Ever since seeing "Show Boat" in my local cinema as a teenager, I have wanted to cruise up the Mississippi River on a paddlewheel steamer.
Now, here I am on the dock in New Orleans, Louisiana, waiting to board The American Queen. Adorned with layers of lacy white balconies, a scarlet paddlewheel and towering, ebony smoke stacks, the Queen certainly lives up to her name both outside and within. With the rollicking sound of the boat's calliope and the thrashing of the paddlewheel in the background, we pull away from port and I head for the Chart Room, where "Riverlorian" Jerry Hay fills us in on some essential facts. The river got its name from the Native American word Missis-Sepi (large river). And large it is, flowing about 2,300 miles (or 3,700 kilometers) from its headwaters in Itasca State Park, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. It was probably first viewed by Europeans when Hernando de Soto saw it in 1541, and 130 years later René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claimed the river for France. It didn't become part of the U.S. until 1803, when Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.
A Riverfront Lined with Plantations and Wealthy Towns
In the first half of the 19th-century, when the river was lined with millionaires' cotton and sugar-cane plantations and thriving port towns, it was a major highway filled with steamboats, barges, keel boats and other vessels. Among their crew members was a river pilot named Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, who put the river's colorful lifestyle on the international map with such novels as Life on the Mississippi, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Then came the 1861-65 American Civil War, which defeated the Southern Confederacy, ended the plantation lifestyle and decimated some of the riverside towns, notably Vicksburg, Mississippi, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) upriver and our ultimate destination.
Whereas in 1833 there were more than 1,200 steamboats on the river, today there are very few. Only the 436-passenger American Queen, built in 1995 as the largest steamboat ever and then refitted and relaunched in 2012, travels long distances up the Mississippi and its tributary Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Along the way, it visits such cities as Memphis (its home port) and Chattanooga, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri; St. Paul, Minnesota; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, plus numerous smaller communities and plantations.
The American Queen makes stops at many notable Mississippi River plantations like the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana, where re-enactors show visitors what it was like to live on the grounds in the 1800s.
A Visit to a Hollywood Film Set Plantation
Next day we reach our first stop, Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. With its avenue of 300-year-old, Spanish-moss-swathed oak trees leading to a majestic Greek Revival mansion fronted by 28 colossal Doric columns; it's straight out of a Hollywood film. In fact, numerous films have been made here, including Interview with the Vampire, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which featured Bette Davis, not to forget Beyonce's Déjà Vue music video.
After a tour of Oak Alley, we are off on a short minibus ride to nearby and even-more-fascinating Laura Plantation. Its main house was built in the quite-different Creole style, raised off the ground above a brick cellar, with tall, French doors opening from the wide porch direct into the living accommodation. Here we are given more insight into the area's pre-Civil War lifestyle. Among the things we learn is that the famous Uncle Remus folk stories (featuring B'rer Rabbit, among other animal characters), which are usually attributed to Georgia-based white author, Joel Chandler Harris, actually originated from West African folk tales.
The bright-yellow Laura Plantation house was built in a Creole style and shelters plenty of fascinating Southern history.
Natchez Attracts Spring and Autumn Pilgrims
Disembarking the next day at Natchez, Mississippi, which may only number 20,000 residents, but it is one of the best-known towns along the river, primarily because its beautiful, antebellum mansions attract spring and autumn "pilgrimages" to the area. Welcomed by southern belles in ornate, hoop-skirt-supported gowns, we tour Rosalie Mansion, which, during the Civil War, was commandeered to serve as the Union Army headquarters; Magnolia Hall, built as the residence of a wealthy cotton broker; and elegant Stanton Hall, its grounds occupying an entire city block.
Whereas Natchez emerged from the Civil War intact, our next stop, Vicksburg, was subjected to a traumatic, 47-day Union siege during which residents were reduced to eating rodents and sheltering in caves. Meanwhile, about 37,000 soldiers were either killed or wounded in the nearby battle, which was considered a turning point in the war.
Rather than tour the battlefield, I decide to explore the city, starting with the hilltop Old Courthouse Museum, crammed with exhibits and memorabilia of the Old South, followed by visits to the Church of the Holy Trinity, with its six Tiffany, stained-glass windows honoring the Civil War deceased of both the North and South. Then, I make a brief stop at the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, located in a former candy store whose owner first bottled the famous beverage.
Beautiful Stanton Hall in Natchez, Mississippi, was built in 1857 by Irish cotton merchant Frederick Stanton.
Baton Rouge and the Bayou Legacy of Huey Long
Headed back down river, we dock at the Louisiana state capital, Baton Rouge, where, after a savory Cajun lunch and appropriate music and dancing at rather-touristic Boudin's, we head for the Louisiana State Capitol where popular but controversial Governor Huey Long was assassinated in 1935, inspiring both a novel and films. Next comes the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum, which consists of numerous, traditional rural buildings plus a huge, rustic museum filled with agricultural and other memorabilia.
On our final day, we are scheduled to visit Houmas House, "The Crown Jewel of Louisiana's River Road," but by now the river level has risen so high that it is impossible for The American Queen to anchor at the plantation dock, so we return early to New Orleans. Some passengers depart the next day for a bus tour back to the plantation or on a Bayou Swamp Tour. I decide instead to spend more time in lovely, old New Orleans ... and that's a whole other story.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Essentially America magazine.
More experiences nearby
Baton Rouge: 4 Seasons of Seafood
Houma: True Cajun Hospitality
Lake Charles: Nature Trails and Boudin Tales
New Orleans: City with Heart and Soul