April 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 2
A journey aboard a 70-year-old steamboat through an engineering wonder that relatively few people have seen and a landscape where many of the human outposts will, sooner or later, drown.
Among the variety of American travelers, those who visit a place ostensibly lacking any feature other than mere existence aren’t numerous, although by educating ourselves as peregrinators, we may be increasing that number. Undoubtedly, the growing hordes crowding national and theme parks and any piece of sand leading to waves anywhere in the country encourage some of us to find places more obscure than a travel agent might suggest. Like George Mallory and his Himalayan mountain, this other kind of traveler, resolutely curious, goes to a somewhere simply because it’s there. If the possibility of discovering a place for all humankind hardly exists any longer, that joy will always remain for personal discovery. A mundane place, if we’ve never seen it before, can astonish us in a way that oftenpictured Yellowstone or Epcot cannot.
I’m now among those escaping fabulous American spots, partly because I’ve visited most of them; in fact, with a couple of exceptions in Nevada, I’ve been to within at least 25 miles of any place in the contiguous states. For a half-century, I’ve been trying to see and comprehend every square mile of this nation. From the rain forest beyond Seattle to the turtle crawls in Key West, from the chamber of the Supreme Court to the bottom of the Deep Tunnel near Chicago, I’m possessed with discovering the country.
That’s how it came to be that I went aboard the venerable steamboat Delta Queen , tied up at Pier 21 along the Strand in Galveston, Texas. The last Christmas of the millennium was three weeks off. We were bound for New Orleans, some 350 miles distant via the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, popularly called in its own territory the ICW. A few years ago, when one old pilot heard the Delta Queen was going to initiate roundtrips on the ICW, he said, “What the hell for? It ain’t nothin’ but an industrial ditch. Nobody’s goin’ to come see that.” He was, I’m happy to report, too pessimistic.
In a massive wet lowland where humans for two centuries have dug and dredged uncounted miles of ditches —some wide enough only for a canoe, others for a span of barges—the ICW is the lone watercourse there that is “the canal.” It runs about 1,000 miles from the Brownsville Ship Channel near the mouth of the Rio Grande, to just east of Apalachicola, Florida, most of it sheltered from the open water of the Gulf of Mexico by slender islands, spits, and peninsulas; in that way it resembles the Intracoastal Waterway along the Atlantic shore. Nowhere else on the Gulf portion does it get so far from ocean as it does between Galveston and New Orleans; over that route boats move entirely in a dug channel, something not true even for the Erie Canal, which, by happenstance, is about the same length. Dredging out the ICW effectively made the Gulf coastlands between those two cities into an island, or, better, a chain of islands, and in that alone, there is no other place in the United States like it.
Since its completion in 1949, you cannot in that section reach the Gulf by foot or auto without crossing a bridge or getting onto a ferry. The entire ICW, elsewhere a concatenation of dug channels linking dredged lakes and bays, is, in a nation of monumental navigational undertakings, among the most impressive engineered works of the last century, the fulfillment of an idea that first appeared two hundred years ago. If the locks of the East Texas-Louisiana portion are not as big or numerous as those on the Erie Canal or on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Columbia Rivers, the central ICW does have the distinct and astonishing ability to keep itself from being absorbed, dissolved, or overtaken by the thousand swamps, marshes, bayous, lagoons, and drainage ditches along its miles. To see the engineering difficulty, imagine digging a trench in a shallow pond. So many different watercourses cross it, natural and humanly made, that one can further wonder why it doesn’t in a couple of hours drain itself into the Gulf, at one place only about 500 yards of low sandy beach away.
Any passage we create, whether footpath or superhighway, is never entirely benign to the life it bisects, but compared with other major transport constructions, say, the first transcontinental railroad, the ICW is a project almost unmatched in America; its power to alter is the reason a couple of proposed extensions of it across and along Florida were stopped 30 years ago. It is good to remember, though, that long before the canal existed, the Texas-Louisiana lands it traverses had been dredged and channeled to a fare-thee-well.
Some time ago I read Waters of the New World , Jan de Hartog’s 1961 account of his voyage in a seagoing barge, with several companions, from Houston to Nantucket. His description of crossing the portion of the ICW that the Delta Queen would soon cover surprised me, coming as it does from a Hollander who says of himself, ”… I have lived most of my adolescent life on inland waters of the Old World, and most of my adult life at sea.” Yet this old salt didn’t find the ICW a route comfortably separated from the perils of the open Gulf, although he wasn’t bothered by the jillions of different canal hazards: heavy barge traffic, submarine pipelines, submerged pilings, cable ferries, pontoon bridges, drooping overhead power lines, masses of water hyacinth, alligators, and the incredible suction created by tows under way. Rather, he was disturbed by an older and less definable reason: his perception of wilderness, a wildness that Europeans commonly feel yet today whether they’re in a Utah desert or a Hell’s Kitchen in some city.
