Steaming down the Mississippi

IN traveling on the Mississippi River, according to Mark Twain, `` simply move through an atmosphere of song which seems to sing itself.'' A current traveler might add, ``There isn't any other experience quite like a cruise on the Delta Queen steamboat.'' It's a historic journey into the heart of America.

When I stepped onto the gangplank of the paddle-wheeler, it was like going home. Not only because the Delta Queen's atmosphere is homelike, but because her beginnings in Ohio River history, like my own, trace back to northern Kentucky. When I began to hear the crew members' Southern accents and was surrounded by their warm hospitality, I knew that this trip would be a memorable one.

Only eight hours earlier, I had boarded a Delta Airlines jet in San Diego. It was quite a contrast to fly hundreds of miles at 500 miles an hour to New Orleans, only to depart on a steamboat that travels only 6 m.p.h. up the Mississippi River.

As one of the last of the great riverboats, the Delta Queen claims to be the only authentic fully restored steamboat with overnight accommodations. With this distinction, she was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior in 1970. Last year she celebrated her 60th year.

Along with her sister steamer, the Delta King, the Delta Queen was fabricated in Glasgow and shipped to Stockton, Calif., to be assembled. From time to time since she entered service in 1926, there have been decades of uncertainty, but she has survived.

In her first two decades, the Delta Queen was steaming on California rivers. Then she was taken over by the Navy for use as a barracks during World War II. Later, both she and the Delta King were used for various purposes, such as transporting the wounded to a nearby naval hospital and hauling rice in the San Francisco Bay Area, until she was finally turned over to the Maritime Commission at the end of the war.

One of the interesting parts of our cruise was meeting some of the Plankowners (original crew). Their accounts took us back to the early history of the steamboat. The two Plankowners on board, Bob Cunningham of Redwood City, Calif., and Carl Heynen of Mill Valley, Calif., had been stationed on the Delta Queen right after the Navy took her over in the early 1940s.

Seeing this steamer through their eyes heightened our appreciation. They confirmed that the handsome rich oak and mahogany woods in the purser's office remain unchanged. Also intact are the Tiffany stained-glass windows in the lounge areas and some of the staterooms, the grand staircase with its scrolled latticework, the brass fittings, and the crystal chandeliers.

We retreated into another era when we boarded the Delta Queen. The pace was slower and quieter, without telephones and television. There was a nice camaraderie among the boat's 180 passengers, who were mostly retired people. An isolated porch swing on the lower deck and the empty deck chairs appealed to me. But I went for some of the activities on board, as well as the shore excursions.

From the first evening's get-acquainted party to the captain's dinner the last night, the cruise was full of pleasant surprises. Passengers were given tours of the pilothouse, the engine rooms, and the kitchen. In an afternoon class on making Christmas tree ornaments, I made a Victorian ornament, boxed it up to be stamped with the official Delta Queen Steamboat postmark (since she has a post office), and sent it to a friend in Indiana. One morning several of us played the old-time calliope and flew kites off the deck. On Sunday I joined other travelers in a church service on board.

Our five-day feature vacation, called ``Victorian Lifestyles,'' took us to Natchez, Miss., where the residents were celebrating their annual Spring Pilgrimage. We went ashore to visit three antebellum homes. ``Rosedown'' was lovely with its pink azaleas in full bloom, and there was a feeling of going back in time at Lansdowne, where ladies in period costumes greeted us. Later, farther down the river in St. Francisville, La., we made our last stop to visit a fine old home called ``Virginia.''

The meals on the Delta Queen were quite good. Each night a specialty was prepared to coincide with a specific style of Southern cooking. One night it was French Creole; another, Acadian; another a Mardi Gras food festival; and yet another was called Plantation Cookery.

But the story isn't complete without knowing how the Delta Queen got to the Mississippi River. In 1946 the vessel was purchased from the US government by the Greene Company of Newport, Ky. In 1947 the Greenes took a huge risk when they boarded her up, removed her paddle wheel, and towed her like a barge more than 5,000 miles - through the Panama Canal, through the Port of New Orleans, and up the Mississippi to the Ohio River. That's how she got to her new home port in Cincinnati.

As the Delta Queen reached New Orleans on the sixth day of our seeing America much as Mark Twain had seen her, Twain's words fitted the scene again: ``The captain lifts his hand, a bell rings, the wheels stop; then they turn back, churning the water to foam, and the steamer is at rest.''

And that's how I felt. Home again, to rest. But turning back, ready to go again. And so was she. That night, from the streets of New Orleans, we heard the distant farewell music of the calliope as the Delta Queen headed up the Mississippi once again. Practical information

Cruises depart from New Orleans; Memphis; St. Paul, Minn.; Cincinnati; and Pittsburgh. They vary from two to 12 nights and are scheduled every month but January.

For a free brochure contact a travel agent or the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, Home Port Office, 30 Robin Street Wharf, New Orleans, LA 70130. Phone (504) 586-0631 in Louisiana, 800-543-1949 elsewhere in the US.

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