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Experiencing Mississippi Steamboating with Noble Caledonia

By Mike Deegan, Head of Fleet Operations        

 

Mike shares his enthusiasm for Noble Caledonia’s small riverboat cruises along the Mississippi aboard the 150-passenger paddlewheeler, Queen of the Mississippi.

Queen of the Mississippi

  Built in the traditional style in 2012, the Queen of the Mississippi incorporates ultra-modern design and the latest safety features in its construction. I spent a week on board and was immediately fascinated by the proud tradition of steamboating on this mighty river, of which, more later.

Firstly allow me to debunk an oft heard perception about the United States: how many times have you heard that the immigration and customs officials at the border are the most officious and unpleasant anywhere? In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. In the last year I have crossed the US border at Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago, have always been treated with the utmost courtesy and have received a pleasant welcome whilst being processed.  The one item to be aware of when arriving in the States to take an onward, domestic flight, is that, regardless of the fact you might have checked your baggage through the your final destination, US regulations require you to collect your bags as you arrive in the US, take them through Customs and immediately check them back in for the domestic flight. Being the US, this process, which sounds complicated, is made very easy with conveniently placed baggage belts and baggage re-check-in desks either side of the Customs Line, and plentiful porters and check-in assistants, all of whom are extremely helpful. So I flew from Heathrow to Chicago O’Hare, conducted the baggage and immigration procedures I describe above, then flew onto Memphis to join Queen of the Mississippi which was alongside at the brand new river cruise terminal – in fact we were the first ship to use it after its official opening.

 

The mighty Mississippi & steamboating through the ages

 

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Memphis has always been an important city in the river trade: it was a slave trading city and slave port so was much contested in the Civil War. The first Battle of Memphis was a naval battle fought on the river just to the north of the city on 6 June 1862. The rebels were soundly defeated largely because civilians with no previous military experience had command of naval ships (the last time such a precedent would be allowed) and the Confederate naval presence on the river was all but destroyed. Later of course Memphis achieved prominence for musical reasons: Stax Records (founded by brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton) is within walking distance of the hotel Noble Caledonia regularly use in Memphis, as is the Gibsons Guitar factory. However, Memphis’s most famous son – Elvis Presley – recorded his early records at Sun Records in Memphis. Nowadays Beale Street, again close to the Memphis Hotel, is a live music phenomenon famous the world over.

 So to the mighty Mississippi River: geographically it is the 4th longest river in the world and flows for 2340 miles from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Its watershed, and that those of its tributaries, drains all or part of 31 US States and two Canadian Provinces. The US Army Corps of Engineers was formed in 1802 and commenced improving the navigability of the river in 1829. They still have the responsibility for maintaining the channels, locks, slipways, dams and flood defences (called levees) along the route.

 The importance of the river for trade and commerce was realised as early as the 1820s and the Golden Age of Mississippi steamboating is generally accepted as being 1830-1850.  It was during this era that multi-tiered, white painted steamers with twin stacks that have become so synonymous with the waterway rose to prominence. Cotton, timber, food and coal, and later passengers, were all transported by river as roads were sparse in those days, vehicles even rarer and the rail roads were yet to be a major force in US commerce. The first steamboat on the Mississippi was the New Orleans launched in Pittsburgh in 1811.  She was large, ungainly and had side wheels. Her inefficient engines made her hard to control and costly to run. The second was the Comet launched in 1813, again in Pittsburgh. Having learned the lessons of the New Orleans’ poor design, Comet was much smaller, had a lightweight engine and a stern wheel. The basic design was born! By 1820 there were 20 steamboats on the Mississippi. By 1830, there were more than 1200! They were fitted out to high standards with gilt edging, plush furniture and ornate decorations. They also accounted for the de-forestation of much of the river banks as wooden ships and wood fired boilers took a heavy toll on the local trees.

 Those early days were not the safest: ships generally had a life expectancy of three years with groundings (not helped by the wooden construction of their hulls) and boiler explosions being the most common reasons for a ship’s loss. In 1865 the passenger steamer Sultana suffered a boiler explosion near Memphis which resulted in the loss of over 1800 souls – more than perished in the Titanic disaster which was to happen some 47 years later. Mark Twain’s brother, Henry Clemens, died from injuries he sustained in a boiler explosion aboard the steamer Pennsylvania in 1858 where he had been a passenger. Twain rushed to his side in a makeshift hospital and wrote of the agony of watching his brother’s suffering “For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but uncomplaining brother...and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair...” It was only after important safety acts of 1852 and 1871 were passed that safety became regulated and improved – if only a little at first.

 The entertainment and gambling on later passenger ships was legendary. Steam powered pipe organs known as Calliopes were often fitted to the upper decks to encourage intending travellers to choose that particular ship. The banjo and fiddles featured prominently and dancers and singers rose to fame on the river boats. Showboats plied their trade – it was an English actor, William Chapman, who established the first aboard a barge he named Floating Theatre in 1831. He provided entertainments to local communities that included music, plays and dance.  The Civil War intervened but afterwards showboats proliferated and from 1878 boats such as New Sensation, New Era, Water Queen, and the Princess were famous for providing Vaudeville style entertainment. After the road and rail networks improved, the trade declined again but lavishly decorated showboats rose again in the 20th century. Boats such as Golden Rod, the Sunny South, the Cotton Blossom, and the New Showboat featured local jazz musicians in their troupes and a young Louis Armstrong cut his teeth on some of them.

 Author Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) had first-hand experience of the river as he worked as a Mississippi steamboat pilot for a few years. His most famous work, The Adventures of Hucklebury Finn, is essentially a description of a journey down the river and calls on Twain’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the Mississippi and surrounding areas. 

 As the depression of the 1930s hit, steamboating declined once again. This time the economic necessity of lower crew numbers and lower operating costs saw diesel driven pusher-tugs take over – a concept that survives on the river to this day.  Some antique vessels survive but most are laid up, abandoned or preserved as static exhibits. 

 

 Cruising the Mississippi with Noble Caledonia

The Queen of the Mississippi was launched in 2012 and our Treasures of the Mississippi cruise see us exclusively charter the vessel from Memphis to New Orleans. Cabins are surprisingly large for her 150 passengers and the upper two decks (of four) include large balconies. The public rooms are comfortably fitted out and there is ample deck space from which to watch the ever changing vistas along the river banks. The traditions are maintained – you will see a modern reconstruction of a Calliope on the Sun Deck and guest speakers and entertainers bring the history alive. The ship still boasts a large central paddle wheel astern but, these days, only for aesthetic purposes as she is driven by ultra-modern Z-Drives which make her highly manoeuvrable. 

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As the ship makes its leisurely way south from Memphis, it is still possible to see wrecks on the all too many shoals and sandbanks of Mississippi steamboats from the golden age. Indeed, as the Captain helpfully leaves river charts out on the desk in the Library on board, it is possible to see where you may see your next wreck. Some have even been discovered buried in mud underneath fields close by – this demonstrates the river’s many changes of course over the years – where  steamboats foundered over a hundred years ago may by now be some way distant from the 21st century course of the river.

 If you do take a cruise aboard this amazing reconstruction of a Mississippi river boat, I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did. I hope you are transported back too, as I was, to those pioneering days on this most magnificent of rivers.

 

View all Mississippi River Cruises