The response is not new. Puritan texts of the seventeenth century equate dark Massachusetts forests with natural evil; to subdue wilderness and its native inhabitants was to quell the devil, to bring them all into blessed light. De Hartog uses words like lonely, terror, hostile, desolation , and “creatures of the night,” “nightmarish country,” “the heart of darkness,” “a glimpse of purgatory,” “Paradise lost,” “in the atmosphere something beyond evil”—a language to lure me into a five-day passage through that soggy land.
I’d been near the region before by car and foot but never where the canal goes because only it goes there. A road map of the region reveals, but for pockets of water, an intriguing blankness surrounding much of the canal. In the Louisiana parish of Terrebonne, for example, south of the ICW are some 1,000 square miles without a highway.
The Delta Queen , built from 1924 to 1927 and a National Historic Landmark (a strange term applied to a boat), has a history of one narrow escape from destruction after another. The Sacramento River was the first home of the Queen ; in 1947 she survived being towed some 7,000 miles down the Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal, and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to a refurbishing in Pittsburgh. Now, because of her appealing lines, steam-driven paddle wheel, and long operating history, she’s arguably become, after the USS Constitution , the most beloved large vessel in America. I’ve been aboard her from New Orleans to St. Paul, from Cincinnati almost to Pittsburgh, and I know of few other things that can so transport a traveler into our landscapes and history. She is, as her captain told me, “a time machine.” To see, for example, the technologically stunning Gateway Arch at St. Louis from her historic decks is like looking into the future: A voyage aboard her seems movement through an older time.
On an early December afternoon, the roustabouts hauled in her mooring lines, and we set out from Galveston, a small city at last returning from the great hurricane of 1900 that killed between 6,000 and 8,000 people there, making it the site of the deadliest natural disaster in America. To the vaporous notes of the steam calliope, the Delta Queen moved at five miles an hour up the channel behind Pelican Island, crossed the outlet to the gulf called Bolivar Roads, and entered the Intracoastal Waterway stretching into a 23-mile peninsula, a low-lying strip of sand that in places is barely broad enough to contain the canal. Past the abandoned lighthouse at Port Bolivar, we entered a 22-milelong channel that, but for one slight dogleg, deviated from straightness no more than a laser beam and lay between grassy shores and marsh, a few of them given to oyster beds.
To starboard was an old Indian graveyard, and everywhere drainage ditches led to dead ends, each parallel to the next in such a way that the peninsula was a place neatly, unnaturally scotched by water. From the highest deck of the Delta Queen at Rollover Bay, I could see the Gulf of Mexico only a few homerun swats away, but from that point on we would not catch a glimpse of it again. The canal bends three times at High Island, “High” there meaning 25 feet above sea level. We entered the country of Mud Bayou, which drains Mud Lake by flowing its long, crooked, and unhurried miles northwest even though the Gulf is only 750 yards south. The nature of slow-moving water is to turn upon itself, and in that land of twisted creeks and bayous, straightness is the signature of human hands.
Bayou, marsh , and swamp are not interchangeable words. A bayou is a river, a flowing; a marsh is a wet, sometimes inundated grassland; and a swamp is flooded woodland. Along the central Gulf Coast, those distinctions are useful.
On the north bank lay the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, but except for a few birds one might come across in a city back yard east of the Rockies, I saw no creature whose presence showed I was in a vast watery world unlike any other in the country. Perhaps it was the season or the disturbance of our arrival. We went under a bridge, a thing uncommon enough along the route to cause passengers to rise to see it. Once there were more cable ferries crossing the waterway, but slowly the boats are disappearing, replaced by bridges, leaving overgrown approaches and rotting pilings, and that’s a cultural loss, since the tales and lore that gather around ferry crossings show little capacity to accumulate at steel bridges.
Then, for a couple of dozen miles, save a single negligible jog, the canal runs straight northeastward almost to Port Arthur, Texas; to those who delight in lines curved and sinuous, the route was not especially scenic, but before we could reach the end of the straightaway, darkness overtook us. My lone complaint in traveling on the Delta Queen is that one loses the territory in night passage, never mind that sleep under way is pleasant in the low thrum of the paddle wheel and the easy hum from the engine room. My demur wasn’t shared by those passengers who spent their time napping, reading, playing games, or addressing Christmas cards. (Would the messages include mention of their coming from a “heart of darkness”?).
I awoke just after sunrise to find us tied to the wharf at Port Arthur, a place remarkable for the near-total abandonment of its small downtown. Given that the city bears the name of the railroad magnate Arthur Stilwell, a man who confessed to founding the town, in 1895, on the advice of “brownies” that came to him in the night, perhaps such is the fate of pixiedriven endeavors. Now, the city, following the more terrestrial counsel of the Texas Main Street Program, is working to reinvigorate its historic center.
By early afternoon, under way again, we soon crossed the Neches River to read the northern edge of a large spread of water that I initially took for the Gulf but that proved to be Sabine (suh- BEAN ) Lake, surprisingly shallow for its size. A tall fellow could walk, if sloggingly, four miles across the upper embayment. Even on that body, though, the canal lies almost entirely behind the protection of slender islands before it again enters marsh, where there’s a distant refinery between two channelized bayous. The Texas oil boom began near there at Spindletop, something Stilwell’s brownies may have had in mind when proffering their advice.
Just below the docklands of Orange, Texas, we crossed the Sabine River as if it were simply a highway intersection and entered Louisiana. Ahead lay 21 miles of channel as straight as an engineer can draw and a dredge can dig. Taking a vessel along such a course would seem simple enough, but the captain of the Delta Queen told me otherwise. True enough, the ICW is essentially reckless, currentless, and tideless, and true also, a large boat cannot get lost, but hazards of another sort are everywhere. He said, “On the Mississippi and Ohio, big boats have room to keep clear of each other, but down here we can just about shake hands as we pass. Then there’s the bank suction the hull creates as it displaces water. A stern of a boat tries to go this way, that way. It behaves like the tail end of a dog with worms.”
I was surprised to find how much barge traffic the ICW carries, but not once did I see any pleasure boats, although I heard they are not uncommon in a different season. The haulage on the canal is largely petroleum and chemical compounds like isopropyl alcohol, ethyldiamine, and caustic soda. There’s also salt, scrap metal, agricultural products, all of them moving on low, if huge, barges not built for the open sea. Beyond the ports or the passes to the Gulf, I saw no ships on the canal, and in that way it resembles a wet interstate or rail line and is more terrestrial than nautical.
Where the Calcasieu ( KAL -kah-soo) River enters its lake, the ICW makes a sharp 90-degree turn, bends a few more times, then straightens to pass through a flat world only about three feet above sea level, where shallow lakes and ponds, often surprisingly round, are sometimes hardly distinguishable from the marshes around them. Considering the thousands of miles of drainage ditches in the region, I wondered how much wetter it once must have been. Surely, before engineering, it must have seemed a place just emerging from Noah’s flood. To find one’s way here a century ago through channels that twist as if knotted, along courses that appear only to disappear into the reeds, cane, and willows, must have been a mosquitoridden nightmare.
At Gibbstown, noteworthy for its complete lack of anything you might associate with an actual town such as a house or a human, the Delta Queen entered another huge marsh with a few scattered trees. Halfway through it lies Lake Misere, a lovely thing in that late-autumn afternoon light and, under those conditions, not seeming to deserve its name. But I knew that a flatboat or a canoe would find passage quite different from ours, where the biggest challenge was to resist eating at every waking moment.
Beyond the debouchure of the Mermentau River into Grand Lake, the canal narrows. The ICW avoids the hundreds of lakes lying along its course as if they were islands because its builders, the Army Corps of Engineers, believed it more economical to maintain a ditch dug through what passes there for higher ground than a channel dredged through a shallow lake. The canal often runs for a dozen miles between a series of bays and lagoons lying just beyond a scrim of tall grasses or trees, the open water invisible to anyone at canal level. If you’ve ever been down an English lane between hedgerows, your line of sight entirely contained, then you have an idea of passage here. Happily, my cabin was on the sun deck, high enough above obscuring foliage to open to vistas I couldn’t have seen from a small boat.
The challenge for a voyager along the straight-edged runs is to avoid going numb to the miles of apparent sameness; this is a land for people who do not grow bored in crossing the Great Plains. I like places that challenge a traveler to be patient and to look ever more closely, but, still, it’s true that I began to anticipate bends where I could hope for a sudden change of any kind.
Then we came into an area of what seemed impossible names —Joe Island, Outside Island, Dog Island, Isle Pevley—where no piece of earth appeared to rise more than a couple of inches higher than anything else, yet the rises must have been just enough to qualify as islets, at least in former times. I heard that the names indicate relict islands and that their disappearance and mergence into the landscape reveal the prodigious draining that has happened. Vertical inches count here as do vertical miles in the Rockies.
