The Steamer NATCHEZ-
Paddle Wheel steamers are a part of the Mississippi Rivers’ history, from the plantation era, to the Civil War, through the gay nineties and into the 21st Century. From utilitarian uses to entertainment, the paddler was developed during a time which it could navigate the Mississpis’s shallow waters as well as upriver against strong currents. The paddle wheeler is engrained into the rivers lore.
The Paddle wheeler NATCHEZ is the 9th such steamer to bear that name. Her predecessor was none other the NATCHEZ VII that raced and lost to the Robert E. Lee in the most famous steamboat race of all time. The new NATCHEZ was commisioned in 1975 and is proudly the undisputed racing champion of all time with an undefeated record of racing from St. Louis to New Orleans. She is one of the only 2 purely steam-powered paddlewheel boats in operation today. The other being, my homegirl, The Belle of Louisville on the Ohio River.
One can hear the ships steam Calliope from blocks away. The upbeat melodies draw tourists in like kids to an ice cream truck. The seating capacity of the boat is over 1,000 people, and we are near capacity today. The line to board begins forming early and the boarding process is a bit time consuming as boarding starts only a 1/2 hour before launch. Additionally, a photo station is set up at to take your photo, which you can purchase later. This slows the boarding process down a bit but the mood is upbeat and lively so the wait is a minor inconvenience.
All Aboard –
I board the Natchez steamer, enamored with the genuine antique copper and steel steam whistle. I hear a blast of it and it’s jarring. My mission becomes to record the thing. While waiting for another blast from the whistle, a bell clangs to announce final boarding. The copper bell with its inlay of 250 silver dollars, induces a pure tone.
The busy seaport has ships of all shapes sizes and points of origin. The narrator does an excellent job of detailing our fellow river mates ships, purpose, flags and general rules of navigation.
In general, this isn’t a particularly scenic part of the river. Many of the warehouses and factories along the way have long been shuttered and are faded memories of the prosperous glory days this area once enjoyed.
Off the port side, is a large Egyptian style obelisk. This monument marks locations on the Chalmette Battlefield. The last land battle ever fought on American soil between the United States and a foreign enemy occurred at Chalmette. The US victory here prevents the British from capturing New Orleans in the War of 1812.
Jazz and Lunch Cruise
After about 30 minutes, the narration gives way to the Steamboat Stompers. The 3 piece jazz band plays in the dining room as the serving of buffet lunch begins. Today’s fare was a mix of locals favorites; fried catfish, andouille sausage, jambalaya, red beans and rice. Not fancy fare, but the atmosphere of dining to the music of the time is nostalgic.
The engine room is available for viewing but seemingly of little interest to most passengers. The steamy (no pun intended) room is empty except for some friendly crew members. It is a marvel of ingenuity and essentially a working museum. Many of the parts borrowed from original steamers.
For all its history and romance, riding in a steamboat is as exciting as it was a century ago. From the calliope, and steam whistle, the jazz band, and the mesmerizing 26-ton paddle wheel. Cruising the Missippippi in a true steamboat is a bucket list endeavor.