ROLLIN'ON THE RIVER. Paddle-wheeler revives a Mississippi tradition

From the pilothouse perched atop the steamboat Natchez, the Mississippi stretches toward the horizon like a huge, lazy python. Its surface stillness masks the watery might that strains at levees and generates swirling crosscurrents and eddies. A blast on the steam whistle shatters the stillness, as the Natchez overtakes a barge. Capt. Clarke Hawley, a veteran of 33 years on the river, chuckles, recalling how some of the officers on passing freighters revel in the sternwheeler's shrill salute. ``Let me see some steam!'' they signal, as the riverboat churns by, its whistle sending billows of white into the air.

Those well-traveled rivermen like a taste of nostalgia, and the Natchez is happy to oblige. That, after all, is why she and the other modern-day riverboats moored along the New Orleans waterfront, exist -- to give visitors to the ``Crescent City'' (so dubbed because of the Mississippi's sharp bend here) a quick sample of life on the river as Mark Twain knew it.

Voyages from the city range from the 10-mile loop made by the Natchez twice a day to longer trips to plantation houses upriver, remnants of another part of the great river's heritage.

Today's Natchez, crafted from steel according to the Coast Guard specifications, is a replica of the ``eighth steamboat Natchez,'' which plied the river around the turn of the century, explains J. Raymond Samuel, a local businessman and lifelong New Orleanian who has written a history of the Mississippi riverboat and served as a consultant during the building of the ninth Natchez.

Why so many generations of boats with that name? First, because 19th-century riverboat Capt. Tom Leathers -- ``a giant of the river,'' says Mr. Samuel -- named all his long line of vessels after the Indian tribe whose name was taken by his hometown, Natchez, Miss. Second, because the old steamers were built to be light, so they would float off sand bars, and weren't known for durability. As their wooden members weakened under the river's constant beating, the boats would be junked, with any salvageable fittings and hardware transferred to a successor. Frequently a boat's ``works'' -- its whole engine assembly -- would simply be tranferred to the next generation of steamer. That, in fact, is how today's Natchez got her 1,400 horsepower unit -- from a 1920s-vintage sternwheeler that used to push barges up and down the Mississippi.

In the early and mid 19th century, there was no such thing as a set of plans for a riverboat. A certain Captain Howard of Louisville, for instance, simply scratched out a design with his cane in the dirt of a levee, and the boatbuilders of the day knew what to do, says Samuel. It wasn't until the 1890s that a visiting English sea captain, fascinated by the vessels, drew up a formal plan for a Mississippi steamboat.

Lack of blueprints notwithstanding, the smoke- and steam-belching craft made the great river into a highway of commerce through the 1800s. Their ``heyday,'' says Samuel, came just before the Civil War, although they continued to operate into the 20th century, even after railroads had lured away most of their freight traffic. The last commercial steamboat disappeared from the Mississippi in 1934.

As the Natchez churns through the river, conversation turns to the more recent past. It's a history that Captain Hawley -- as personable a commanding officer as ever piloted a sternwheeler, one suspects -- knows firsthand. As Samuel says, the captain is a ``young fellow, but an old river man.''

Hawley was 15 when he signed on a boat to pop corn and play the calliope -- that tooting, steam-spouting crowd-getter. He soon moved along to other jobs -- ``always at least two at a time,'' he recalls. His first command came in 1960, and over the years he has captained the Queen City, the Delta Queen, and the Belle of Louisville, among others, as well as the Natchez.

In the early '50s, when Hawley's career on the Mississippi began, steamboats were employed in what was known as the ``tramping'' excursion trade. ``They went from town to town looking for business -- they went with the weather,'' he remembers. People in small towns like St. Francisville, La., would turn out in droves on a sweltering summer day for a ride on the riverboat. Posters touted the ``cool breezes,'' as well as the music, food, and dancing.

But it was a trade doomed by progress. When air conditioning and television reached those river towns, the steamboats met competition they couldn't better, says the captain.

The legacy of those ``tramping'' days remains. One steamboat line, the Streckfus Company out of New Orleans, was ``single-handedly responsible'' for transporting New Orleans jazz up North, says Hawley. He explains that promoters hired some of the biggest names jazz has known -- Louis Armstrong, for example -- for the riverboat line. ``When it started to get hot down here, they pulled up the gangplank and headed upstream,'' says the captain. ``The jazz spread like wildfire, all the way to Minnesota.''

It's probably the strong sense of history -- of stepping aboard one of the enduring symbols of the American past -- that draws most visitors.

That consciousness of history is particularly poignant for Mr. Samuel, one of the founders of the Louisiana State Landmark Commission. For him, the river's banks hold reminders of preservation battles won and lost. From the pilothouse vantage point, he spots the former site of the ``Three Oaks'' plantation house, which, in his estimation, had been one of the most beautiful old riverside dwellings. He and other preservationists were battling to save it some years ago. They thought they'd succeeded in scheduling an open house to show off the mansion's glories. But the night before it was to take place, the company that owned the property bulldozed the old house, he recounts with a shake of the head.

On a more positive note, the site of the Battle of New Orleans, five miles downriver from the city, brings to mind the time when the Kaiser Aluminum Company was weighing its option to buy up a chunk of the battlefield, an eventuality Mr. Samuel's organization was doing its best to head off. ``One of our members shook her finger at Henry Kaiser,'' he says, reconstructing a pivotal meeting, ``and said, `Don't you take our hallowed ground!' '' The industrialist, recognizing a formidable opponent, acquiesced.

Just below the now-idle plant, the Natchez executes a lazy turn and steams upriver, at a maximum speed of 11 m.p.h., past the ``old Norman home,'' a plantation house built on brick pillars to escape floods. Its accompanying fields have been subdivided into a plush residential development. And finally it passes Algiers Point, directly opposite the Natchez's docking place. Captain Hawley explains that the boat now has to go a ways upriver, where it will use the river's currents to help it get in position to ease back to its dock.

As the riverboat slowly completes this maneuver, the captain asks his pilothouse guests for ``absolute quiet,'' explaining that he's going to mount a ``bridge,'' or platform, rigged near the front of the boat and from there call out orders to his helmsman. The crosscurrents at this sharp bend in the river are vicious, with rapidly changing eddies; in fact the flow of water near the dock is directly opposite that of the main current of the river. It's a time for sharp concentration by captain and crew.

The distance between the boat and wharf shrink, as cries of ``Come back half amidship!'' ``All stop!'' and ``Full astern!'' come from the bridge. Ropes are tossed from the Natchez, and in a matter of seconds she's made fast. Images of Sam Clemens's apprenticeship as a riverboat pilot from ``Life on the Mississippi'' flood back. Clearly, the traditions Twain wrote of are not entirely gone. They live on in men like Captain Hawley, and in the memory of nearly everyone who walks up the Natchez's gangplank.

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