Saturday, May 5, 2012
Cruising on the Lower Mississippi River in New Orleans
The reason we flew to New Orleans, Louisiana, was to babysit. Our daughter Jessica had a 5-day professional meeting to attend at the New Orleans Convention Center and brought her eldest son, our 5 years old grandson, with her. We had a grand time with him during the day and went several places that would interest him. One afternoon our daughter was free for a few hours so we all took a cruise on the Mississippi River on the Natchez steamboat paddle wheeler. As we waited for our 2:00 PM cruise on Toulouse Street Wharf, we heard a tune being played on the Natchez’ steam calliope. The calliope is an American instrument, patented in 1855. This 32-note calliope has the traditional loud and shrill sound which is produced by sending steam through large whistles. (Click on pictures to enlarge them, they look better. Click on collages and then on individual pictures.)
It was a warm day – around 80 degrees (26 C.) As the passengers from the previous cruise disembarked, the people waiting for the forthcoming cruise could buy drinks. The United States has what is called an “open container law” which prohibits open containers of alcohol in certain locations, like public places, vehicles, parks, etc. But the city of New Orleans allows the possession and consumption on the street of any alcoholic drink in an open plastic container. So they were for sale.
But my daughter gave our grandson some nice cool water.
My husband and I sat on a bench and watched a musician and a “living statue” of a man in a white suite with his “dog.” People enjoyed taking their photographs.
Then it was time to board the Natchez. We walked up to the rear deck above the paddle wheel.
I felt really good sitting there watching the changing landscape, listening to all the information on the sights, with a light breeze keeping the temperature cool. Below you can see the New Orleans flags with the distinctive fleur de lis.
Many people and goods have traveled up and down the Mississippi River. It is a very long river. From its source in northern Minnesota at Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico it runs about 2,500 miles or 4,000 kms. (Map below courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)
The first steamboat going up and down the river was named New Orleans and started service in 1811. Steamboats stopping in ports of little towns bordering the Lower Mississippi (the 1000 miles section starting at the confluence with the Ohio River) developed commerce in these areas. How I would like to be able to go back in time, at least for a day, and be a passenger in one of these riverboats and watching all the town people coming down to the wharf to look at these giant river hotels after hearing their riverboat whistle blowing. Below are some old photos of the era (owners unknown.)
The Mississippi riverboats brought something else from New Orleans to areas along the river – jazz. Louis Armstrong for example at age 17 or so was hired on the steamer Sydney to play in the band. Many river towns like Memphis and St. Louis became centers of jazz and blues after the jazz bands on these early steamboats were brought to them. Below are some vintage postcards of steamboats.
Jazz is still being played on riverboats. The Natchez advertised their dinner cruise with The Dukes of Dixieland.
Below the Dukes of Dixieland are performing “Basin Street Blues” aboard the Natchez.
We crossed paths with the paddle wheeler Creole Queen several times. The mighty steam whistle of the Natchez blew as we passed the Creole Queen. The Natchez has a three-chime Lunkenheimer steam whistle… certainly loud! It came from a ship that sank in 1908.
The captain explained that the current Natchez steamboat is the 9th vessel with the name. It was named after the Native American tribe “Natchez.” The first steamboat Natchez was built in 1823 and ran between New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi. In 1825 Marquis de Lafayette was a passenger on this ship. The current Natchez, an authentic steamboat, was built in 1975, although she has some parts which are much older, for example her steam engines were built in 1925. Her bell was part of another steamship and made of 250 melted silver dollars. I walked around and took pictures. I also went inside the bar and purchased a frozen strawberry daiquiri – nice and cold and brought it back to sip on the upper deck (brought my husband a glass of local Abita beer.)
Sitting anywhere in the steamship we could hear the information given about the sights we were passing by. We floated along the center of the French Quarter then passed the MV Cape Kennedy. It is a “Roll-on-Roll-off” ship and is part of the U.S. Ready Reserve Force. A large tanker “California Voyager” from San Francisco passed us by and its crew took pictures of our ship. Then we passed the Lower 9th Ward, which had been so devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We could only see the tops of the houses behind the levée.
We came by the Domino sugar plant. It is America’s largest sugar refinery and is over 100 years old. It produces more than 2 billion pounds of different kind of sugar products a year, including 7 million pounds of sugar a day for home and other uses. At the waterfront we could see brown sugar being unloaded by huge sugar cranes clawing it out. It smelled like brown sugar. Then we saw the white top of the monument erected on the site of the battle of New Orleans, which is actually located in the city of Chalmette.
We passed by several ferries. We were told that the Mississippi has such a strong current that bridge supports cannot be built so ferries are used instead. New Orleans sits 6 inches below sea level so pumps are constantly working to remove excess rain water, or excess water coming from fluctuations in the river or from Lake Pontchartrain.
We also passed by Holy Cross High School, founded in 1895, and now closed and boarded up because if was flooded during Katrina (top photo on left below.) We also saw one of two historical houses called “steamboat houses” built circa 1905 by a riverboat captain. I could see then the top of the only plantation in New Orleans (bottom photo on left.) It is being renovated now. It was built by Leon Godchaux, an illiterate Jewish immigrant from France in 1837, who became a multi-millionaire sugar plantation owner.
The cruise was coming to an end. We passed the Audubon Aquarium and then came to a rest against our wharf. I waited until everyone disembarked, even the musicians, so I could take more pictures.
We all enjoyed this cruise on the Lower Mississippi River and wished it had lasted much longer. But…. while reading on riverboats I found out that the historic Delta Queen is berthed in Chattanooga, Tennessee – 2 hours from our home, and is being used as a floating hotel while awaiting its next owner. (Photo courtesy Delta Queen.)
In addition, our daughter Céline who just moved to Memphis, Tennessee, told me that she saw the American Queen float by her house last week. It seems this other historic riverboat is now calling Memphis her home and will be cruising up and down the Mississippi. She was christened on 27 April 2012 by Priscilla Presley, the wife of late rock star Elvis Presley. (Photo courtesy American Queen.)
So…. I have a good idea that there will be more riverboat pictures on this blog in the future…..