelers remain in operation, including the Belle of Louisville on the Ohio River in Kentucky, the Minne-Ha-Ha on New York’s Lake George and the Graceful Ghost on Caddo Lake, which straddles the Texas-Louisiana border. The steamboats provide sightseeing excursions and dinner cruises to people who want to travel back to the days of Mark Twain.
The power of steam
John Fitch built the first steam-powered boat in the United States in 1787, and Robert Fulton launched the first commercially successful steamboat, the Clermont, on the Hudson River in 1807.
Paddleboats—both sidewheelers and sternwheelers—revolutionized river travel because they could steam upstream against powerful currents, transporting goods quickly and cheaply.
Steamboats greatly increased American commerce and advanced the nation’s westward expansion. Between 1810 and the Civil War, steam-powered paddleboats were the workhorses of the nation’s inland waterways, hauling coal and cotton, livestock and lumber, sugar and soldiers, wheat and whiskey between port cities such as Louisville, Ky., New Orleans, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
“Steamboats gained great popularity because they could take bananas and coffee from the Caribbean and South America upstream, as well as imported goods from all over the world,” says Clarke C. Hawley, 75, a retired steamboat captain and river historian in New Orleans. “No one up North had eaten a banana before the steamboat.”
Coal- and wood-fired steamboats were the leading mode of mechanized, long-distance transportation until they were displaced by faster locomotives in the late 1800s. When their freight business declined, some riverboats were converted into excursion vessels or showboats, which transported acting troupes and circuses to river towns and beckoned audiences with the music of steam calliopes.
Most of the authentic paddleboats are lost to history. Hundreds of the wooden-hulled boats were destroyed by boiler explosions and fires, or sunk by collisions, in the 19th century. Some were dismantled for their engines, boilers and scrap metal in the 20th century, while others were retired, destined to become hotels, restaurants, museums and theaters.
The latest sternwheeler to be idled is the famed Delta Queen, docked last year on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tenn., to serve as a floating hotel after its federal fire-safety exemption expired. The elegant 176-passenger vessel was the last steam-powered sternwheeler to carry overnight guests on America’s inland waterways.
The 285-foot-long Delta Queen and her identical twin, the Delta King, were launched in 1927 in Stockton, Calif., to provide passenger service on the Sacramento River. Today, the Delta King is moored on the river in Sacramento, Calif., and houses a hotel, restaurants and theaters.
In recent years, the retirement of the Delta Queen, American Queen and Mississippi Queen has left only a few steam-powered sternwheelers to ply America’s rivers and lakes.
The oldest is the Belle of Louisville, the pride of Louisville, Ky. Originally called the Idelwild, the 200-foot-long sternwheeler was built in 1914 by the James Rees & Sons Co. in Pittsburgh, Pa., and is powered by a pair of oil-fired steam engines. The regal riverboat provides a journey back in time for passengers and crew who board the National Historic Landmark for weekend lunch and dinner cruises from May to October.
“Nothing touches the senses like steam,” says Mike Fitzgerald, 52, a part-time pilot and master carpenter who has worked aboard the Belle of Louisville since 1974. “When the boilers are fired and the wheel is turning, it takes you back to another place in time.”
Steam-powered sternwheelers also offer excursion cruises on a couple of inland lakes.
The 50-foot-long Graceful Ghost, a replica of an 1800s-era steamboat, operates out of Shady Glade Marina in Uncertain, Texas (pop. 150), and provides sightseeing cruises of Caddo Lake’s cypress swamps from March through December.
“We’ve got the only steam-powered boat on Caddo Lake,” says Capt. Ron Gibbs, 59, co-owner of the Graceful Ghost. “It’s wood-fired.”
In Lake George, N.Y. (pop. 985), the three-deck Minne-Ha-Ha provides one-hour shoreline cruises of Lake George from May through October. The 137-foot-long sternwheeler bears the name of the mythical American Indian woman immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha.
Bill Dow, who built the Minne-Ha-Ha with his father, Wilbur, in 1969, doubts any more steam-powered sternwheelers will be constructed because their engines are exceedingly rare and new ones aren’t being manufactured.
“Steam engines are exotic and expensive,” says Dow, 74, owner of Lake George Steamboat Co. and New Orleans Steamboat Co., which operate the Minne-Ha-Ha and the Natchez, respectively.
Meanwhile, back aboard the Natchez, the Dukes of Dixieland jazz band plays “When the Saints Go Marching In” as the steel-hulled sternwheeler concludes a two-hour dinner cruise. When the song ends, pilot Troy Delaney sounds the whistle and steers the steamboat to the dock in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
“The best part of my job is blowing the whistle,” Delaney says. “It’s loud because it’s steam, and it gets everybody’s attention.”