NEW ORLEANS • The moisture settles into your pores as another humid day unravels on the banks of the Mississippi.
Live calliope music rises like cheerful bird calls from the roof of the Steamboat Natchez, the last authentic steamboat on the river, as up to 800 folks climb on board for a jazz cruise that offers sightseeing and an optional Creole lunch, dinner or brunch for the gastronomically inclined.
Guests work to snag a chair on the deck of the historical behemoth before it departs Toulouse Street Dock. This floating lady (boats always seem to be a “she”) is 265 feet long, 46 feet wide and has a gross tonnage of 1,384.
She was built in 1975, the ninth boat named Natchez, a line that dates to the early 1900s.
“You’ll realize she looks like her predecessors,” said Adrienne Thomas, marketing and public relations director for Steamboat Natchez. “For a boat to have the name, she has to follow a lineup of boats with that name. One was in the famous race with the Robert E. Lee (steamboat). She comes from a long lineage. She’s built as a steamboat would be built at that time, as far as design, the line of the boat and her stacks.”
The 1800s and early 1900s were the era of the steamboat, when the river acted as a super highway through the middle of the country and boats carried the essentials: people, mail, produce.
“They just kind of disappeared,” Thomas said. “When trucks and interstates came in, steamboats weren’t needed anymore. They gradually went out of business and were decommissioned.”
Leftover boats were used for cruises, entertainment and even steamboat races. Steamboat Natchez last raced in 2006 and might participate again someday. In 2000, she raced to raise money for the restoration of the St. Louis Cathedral, a New Orleans icon.
On this sunny fall day in The Big Easy, as she begins her journey downriver, eager tourists stand ready to devour the sights on the riverbanks. Others duck below deck to marvel at the giant engine that powers her through the waters.
The two-hour cruise takes its occupants more than 7 miles toward the Gulf of Mexico at a speed of 7½ mph. Live narration on the outgoing trip provides history while live jazz — a three-piece by day and the six-piece Dukes of Dixieland at night — plays on the return.
Cruisers pass the French Quarter, a battlefield from the War of 1812, the Domino sugar plant that’s still producing, docked military vessels and fellow boats traveling the river, such as fuel tankers bringing in items from Central and South America.
“Sometimes the perception is they’re going to see Scarlett O’Hara waving from a plantation,” Thomas said. “But New Orleans was founded because it was a strategic port on the river. It’s still a major port in the country.”