VIDEO: Click the image above to watch a short film of Wayne Curtis's musical adventures on the Mississippi
(Video will open in new window)
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.”
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.)