Travels November 2007

In Twain’s Wake

Mint juleps and Magic Fingers on the Mississippi
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VIDEO: Click the image above to watch a short film of Wayne Curtis's musical adventures on the Mississippi
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In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote:

Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812. At the end of thirty years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more, it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature.

Twain, it turns out, had exaggerated steamboating’s demise. Steam-driven ships persisted for years, and even today a tiny fleet plies the river, catering to nostalgics, history buffs, collectors of cruise experiences, and people who wear T-shirts that read “I’m retired. Go around me.”

Also see:

Video: Mississippi Melodies
The author explores the banks of Old Man River and meets a blues legend named James "Super Chikan" Johnson in this short film.

The Travel Advisory
A guide to steamboat rides down the Mississippi River

I’d wanted to take a trip on the Mississippi ever since reading Twain in high school—not a very original thought, I admit, and one easily ignored for decades, right up until last year, when I moved to New Orleans and realized I knew nearly nothing about the river. So one afternoon this past May, I headed to the wharf behind the convention center, bags in hand, and boarded the American Queen for Memphis, some 640 river miles and seven days north.

The American Queen was launched in 1995 and holds more than 400 passengers. At 418 feet long, it’s the largest steamboat ever built. It has a bright-red wooden stern wheel that looks ornamental, like those waterwheels in front of some country-themed restaurants. But this wheel actually propels the ship, which is actually powered by tandem steam engines dating from 1932 and salvaged from an earlier vessel. (In other respects, the American Queen is reassuringly modern, with devices like radar, bow thrusters, and diesel-electric Z-drives. It’s also much safer than the first generation of steamboats, whose boilers had a propensity to suddenly blow up, “sending a score or two of parboiled passengers to an inconvenient altitude,” as one writer put it in 1833.)

I booked the cheapest inside stateroom available—the cruise equivalent of steerage. My room was roughly 10 by 10 and had no windows. It did have an air-conditioning vent that vented with enviable brio. Overall, the room was comfortable and well kept, like the den of an uncommonly tidy hedgehog.

Still, I spent almost all my waking hours in the public spaces, which are large, elaborate, and numerous. More than a century ago, Twain wrote that to step aboard a steamship was to enter “a new and marvellous world … a bewildering and soul-satisfying spectacle!” It still is. The American Queen is stacked like a five-layer wedding cake and done up in the fussy high-Victorian style favored by the sort of bed-and-breakfasts I usually avoid. But here the furnishings seemed wholly appropriate. The Mark Twain Gallery, in the middle of the second deck, had a glossy wooden floor, wingback chairs, Tiffany-style lamps, and ship models in glass cases. On the same level, on the port side toward the bow, was the Ladies’ Parlor, which had live parakeets, marble busts of minor deities, floral wallpaper, and that ornately carved walnut furniture that’s no more appealing to look at than it is to sit on. Across the way, on the starboard side, was the Gentlemen’s Card Room. This was dark and very manly, and had a mounted boar’s head on one wall and a stuffed bear in a corner. Also featured was a rack of truncheon-like exercise clubs, which made me a little sad that I had forgotten to bring my one-piece striped gym outfit and handlebar mustache for morning calisthenics.

The options higher up were equally inviting, with both open and covered decks and a postage-stamp-sized swimming pool on the topmost level. Here you could get the full effect of the calliope, an old-fashioned steam organ that let loose with melodious eructations whenever the ship left port. Its sound was exactly the opposite of a pipe organ’s: Where the latter rouses one with deep bass notes, the calliope thrills with piercingly high ones. It is, however, a thrill I believe best experienced only once.

The first steamships distorted time and space along the Mississippi. A journey that had taken rivermen several months, drifting on cargo-laden flatboats down the river to New Orleans and returning home by foot, was compressed into a few weeks. Upriver ports were suddenly accessible from downriver, and goods could travel two ways.

Modern steamships also distort time and space along the river, but contrarily—making distances seem longer and time more sluggish. The days I spent on the boat unfolded with an agreeable languor. I’d awaken most mornings to general quiet, the engines silenced and the ship tethered to a riverbank somewhere. For all its bulk, the American Queen doesn’t need much in the way of infrastructure to come calling—just a place to tie up and a spot to swing out the long gangway. In seven days, we stopped at six towns in four states. Bus tours were offered at each, but I did my exploring on foot; clambering onto a bus and viewing the countryside through tinted glass seemed counter to the spirit of steamship travel.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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