Verticality appears also in the two kinds of locks and dams on the ICW: those to maintain the water level and others to prevent seawater from salinating the freshness of the bayous and marshes. Except for locks near the Mississippi at New Orleans, the rise or descent in those lowland chambers seems minuscule, but again, inches make huge differences.
Vermilion Bay, a large inlet off the Gulf, is so shallow that 5 miles offshore it’s only 9 feet deep. Barrier islands nearly turn it into a lake, yet here too the canal keeps behind a spongy strip of land. At the east side of Vermilion Bay rises Weeks Island. After three days among the watery flats, I thought Weeks, although surrounded by land, looked indeed like an island, rising as it does 170 feet above the bay. It is a landmark in a terrain where height belongs to trees, grasses, and oil derricks. Weeks is a salt dome that supplies both industry and American tables.
In the last light of our next to last day, the Delta Queen made a right-angle turn and, in the shadow of the big rise, proceeded up a drainage canal leading to a site called the Port of Iberia, which has rather new wharves intended to make the inland Caj un town of New Iberia into a seaport. The route, narrower than the ICW, nearly lets trees in close enough to brush the boat, and, the year before, a squirrel had dropped onto the sun deck of the Queen . A nutria made a waddle across an opening in the scrub and so excited people watching below the pilothouse —they took the rodent for a beaver—that the captain came out to see what the stir was about. He said the year before he’d seen there a Florida panther, now among the rarest big native mammals in the nation. We’d come into another stretch of De Hartog’s “nightmarish country,” but aboard the high deck of the old steamboat I found it merely delightful night country.
Given the pervasive rot resident in such a wetland, even in a cool season, the air was crisply fresh and free of the scent of vegetative decay. In the tall marsh stood occasional fishing and hunting shacks atop stilts, all of them closed up, and everywhere lay an aura that seemed to suggest that humans were temporary intruders that no amount of engineering could ever make otherwise. Water there was but biding time before resuming its long dominion, and the place was neither a paradise lost nor a nightmare country but a vast quagginess challenging its creatures with too much wetness as the Mojave does with too little.
New Iberia, several miles from its port, lies along the Bayou Teche, something too small for the Delta Queen to ascend, so the next morning I took a shuttle through the sugar cane fields into town, one of my favorite places in Louisiana. I idled along Main Street, where I bought a book on alligators by Edward Mcllhenny, a conservationist and son of the inventor of Tabasco sauce. In a small grocery-café, I sat down and read this: “The deep booming roar of a twelve foot male alligator is a sound that once heard will never be forgotten… . Often when near these reptiles as they bellowed, I have felt a very distinct vibration of my diaphragm caused by the trembling of the air. …” I would hear no gators in December, a time of hibernation.
I drank two cups of splendid Cajun coffee, dark and rich enough to use as potting soil. Not far from the old Evangeline Theater, I came upon a black man named Louis Dorsey selling pepper sauce from the back of his pickup truck. He had hopes of sharing in some of the millions that Tabasco brands earn their owners, whose plant is just down the road. He ladled up a taste of his Brother-in-Law hot sauce made of only three ingredients, two of them right fnrn the parish: peppers and salt. His vinegar came from elsewhere. The stuff sparkled with piquance.
That afternoon the Delta Queen headed back to the ICW, and I lost the waterscapes in the darkness. In the middle of the night we crossed the Atchafalaya River at Morgan City, a town, according to some geologists, destined to end up on the banks of, or under, the Mississippi when the big river at last breaks through more than a hundred miles north to capture the Atchafalaya and take a shorter course to the Gulf. It’s virtually impossible to speak of anything of consequence in coastal Louisiana without understanding that under every prediction, perception, and piece of history is water.
Dawn caught us near antebellum Houma, a seafood-canning town that also supplies gear to offshore oil platforms. As we proceeded through the morning, ever approaching New Orleans, the waterway still seemed too remote to lie at the edge of such a large city. Two hours before sundown, we reached the Harvey Lock and passed by a raised bridge where rush-hour drivers waited to cross. They watched in surprise at seeing an old stern-wheeler chug before them and stepped out to wave as the boat blew her sweet steam whistle, whether to them or to the lock tender I didn’t know, but it made all of us happy, that sound from an era before five o’clock traffic.
On the other side of the lock and across the Mississippi were the French Quarter and, a bit farther, the home wharf of the Delta Queen . We had steamed 350 miles through a realm only a boat can reach to reveal a land that even today, in spite of all the engineering, still wears a face of an almost lost world. If few travelers except the determinedly curious choose to see it, the coastal country will be better for missing the others.