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.”

For the white man the river’s story begins in 1541, when the Spaniard Hernando de Soto first glimpsed it in what is now the state of Mississippi. But it wasn’t until 1673 that the French priest Jacques Marquette and the trader Louis Jolliet entered the Mississippi from the Wisconsin River, traveling as far south as the Arkansas. Nine years later René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, explored its entire course south of the Illinois River and claimed the Mississippi Valley for France. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the years that followed brought extensive settlement to the northern region. Once the first steamboat had reached St. Paul, in 1823, the river was finally open to all. Our scheduled ports of call along this route testified both to the Mississippi’s boom years and to its subsequent decline in the face of competition, first from the railroads and then from long-haul trucking.

We spent a few hours each in Hannibal, Missouri; Dubuque, Iowa; Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin; and Wabasha, Minnesota. All had prospered in the nineteenth century, their economic base a rich brew of fur trading, farming, lead mining, and manufacture. Button factories found a wealth of raw material in clamshells gathered from the river, and grain elevators rose with monumental grace at the water’s edge. A century ago Mark Twain paid tribute to his region: “From St. Louis northward there are all the enlivening signs of the presence of active, energetic, intelligent, prosperous, practical nineteenth-century populations. The people don’t dream, they work.”

In truth, the present-day visitor, in town for a short while, finds little to dream about. The overall effect is less picturesque than it is worn by time. Yet everywhere a few emblems of better days stand out. In Dubuque and Prairie du Chien, for example, the large, stone, Italianate mansions favored by the richest men in town have been taken in hand by historical societies. The one in Prairie du Chien, Villa Louis, is counted among the best Victorian restorations in the country. And in Dubuque, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church is lit by 108 Tiffany stained-glass windows, more than in any church west of the Mississippi. Wabasha is home to the rambling, brick Anderson House; carefully maintained and at 131 years, it is Minnesota’s oldest hotel. Hannibal, of course, has established itself as a shrine to Mark Twain. There, on a tiny cobbled street, the expected clutter of souvenir shops bumps up against the real thing: Twain’s white clapboard boyhood home and a good museum next door. (As for that fabled whitewashed fence, it is simply too pristine.)

On guided tours, which can be booked in advance through the purser’s office on board, one is efficiently swept through each town in the prescribed time. For variety it might be best to try out one or two of the organized tours and strike out alone the rest of the time.

The boat’s arrival at a town dock is as spirited an event now as it was in the golden age of steamboating.

Lately there have been some signs that many of these river towns are starting to shake themselves awake and spruce up a bit in anticipation of the benefits of tourism. But in the end it’s not the settlements along the shore that will resonate in memory; it is the river itself. This was my first look at the Mississippi, and 1 beheld it with astonishment and delight. Nothing had prepared me for its wildness, its width, its colors, and the play of light over its waters.

The journey south from St. Louis, I had been told, is marked by signs of industry for much of its length. But here, along the Northern route, for great stretches there was nothing to be seen but thickets of cottonwood, sugar maple, and willow reflected in the water. On high bluffs, sculpted by the last ice age, bald eagles posed before making tantalizing glides across the steamboat’s bow. Early morning curls of fog rose to meet the pale sun, and in the distance farmland rolled, thickly planted with corn. Most signs of life were pleasing, not intrusive. I saw picnickers set up a Volleyball court on a deserted sandbar and watched a tiny stern-wheel ferry cross a far cove, tracing a watery course that could have been set 150 years ago.

In his middle years Mark Twain looked back in valediction at “the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its milewide tide along, shining in the sun … very still and brilliant and lonely. …” Fortunately much of this Eden survives. And you can claim it for the price of a berth on the Mississippi Queen .

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP