Sightseeing excursions and dinner cruises reminiscent of travel in the days of Mark Twain
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.
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