The steamboat whistle sounds, the red paddlewheel begins churning the water, and as the boat pulls away from the landing, the calliope plays the toe-tapping Mississippi Mud.
Steamboating on the Mississippi River — with today’s amenities — is like traveling back in time to a more gracious era when this was a major mode of travel from point to point on the nation’s rivers.
Nancy Grow, Houston, Texas, president of the Alumni Travel Group, says cruises make all types of reunions a fun adventure, but a steamboat cruise is a special experience.
Earlier this year, alumni from four universities boarded the largest of the company’s three steamboats, the magnificent American Queen, for a seven-day cruise from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Memphis, Tennessee.
“We had a very good time,” Grow said. “The boat was small enough that everyone got acquainted and we did all sorts of fun things — like flying kites. “Here were fellows in their 60s and 70s, executives with major companies, having a wonderful time flying kites from the deck.”
Activities are planned onboard throughout the day and night, from line dancing lessons and exercise sessions to trivia games, Bingo and scavenger hunts. Movies are shown daily or passengers can go ashore for sightseeing during the day. On the Southern segment along the Mississippi, tours of plantations and quaint river towns are among the highlights.
But some people prefer to relax and plan their own activities, like a bridge game or reading in one of the beautifully decorated parlors reminiscent of Mark Twain’s riverboat era. An insurance agent from Oklahoma said she usually stayed aboard and enjoyed finding quiet spots to read or talk to other passengers.
Most steamboaters unwind with the leisurely movement of the vessel and enjoy the gracious service and amenities provided by a polite, friendly staff. A small onboard library offers books, magazines and table games.
Steamboating combines learning with fun. A river historian–an important crew member called a “Riverlorian”–gives a new lecture daily about the history of the Mississippi and events that impact life along the river.
In the boat’s grand saloon, talented entertainers perform nightly musical shows, ranging from Cajun to ’50s themes. After dinner, there’s music for dancing or listening until late into the night.
During a holiday cruise aboard the (late) Mississippi Queen, four blonde sisters from Tennessee, all dressed in black cocktail dresses, posed on a staircase for a family photograph. Their mother and aunt joined them for a “just us girls” fun cruise, a mini-family reunion.
The Delta Queen’s three boats are true steamboats, propelled by paddlewheels and powered by condensing steam engines. Some modern auxiliary systems have been added to aid navigation and docking. The vessels travel the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; the Illinois River from Grafton to Ottawa, Illinois; the Ohio to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the Arkansas River and the Intracoastal Waterway from Mobile, Alabama, to Galveston, Texas. Cruise length varies from three to 11 nights.
Each vessel owned by the company has its own character. Built in 1926, the charming, all-wood Delta Queen is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and can accommodate 174 passengers. The beautiful Mississippi Queen was built in 1976 and refurbished in 1996, and sleeps 414 guests. American Queen, the largest paddlewheeler to ever travel the Mississippi River, was built in 1995 and holds 436 passengers. Many cruise packages are offered.
For reunions that don’t want overnight stays on the river, companies in major cities along the Mississippi offer day cruises. A few days after their annual family reunion picnic in St. Paul, Minnesota, several members of the Haupt family enjoyed a luncheon cruise together aboard the Harriet Bishop. Check with local visitors’ bureaus for information.
Whether for a few hours or several days, a cruise on this great river is a memorable experience, combining history and heritage of this nation with elegant hospitality. About the author
The late Regina Hines, CGRS, was city editor of The Mississippi Press in Pascagoula and wrote regular genealogy columns for The Mississippi Press and The Sun Herald, Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi. She was a graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia and has lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for about 50 years.