The Fight For The Queen, Or Two Cheers For Congress

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The wonderfully evocative photograph spread across the two preceding pages has a great deal to say, in the way that pictures do, about America, its heritage, and the importance of historic preservation. And besides all that, it is a good point to begin what starts out as a very unhappy story.

About three in the afternoon of November 2 last, with jazz bands blaring, the steam calliope belting out “AuId Lang Syne,” and fireboats playing their great arching streams of muddy Mississippi water, the last river packet in the United States, the steamboat in our photograph, slowed down to tie up at New Orleans in what was then widely heralded as her last and final stop. The paddlewheel palace Delta Queen , eleven days out of St. Paul, Minnesota, eased up toward the Poydras Street wharf while eager hands stretched out to take her lines. In Captain Ernest Wagner’s pilothouse, where Mark Twain would have felt at home, the engine telegraph signalled back “all stop.” For a moment the mournful steam whistle, in one last mighty blast, drowned out the noise with which Americans handle all great events, happy or otherwise. Cameras flashed, television men scurried about, dignitaries maneuvered for position. The full load of passengers, 189 strong and from twenty different states, began to disappear into the crowd. Reporters interviewed anyone and everyone. History had come again to New Orleans. The steamboat age was over and would be buried in a great burst of sentiment. So everyone thought.

It had been like this ever since the Delta Queen left her home port of Cincinnati, heading downstream to Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio joins the Mississippi. Then this final voyage turned north to St. Paul. The word had spread that the forty-four-year-old steamboat, with her wooden superstructure, stood condemned as a fire hazard by Coast Guard regulations and that Congress had refused to spare her. And so as the Queen slipped offdownriver from St. Paul and maintained her slow, dignified pace along the shores of state after state, vast crowds turned out. They lined the banks at La Crosse, at Prairie du Chien, Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport and her sister city Rock Island, Burlington, Nauvoo, Hannibal (where Mark Twain grew up watching the steamboats), St. Louis, Memphis—at every stop.

These waving multitudes were not simply steamboat enthusiasts, but the people, often a substantial part of a town’s whole population, and they held the children aloft to witness the end of an era. Even the modern young appeared, in groups as usual and clutching signs—but reading, as if they were some sort of incongruous royalists, “ SAVE THE QUEEN ”! And they would chant her out of sight with those words while the Queen would answer bravely on her calliope, white puffs streaming from the steam pipes, the notes of “Dixie” and “On Wisconsin” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” echoing off the banks and drifting across the levees, fields, and swamps.

Very few people in this age of cities, automobiles, and air travel ever really see the secret parts of the rivers that course through the central half of America—the Tennessee, the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Mississippi—and now no one save a few towboat crews, powerboat owners, and duck hunters would see them anymore. Yet between towns the wide water courses seem much as our riveroriented ancestors knew them—long, wild panoramas of woods, low islands, dramatic bluffs. Signs of human habitation are almost invisible for miles. Occasionally a road or railroad line appears between towns, and the Queen , on this last trip, got a blast of friendship now and then from a long freight train or honking horns from massed lines of cars parked at some high point to see history go by. The crowds were thick at the locks of the upper river; you get a very close look there, and the Army engineers have built scores of these locks. Great, impressive affairs they are for controlling floods and making navigation easy. Indeed, they seem to have reached a kind of apogee of usefulness and efficiency just in time for the last passengers. Mark Twain, a man with a pretty good sense of irony and a gift of prophecy, put these words into the mouth of the mate of a riverboat back in 1882:

 

Government is doing a deal for the Mississippi now, spending loads of money on her. When there used to be four thousand steamboats and ten thousand acres of coal barges, and rafts, and trading scows, there wasn’t a lantern from St. Paul to New Orleans, and now, when there’s three dozen steamboats and nary a barge or raft, government has snatched out all the snags, and lit up the shores like Broadway, and a boat’s as safe on the river as she’d be in heaven. And I reckon that by the time there ain’t any boats left at all , the Commission will have the old thing all reorganized , and dredged out , and fenced in , and tidied up , to a degree that will make navigation just simply perfect , and absolutely safe and profitable.