By Ann Hattes
Two steamboats, paddlewheels furiously churning the muddy waters, stacks spewing billows of smoke, race along on the wide Mississippi River at the port of New Orleans. It’s a “sport that makes a body’s very liver curl with enjoyment,” said Mark Twain. This race in January 2003, between the Natchez and America’s largest steamboat, the American Queen, helped celebrate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the biggest real estate deal in history.
When asked who won this 21st. century race, a modern day Mark Twain look alike responded: “The American Queen came in second, but the Natchez came in next to last!”
In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States, and President Jefferson dispatched an expedition to explore the vast unexplored wilderness. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out with the Corps of Discovery for the Pacific, one of the most daring, arduous and epic journeys in American history. Through the year 2006, communities across America celebrate this trek of Lewis and Clark to the West Coast and back.
Joining in the Lewis and Clark festivities, the Delta Queen Steamboat Company celebrates with steamboating theme vacations on the rivers of America’s Heartland and the Old South. On specific Lewis & Clark oriented cruises, passengers learn the significance of their adventures from onboard guest historians, by visiting the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, and through traversing the upper Mississippi River.
GRAND EXCURSION 2004
Grand Excursion 2004 recreates 150 years later the original Grand Excursion of 1854 that celebrated America’s first railroad connection to the Mississippi River. President Fillmore, joined by dignitaries, politicians, journalists and business leaders, journeyed on rail from Chicago to Rock Island, Illinois, then by steamboat up the river to Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen will join this largest parade of steamboats and paddleboats to travel up the Mississippi River in over a century. These two grand paddlewheelers will make the 11-night cruise from St. Louis to St. Paul, June 23 to July 3, 2004. Remaining in port overnight in several of the cities will allow passengers to participate in special evening events on shore as well as onboard activities and lectures. A bicycle tour will follow the route along the Great River Road, while a canoe flotilla featuring as many as 1,000 canoes will set its own record for the largest flotilla of its kind. The journey culminates in a spectacular finale for the Fourth of July weekend in St. Paul.
Grand Excursion 2004 celebrates the renaissance of the Upper Mississippi River region and its 400 miles of incredible beauty and diversity. Families with kids might opt to visit the Mississippi River Museum (www.mississippirivermuseum.com) in Dubuque, Iowa, or the Mill City Museum (www.millcitymuseum.org) in Minneapolis that chronicles the flour milling industry that dominated world flour production for half a century. History buffs may want to take the two-hour “Crooks Tour” of the Wabasha Street Caves (www.wabashastreetcaves.com) in St. Paul, MN or visit one of
American’s most authentically restored Victorian homes, Villa Louis Mansion (www.wisconsinhistory.org/sites/villa/), in Prairie du Chien, WI.
STEAMBOATING – THEN AND NOW
From about 1850 to 1880, riverboats carried the dreams and the dreamers, brought young families to their new homes in the Heartland and transported traders to prosperity. More than 10,000 paddlewheel steamers once traveled America’s waterways. Today the only authentic steam-powered “floating palaces” remaining that have overnight accommodations are the American Queen, the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen. With Victorian-style
staterooms and working paddlewheels powered by steam, they capture the spirit of the past.
I thought this way of life was gone forever, that steam technology went out of fashion about the same time as high-button shoes. But now I know that it’s still possible to let the gentle rhythm of the big red paddlewheel lull me to sleep after a day of exploring antebellum mansions and the boyhood home of Mark Twain.
“We want our passengers to feel like they are very special guests in a fine Victorian home and the American Queen is designed to do just that – all the while capturing the best of our country’s history, food, entertainment, service, and scenic beauty, states Mikel York, executive director of the American Queen.
Traveling by riverboat is not a speedy mode of travel. Riverboat Captain Alan Bernstein, pilot of the modern sternwheeler Colonel from Galveston, Texas, comments: “Riverboats make a romantic way to go. There’s nothing fast about a riverboat. Most boats go between five, seven and eight miles an hour. We have rowboats pass us all the time.” Bernstein sums up: “A riverboat is watching leaves, driftwood and water go by.”
And so the American Queen’s expansive river-view deck is like Grandma’s front porch where passengers watch the river and the panorama of the passing Heartland.
The legacy of steamboating was preserved for us all when the Delaware North Companies rescued the Queens from bankruptcy. I was reassured to learn that Delaware North also serves as guardian of such national treasures as Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, Kennedy Space Center and Niagara Falls
State Park. Though it’s now one of the world’s leading hospitality and food service providers, this privately held company began humbly back in 1915 when three young brothers began selling popcorn and peanuts at a ballpark near Buffalo, New York.
Some steamboating fans cruise again and again, traveling on the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Atchafalaya, Red, Black, Old, and Kanawha rivers and on the Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana and Texas. On shore stops they visit river towns, bustling cities, Civil War battlefields, gardens, museums, and quaint riverside shops and boutiques. Aboard the Queens, they hear the melodies of Stephen Foster, the ragtime of Scott Joplin, music from Broadway, great Swing Time favorites and the Dixieland jazz of New Orleans.
In the dining room passengers partake of both haute cuisine and home cooking in three sumptuous meals a day, plus afternoon tea and late-night snacks. Menus incorporate the unique local flavors along the cruise itineraries like Cincinnati Five-Way Chili in the Heartland and Bayou Stuffed Catfish with Cajun Beurre Blanc in the Old South.
Many are not aware that it’s possible to attend Mardi Gras or the Kentucky Derby with a steamboat cruise. Or to enter a river town as in the mid- 1800s with steam billowing from fluted stacks and the festive sounds of calliopes filling the air.
Why not go “tramping” around riverside America? Who knows what you’ll see and do? Hold an alligator? Learn to dance Cajun? Join the fun. The riverboats are back!
For more information:
Delta Queen Steamboat Company, Inc.
Robin Street Wharf
1380 Port of New Orleans Place
New Orleans, LA 70130-1890
504-586-0631; 800-543-1949 in U.S. and Canada
Lewis and Clark bicentennial activities: National Council of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, 0615 Southwest Palatine Hill Road, Portland, Oregon 97219; telephone, (503) 768-7996; fax (503) 768-7994; Web site,www.lewisandclark200.org and/or www.nps.gov/lecl.
Grand Excursion 2004
350 North Robert St., Suite 100
Saint Paul, MN 55101
For additional insight on Lewis & Clark, consult: The Saga of Lewis & Clark Into the Uncharted West by Thomas Schmidt and Jeremy Schmidt; The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation: from the Louisiana Purchase to Today by Doug Brinkley and the late Stephen Ambrose; and The Lewis & Clark Cookbook Historic Recipes from the Corps of Discovery & Jefferson’s America by Leslie Mansfield.