Heyday Of The Floating Palace

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The steamboat age was noted for the food served aboard the boats. Silverware, china, and linens were often made especially for the crack packets and menus set a standard probably never equalled since. For Christmas dinner in 1859, Captain Leathers’ fifth Natchez had a gaily printed bill of fare offering, among the fourteen courses, four types of fish, six broiled meats and six kinds of roasts, eight entrees and nine cold dishes, five types of game, and thirty-six different desserts.

Then came the Civil War, bringing an almost complete disruption to commercial steamboat traffic on the Mississippi. When it was over, the finest of the prewar packets, which had holed up in tributary streams like the Yazoo, were gone forever—destroyed by the Confederates themselves to avoid capture or sunk in conflict. But this was not the death knell of steamboating—in a few years bigger and better boats, like the Ruth, the Richmond, the Rob’t E. Lee, the Great Republic, and the incomparable J. M. White, made their appearance, and for a long time steamboating seemed to have caught its second wind. “But the railroad, which runs in high water or low and does not snag itself in a vital spot with a snag, came along and cleared the steamboat out of business,” wrote Clyde Fitch, a newspaperman who saw the transition take place. By the 1880s, the signs of dissolution were everywhere apparent; in the 1890s more and more boats went to the bank, never to return; in 1909 there were no longer any through Mississippi packet lines and steamboating was dying fast.

Some people live beyond their time; such a man was Captain LeVerier Cooley, one of the very last of the old-time lower Mississippi steamboatmen. Captain Cooley “learned” the river in the 1870s and trod the decks of steamboats until he died, December 19, 1931. He ran the Tensas, pronounced Ten-saw (which carried a big circular saw swung between its chimneys with a numeral ten painted on it), in the 1880s; the big Ouachita in the nineties, the sturdy America in the first two decades of the 1900s, and his last, the “little” Ouachita in the twenties.

Captain Cooley, who ran his boats from New Orleans to Vicksburg and later up the Ouachita and Black rivers, carried tremendous quantities of cotton to market almost until the end. He once estimated that he had handled 800,000 bales of cotton on the America alone, besides large quantities of other cargo. The America he loved best of all his boats and when he died, the huge deck bell which had tapped departure time for so many years was used as a monument over his grave in New Orleans—a fitting marker for a steamboatman and the end of an era.