Time Stands Still Aboard A Mississippi Steamboat

A memorable trip in grand Victorian style

It's a balmy spring afternoon in 1896. You're sitting in a white rocking chair on the top deck of the Mississippi Queen, a steam-powered paddle-wheeler that looks like a white Victorian layer cake decorated with red frosting.

For miles, the banks of the meandering Mississippi River are densely wooded with trees in tender green bud; no hints of civilization are evident.

The boat's paddle wheel provides the only sound as it churns water the color of coffee with cream. Soon, the town of Natchez, Miss., appears, and the boat's whistle blows. People line the embankment, waving to you and the other passengers. They're dressed in jeans and T-shirts.

OK, so maybe it's 1996, not 1896. But when you're a passenger on the Mississippi Queen, it's easy to be transported to an era when steamboats like this plied the rivers of middle America the way tugboats and barges do today.

The scenery in many areas doesn't seem to have changed much, and the boat is modeled after the grand steamboats of the 1800s. The river, though its course has altered over the last century, is still the same muddy and majestic Mississippi that Mark Twain wrote about 100 years ago.

Reliving the "Golden Age of Steamboatin'," as the promotional literature proclaims, is part of what a cruise with the 106-year-old Delta Queen Steamboat Co. offers. Its three boats - the Delta Queen, the Mississippi Queen, and the American Queen - are the only authentic steam-powered overnight paddle-wheelers operating on America's rivers.

Year-round they run two-to-14-night cruises up and down the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Arkansas, the Illinois, the Kanawha, and the Cumberland rivers. There are also special themed cruises, such as "Gardens of the River" or "Cajun Culture Vacations."

Our cruise began on a Thursday in the historical bluff town of Vicksburg, Miss. Three days before, the Mississippi Queen had left the port of Memphis for a seven-night journey to New Orleans; my husband and I boarded at the halfway point.

We had just enough time to ascend the steep road to Vicksburg and poke around the Old Court House Museum, a handsome 19th-century turreted building that houses a fascinating collection of Civil War and other artifacts.

By the time we got back, the crew was getting the boat ready to leave. As we cast off, the boat's pianist played old riverboat songs from the outdoor steam calliope, an organlike instrument that was a fixture on 19th-century steamboats.

THE Mississippi Queen, launched in 1976, can carry 420 passengers on its four decks. Rooms, carpeted and decorated in Victorian floral patterns, are small but comfortable; some have windows and private balconies. The only drawback to many cabins on the Mississippi Queen are the tiny bathrooms that make it a bit difficult to maneuver. The new American Queen and even the older Delta Queen's bathrooms offer a little more space.

A grand saloon with a black piano and sparkly chandeliers is where much of the entertainment takes place. Included in the program are big band music, cabaret, and musicians and singers who play ragtime and sing old river tunes. (Unlike many other riverboats, there is no casino aboard any of the Queen boats.)

An elegant main dining room serves food that is quite good, everything from Southern specialties like fried green tomatoes and crayfish touffe to steamed lobster and roast lamb. The boat has a library, theater, fitness room, and a small pool.

Highlights of the cruise were stops at the river towns along the route, where passengers could elect to take tours of Civil War battle sites, antebellum mansions, gardens, and museums.

Natchez, Miss., the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River, provides the best peek into life of Southern gentry before the Civil War.

Located high on the bluffs, this charming city boasts more than 500 antebellum homes, many of which belonged to wealthy cotton planters. Today about 15 mansions are open for visitors year-round and more during the Spring and Fall Pilgrimages, annual events in which owners or guides - often dressed in period clothes - conduct tours of historic homes.

Time seems to have stood still in the gracious high-ceilinged rooms of white-columned Greek Revival mansions and in lush gardens perfumed by magnolias and gardenias.

Natchez and St. Francisville, La., another historic-mansion-studded stop down river, were important steamboat ports. During the mid-1800s, the Mississippi teemed with shallow-draft paddle-wheelers that carried cotton and other goods as well as passengers.

Passenger river traffic halted during the Civil War, but steamboats took to the rivers again afterward, some becoming elaborate floating palaces with ornate woodwork and gilded Victorian details.

By the 1940s, railroads, trucks, and diesel-powered towboats transported most of the nation's freight, and steamboats became extinct except for a few that offered day excursions for tourists.

But some things haven't changed. Today's river pilots still learn their craft just as they did in Mark Twain's day - through an apprenticeship with a licensed captain and by memorizing every bend in the river. For some, the lure of the river is still as strong as its currents.

"I love the night - a beautiful night when it's clear, and it's just you and the boat," mused Buddy Muirhead, a riverboat pilot for 50 years and now captain of the Mississippi Queen. "I like the wilderness along the banks and the friendliness of little river towns, where people come out at 2 in the morning just to greet us."

After spending four days steeped in the legends of steamboatin' river lore and the history of the Old South, I could understand his sentiments.

*The Delta Queen Steamboat Co., 30 Robin Street Wharf, New Orleans, LA 70130-1890. Tel.: 1-800-315-2046. For a seven-night cruise, prices range from $140 to $590 per night, per person, double occupancy. Meals are included.

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