In Twain’s Wake

Mint juleps and Magic Fingers on the Mississippi

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.

The first morning, I emerged from my refrigerated burrow to find the air thick and heavy and sweet smelling. From the third deck, I could see over the grassy levee to Oak Alley, a Louisiana sugar plantation at the end of a corridor of 300-year-old live oaks, whose limbs could span a sports arena. I wandered over and joined an early tour, led by a hoopskirted guide who spoke in that singsong monotone used to hypnotize tourists and make them think that tarnished table settings are interesting. The house was grand, but not nearly as grand as the oaks. Near the back door I found a mint-julep stand, where a very service­able cocktail could be bought, even at that early hour, and enjoyed under the oaks. (One advantage of a stateroom with no window is that it’s much easier to recalibrate your biological clock.)

The subsequent days unfolded pretty much in this manner: Mornings were given to the exploration of one town or another; then the whistle would blow, the calliope would begin its fiendish racket, and the ship would resume its slow churn up the river. Afternoons and evenings were spent eating, attending history lectures, and sitting in deck chairs, where the vibration from the engine created a Magic Fingers effect; inevitably, I would find myself in a row of dozing passengers, our heads secured to our chests with great hawsers of drool.

The second morning, still in Louisiana, I walked a mile from the river into St. Francisville, an unsettlingly bucolic village of shops selling antiques and new things that looked antique, and tidy homes, many of which had statues of Saint Francis tucked into their yards. Another day, in Natchez, Mississippi, I watched a Memorial Day parade that consisted almost exclusively of African American veterans and spectators—someone onboard later explained that this holiday, formerly called Decoration Day to commemorate the Union dead, is still considered an impolite reminder of times past, and not everyone participates. In stately Vicksburg, Mississippi, I took a historical walking tour and heard about life in the intricate caves dug during the 47-day Union siege, when the town was dubbed “Prairie Dog Village.” At the antebellum courthouse, now a local history museum, I learned that the Union flag was run up the flagpole on July 4, 1863, signaling the town’s surrender and ruining another perfectly good holiday: The Fourth of July hasn’t really been celebrated in Vicksburg since.

After one full day spent chugging up the river, which triggered a fiercer-than-usual competition for deck chairs, we put in at Helena, Arkansas. Twain wrote that he’d heard it was a “hell of a place,” adding that this description “was photographic for exactness.” But this turned out to be my favorite stop. Helena is like a 45-rpm record with something predictable and uninteresting on one side, and unexpected and fascinating on the other. The predictable part is the town itself—a long main street lined with vacant and underused storefronts displaying the weary ennui of a place that commerce long ago passed by. Even the mortar between the bricks seems to be giving up and heading elsewhere.

On the flip side is Helena’s historical role as a hub of Mississippi Delta blues. I stopped by the Delta Cultural Center and chatted with “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, who’s been hosting the King Biscuit Time blues radio show for 56 years. At the Malco Theater, I heard James “Super Chikan” Johnson put on a terrific show using handmade guitars. At Bubba’s Blues Corner record shop, I rooted through acres of vintage vinyl, and the owner, Bubba Sullivan, took me outside to point out the curtained windows of a former nightclub where Robert Johnson used to play and an auditorium where Elvis once set local teenagers swooning. This moribund town is happily occupied by a host of spirits.

Back on the ship for our last night on the river, I headed to the Front Porch, a covered deck that dominated the bow and was arrayed with an arc of white porch rockers. The best time here was around eight each evening, when half the passengers were seated for dinner and the other half were in the rococo Grand Saloon watching a revue of popular song, staged amid flouncy petticoats and rakishly angled top hats.

As usual, I had the porch to myself and could just sit and watch the riverbank unspool. The single biggest surprise of the trip, for me, was how utterly empty the landscape is north of Baton Rouge. At times, the shores felt lonely enough that we might have been ascending a river in the Canadian wilds.

The night grew darker, and the captain fired up a massive spotlight, sending upriver a great silver cylinder that glittered with the confetti of confused insects. From the dark void ahead of us, rubies and emeralds came sparkling back off the reflectors on the navigational buoys. A full moon had risen over the east bank, and it moved slowly from one bracketed porch column to another, the ship serving as a sort of Victorian Stonehenge to mark the loopy curves of the river.

Around midnight, an apricot-colored dome of light over Memphis came into view. New Orleans was historically the center of the river’s trade, but no longer. Today, Memphis—about a third of the way from the river’s mouth to its source—has at least twice the population of New Orleans. It’s also the home of FedEx, whose purple-and-orange cargo jets have arguably replaced the steamship as the keystone of modern commerce.

Off on the northern horizon, arriving and departing planes circled the urban glow like fireflies around a campfire. The view was perhaps not as romantic as that of the ornate crowns of steamship smokestacks bobbing along the wharves of old New Orleans. But it was lovely all the same.