Steamboat On The Upper Mississippi

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Whether it is a ferry, a yacht, or an ocean liner, the sights and sounds of any passenger boat casting off from shore always call out to me. Last September, on a pellucid St. Louis evening, I was not merely an envious onlooker; I was aboard the luxurious steamboat Mississippi Queen . Traveling up the Mississippi River at about eight miles an hour, this stern-wheeler, built eleven years ago as a companion vessel to the sixty-one-yearold Delta Queen , was going to carry 350 passengers on a meandering 671-mile course from St. Louis to St. Paul. The journey was to last a week.

Our port of departure, St. Louis’s ancient levee, slopes sharply to the water, and deeply ridged cobbles line its shore. In the 185Os this same spot would have been choked with hundreds of steamboats carrying their cargoes of lead, flour, beans, tallow, and whiskey along the great national waterway. With boats tied up three or four deep, passengers and crew often found the only way to board their vessels was to scramble across the decks of neighboring ones. Now, just the flow of brownish river remains, placid home to a few small excursion and restaurant steamers, including one that sports the golden arches of a McDonald’s.

Two landmarks dominate the scene: Eero Saarinen’s soaring Gateway Arch on the shore and the seven-deck Mississippi Queen underfoot. Longer than a football field, flags and pennants flying, smoke pouring from twin stacks, huge red paddle wheel turning, she’s a lovely sight. With a powerful blast from the whistle and a nearly deafening calliope rendition of “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” we’re under way.

The Delta Queen Steamboat Company bills its cruises along America’s historic waterways as “The Last Great American Adventure.” How true this is depends, for the most part, upon individual interests. Those passengers who wish to feast on history will find it served up in satisfying portions; on-board lectures, guided tours ashore, historical tidbits sprinkled in the daily Steamboatin’ Times , and some good film adaptations of Mark Twain’s works offer nourishing fare. For others aboard, the party atmosphere definitely is the main attraction.

The first daylight transit of a lock was novelty enough to draw everyone on deck to watch. This upper portion of the river is segmented by twenty-nine locks and dams. A Corps of Engineers project dating from the 1930s, the lock system was designed to assure the river’s normally shallow northern reaches a steady flow of water with a minimum depth of 9 feet. In all, we will rise about 290 feet above St. Louis, experiencing different elevations at each lock, from 38 feet at Lock 19 to just 3 inches at Lock 3.

After the first few passages through the locks, mainly the diehard enthusiasts show up. But there is always something worth seeing. Townspeople crowd reviewing stands, applauding as the boat enters and departs; parents hoist astonished youngsters to their shoulders for a better look; a hometown banjo player picks out “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and everyone joins in; a group of Texans on board discovers some countrymen onshore, and they call out their addresses; another passenger urges a couple of onlookers, “Come to South Carolina. You’ll never be sorry!” Such moments are common during the trip; the arrival of the Queens is as spirited an event now as it was in the 1840s, when the call “Steamboat comin’ ” sounded the length of the river.

Where thousands of steam vessels once carried overnight passengers on American waters, only the Mississippi Queen and the Delta Queen do so today. The Mississippi Queen ’s two compound condensing steam engines provide all electricity on board, generating enough power to keep a small city going. And steam alone drives the paddle wheel, says Charlie Ritchie, the thirry-five-yearold captain. “There are no hidden propellers.” Fittingly the engaging young skipper is a fifth-generation riverboat captain. (His distant cousin George Ritchie is portrayed in Life on the Mississippi as a cub pilot and companion of the young Samuel Clemens.) The present Captain Ritchie tells a gathering of passengers of his ambition to earn more licenses to pilot the Mississippi and its tributaries “than any other living human being.” His only close rival: his father. Describing the rigors of the pilot’s test, Ritchie says, “It’s probably the same one —word for word—that Samuel Clemens took.” Of his own initiation to the river, Twain wrote, “The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it had uttered them with a voice.”