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Cruising up the River.

Eight-thirty in the evening on the Mississippi River: Churning against the current, the Mississippi Queen, outsizing and outsplendoring such grand paddlewheelers of early days as the Robert E. Lee and the Joe Fowler ... passengers (second seating) savoring in the dining saloon Filet of Sole a la Marguery or Prime Rib of Beef or Roast Brace of Quail a l'Orange ... dancers in the Grand Saloon swinging to the rhythm of the Dixieland Express band--shades of Bourbon Street... ragtime piano and banjo music attracting many to the Paddle Wheel Lounge --with everyone rising when "Dixie" is sung...a tugboat announcing with a whistle blast a parade of barges moving downstream 'round a bend ... the steamboat responding with her own whistle ....

Steamboatin' on the Mississippi ....For those who have wanted to try it for many years since reading Mark Twain in their youth, the experience beckons as a special adventure in nostalgia. So longing, as the old river folk song goes, "to git up the rivuh on the big streamboat" --and to go back a bit in time on land as well as on water--we boarded the Mississippi Queen at New Orleans. When we debarked a week later at Memphis, we could only wonder, "What do we do now for an encore?"

Today various cruises are available on the Mississippi and Ohio, traveling either on the Mississippi Queen or on her older sister paddlewheeler, the Delta Queen. We had chosen the Mississippi Queen's seven-day cruise on the lower Mississippi because we had lived mostly in the North and wanted to learn more about the South. We began learning fast on our first morning as we awakened to find the steamboat docked at the old river landing of Louisiana's famed Houmas Plantation.

After breakfasting outdoors on the Queen's Sun Deck, with the scent of sweet olive wafting from the riverbank, we walked up a levee, then through formal flower gardens to the plantation's Houmas House. Shaded by 30-foot high magnolia trees and majestic live oaks, the antebellum mansion is surrounded by 14 tall, white, Doric columns. It has long beckoned to various moviemakers, including those who produced Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte, starring Bette Davis.

Built in 1840 by Johns Smith Preston, the mansion and its plantation were sold in 1858 for a million dollars to an Irishman, John Burnside. During the Civil War, when General Benjamin Butler tried to occupy the house and plantation, at 20,000 acres the nation's leading sugar producer, Burnside declared his immunity as a British subject. Thus, Houmas was spared disastrous occupation by the Union forces and the ravages of war that other plantations in the area suffered. Today it is just the way it was in antebellum times.

On the Mississippi Queen that night there was Southern graciousness, too, at the Captain's Champagne Reception. Most women passengers wore long evening dresses for the occasion. And the Dixieland Express band began the music for dancing with a waltz.

The next day the Queen stopped at the little Louisiana town of St. Francisville (population 1,500), and that provided another opportunity for visiting an old mansion and large plantation of special significance--Rosedown.

Considered one of the outstanding treasures of the South, the mansion of Rosedown was built in 1835 by Daniel Turnbull, a welthy cotton planter, and his wife, Martha. Riverboats that carried their cotton to New Orleans returned with elegant furniture specially designed by America's finest craftsmen, wall covergins from Paris and chandeliers, silver and marble statuary from Italy.

A massive, four-poster bed fashioned for Henry Clay, defeated candidate for President, was too large for any bedroom. But that offered only a minor problem. A wing with bedroom of suitable size was added to Rosedown House.

The Turnbulls, after viewing formal gardens in Europe, laid our their own extensive gardens in the semi-wilderness setting, eventually covering ten acres.

Then, in St. Francisville, we came to another antebellum home, not as large or as luzurious as Rosedown, but well worth visiting because of the warm hospitality extended by the couple who own and live in it today. This is Virginia House, built in 1855 and restored in 1968 by Sam and Nancy Vinci.

The following day early-morning risers on the Mississippi queen were able to watch the docking at Natchez. The huge boat, her seven decks longer than football fields, eased to the riverbank with no difficulty because she draws only eight feet of water. Crewmen tossed thick ropes on the sloping, sandy shore, then pulled the ropes up to a bluff where they tied them to sturdy trees. It was like a scene out of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi.

Actually, we were not at Natchez proper, but at Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Once this was the city's roaring waterfront district. Now it has dwindled to a landing dock and a single street with wooden sidewalks and a few old buildings dominated by an antique shop and a restaurant (catfish a specialty, of course). Years ago, the Mississippi carried away most of this part of town.

Because Civil War attacks by Union forces eased off in the area after the fall of Vicksburg upriver, much of old Natchez is intact. Special historic status has been given to more than 200 of the city's structures, many of them complete down to their ornate iron fences, cloaked anew each year with fresh-blooming jasmine. Prefabricated houses are even included--floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the 1830s. Natchez folk work hard to keep the historic structures from showing their age, then promptly--and proudly--tell it.

During the golden era of cotton, Natchez had most of the millionaires in the United States--at least nine, perhaps ten. They had their plantations across the Mississippi River in the rich lowlands of Louisiana, but they built their mansions on the high ground of Mississippi's Natchez. It would take many days to visit all the Mansions of distinction open daily to the public. (At some of them, it is possible to obtain bed and breakfast--grits and baking-powder biscuits included.)

If only a single mansion is visited, however, we would recommend the magnificent one that climaxed our tour of Natchez--Stanton Hall. Built in the 1850s by Frederick Stanton as a reproduction of his Irish ancestral home, Stanton Hall and yard occupy an entire city block. The mansion's parlor and music room combined are 70 feet long. Doorknobs are of silver, and chandeliers of bronze, intricately carved to depict the city's history.

For ten years, Stanton planned each detail of the mansion. He died after living in it only three months.

Next stop: Vicksburg. Although badly battered during the Civil War, Vicksburg (population 25,400) has many historic structures, varying from Cedar Grove house, which still has a cannonball lodged in the wall of its luxurious parlor, to be old downtown building housing the Biedenharn Candy Company Museum. The museum honors a Vicksburg candy-store and soda-fountain operator named Joseph A. Biedenhar, who in 1894 had an idea that was to shape the American, and later the international, soft-drink industry. He bottled a popular beverage he dispensed at his soda fountain and distributed it to rural areas surrounding Vicksburg. The name of the beverage? Coca-Cola.

Dominating the city's history from a bluff, however, is the Vicksburg National Military Park. Hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers, many unknown, who died in the battles and siege of Vicksburg are buried in the park, and all who fought at the site are honored by more than 1,400 monuments, memorials and tablets.

The battleground was once cotton fields. Now it is lush with green grass and shaded by giant oaks. It is a scene of tranquil beauty, of deserved honor, of restored unity.

We were taken to it on a breeze-tempered morning in a taxi driven by Dennis McClean. A native of Vicksburg, he proved to be a real student of the Civil War. He told us:

"President Lincoln decided it was vital that the Union forces gain control of the Mississippi River--to expedite movement of troops and supplies and to divide the South. 'Vicksburg is the key,' Old Abe declared. 'We must have it in our pocket.'"

But pocketing Vicksburg was a tremendous assignment for General Grant. McLean pointed to ridges Grant's troops twice attacked in efforts to breach Vicksburg's heavy fortifications and twice failed to take, with great losses on both sides.

"Deciding that attack was too costly," related McLean, "Grant then began the 47-day siege and bombardment of Vicksburg, with the Confederates finally surrendering on July 4, 1863."

Still to be seen are the remains of nine Confederate forts, 12 of 13 Union approaches and miles of breast-works--some with cannons in place, some with intact caves that served as quarters for the defenders, Even the old trench lines can be discerned. Many of these soldiers who fought there never made it home and are at eternal ease in the beautiful Vicksburg National Military Park.

That afternoon the Mississippi Queen headed up the Mississippi again, not to pause until she reached our port of debarkation, Memphis. That left us three nights and two days to get really acquainted with the Queen.

And a queen she is. Her designers first made her so with appointments such as her grand, mirrored stairway (augmented, of course, by elevators). But mostly her status is exemplified by the royal--and warm--manner with which we were treated by crew and staff members. And the service. . . Well, we rarely returned to our immaculately kept, air-conditioned stateroom without finding fresh towels.

On the Mississippi queen, we could do as much as we wanted to do--far into the night--or as little. There were bridge lessons and bridge playing, exercise classes, relaxation in the sauna, dips in the Jacuzz/pool, bingo, movies, kite flying, opportunity (for the musically inclined) to play the boat's many-whistled calliope, delightful dining on Southern cooking with innovative Creole and Cajun touches (we quit counting calories when the dessert was served at the Captain's champagne dinner--baked Alaska), nightly entertainment and dancing, with a Mardi Gras ball held one night (costumes for those who felt up to them).

Some of the time we just enjoyed watching the river traffic and wondering how those little tugboats could push so much more than their weight or visiting with newly made friends among the 412 passengers.

On the entire trip, we were without television or radio, and during the final days we had no newpapers. For us, the world beyond the Mississippi had stopped, and the pause gave us a refreshing new outlook on life.

On our last night, we were at our favorite spot--a corner table in the Paddle Wheel Lounge. There we listened to Steve Spracklen thumping the ragtime piano, Fred Dodd plunking his banjo so hard he broke a string and Sheri Conner, "Red Hot Mama of the Mississippi," singing anything the other two could play or vice-versa.

For dining while listening to the music in the lounge, we had the late-night buffet. Ah, the size of those gulf shrimp! For watching through windows, there was the boat's paddlewheel, turning, turning. The only things missing from the scene were wealthy plantation owners, sitting at a round table, puffing long black cheroots, downing bourbon and playing highstakes poker. But, we knew, we couldn't have everything before the Mississippi Queen docked at Memphis.
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Title Annotation:Mississippi steamboat ride
Author:Gibbs, Rafe
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1984
Previous Article:Inside tips on outdoor cooking.
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