Stern-wheeling on the Mississippi to and from the world's fair at New Orleans.
The upcoming Olympic Games have Westerners so preoccupied that only a few people are aware that a big world's fair is going to be held in New Orleans this year. Officially, it's the Louisiana World Exposition, and it will run from May 12 through November 11. The aerial photograph above looks down upon most of the fair's 84-acre site in downtown New Orleans, right on the Mississippi River. That river, so basically important to New Orleans, is also the focus of the exposition, whose theme is "The World of Rivers --Fresh Water as a Source of Life.' One feature at the fair's riverfront park will be the frequent presence of two operating, overnight river cruise stern-wheelers: the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen.
It its 184 days, the exposition is expected to draw 11 million visitors. And the two riverboats in their 33 fair-visiting trips will carry close to 11,000 passengers.
Crusing on the Mississippi
The fair-connected trips planned by the Delta Queen Steamboat Company range from four-day cruises from New Orleans to Natchez and return to several 10- and 11-day trips that begin as far away as St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. The greatest number will run from New Orleans to Natchez and Vicksburg, both in Mississippi.
All trips will leave from and return to a dock at the fairgrounds. On 16 of the trips, the riverboat will tie up there for two extra days at the end of the cruise, allowing passengers to use it as a hotel during their visit to the fair.
Much of the time you're underway, you look out at tree-covered levees--a pleasant and constantly changing sight. Watching and land with occasional references to navigation maps like the one shown above makes the trip especially interesting and informative.
The maps full of river-abandoned meanders show you plainly what a huge and powerful river the Mississippi is and how, over the centuries, it has done whatever it wanted to the terrain.
Life aboard the river boats is similar to life on ocean-going cruise ships. Excellent food and entertainment abound. Activities include nightclub shows, dancing, movies, historical lectures, a calliope-playing contest, even a kite-flying contest. You can be as active or as lazy as you choose.
Quarters are luxurious and comfortable: more contemporary on the Mississippi Queen (finished in 1976), more reminiscent of the old days on the Delta Queen.
The Delta Queen was built in Stockton. California, in the mid-1920s. From 1927 to 1940, it and its companion vessel the Delta King steamed nightly between the Ferry Building in San Francisco and the M Street Wharf in Sacramento. Fares then ranged from $5 for a room with bath to 50 cents for men-only single berths on the lower deck.
Shore touring: river towns, plantations, Civil War lore
The shore tours you take on these lower Mississippi trips are mostly to places that reflect some aspect of pre-Civil War days in the South or of the war itself. You visit several big plantation houses (the biggest is shown on page 74) and several town-houses built before the war.
Baton Rouge. Here you walk through Louisiana State University's fascinating 5-acre Rural Life Museum, which includes a re-creation of a pre-Civil War plantation, with slave quarters, cook-houses, mills, and farm buildings.
Natchez. This was one of America's richest cities when the Civil War began. Although shelled by Union gunboats (and captured in July 1863), it doesn't show grief scars the way Vicksburg does. In Natchez, there are dozens of beautiful antebellum houses that you can visit. Guided bus tours take you from the river landing to three houses in the morning, three others in the afternoon.
Vicksburg. You visit historic buildings in town and the site of the Battle of Vicksburg, where you will get some idea of how that 1863 seige and battle developed. In terms of lives lost (31,621), it ranks with Gettysburg as one of the Confederacy's two most tragic encounters.
Look closely at the portion of the river navigation map reproduced on page 72. In addition to showing you how strategically important Vicksburg's bluffs were in the Civil War, the fine print on the map section reveals a bit more history.
Just to the left of the center of the map, look for a wide portion of the river labeled "Centennial Cutoff (1876).' Nature formed that cutoff during high waters that year. Interestingly, General U.S. Grant had his troops try to dig such a cutoff in the months before he and other Union generals besieged Vicksburg and took it from the east.
For more on cruises and the fair
Fair-connected trips range in cost from $460 to $1,300 per person on a 4-night trip (to Natchez and return) and $1,150 to $3,500 per person on a 10-night cruise (St. Louis to New Orleans). Costs include fare and meals; sightseeing trips are extra. For details on the two riverboats and their schedules, write to Delta Queen Steamboat Co., 511 Main St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, or call (800) 543-1949.
For fair information, write to Louisiana World Exposition, Box 1984, New Orleans 70158, or call (504) 525-FAIR.
Photo: Fair's major features are numbered on a photo taken in late December 1983
1. Mississippi River at New Orleans, busiest U.S. port in total tonnage
2. Bridge to Algiers, Louisiana; parallel span on this side will be completed in 1985
3. U.S. Pavilion will demonstrate federal government's role in water management
4. Section of dock where Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen will tie up
5. International Pavilion will house exhibits by 22 countries
6. The Amphitheater will seat 5,500 for top-name performances. Backdrop is river
7. Monorail, a 1.4-mile circle with three stations, will carry up to 3,400 passengers per hour
8. Centennial Plaza will have lagoon, oil and electric pavilions; it commemorates Cotton Exposition of 1884
9. Terminal for gondola that will carry passengers 350 feet above river to Algiers
10. The Great Hall: 15 acres of exhibits by states, cities, corporations, others
11. Railroad corridor: footbridges and monorail take you over the busy tracks
12. Downtown New Orleans: corner of Canal and Bourbon streets just 1/2 mile away
Photo: Mighty paddle wheels propel steamboats at 7 mph going upstream, 12 mph downstream thanks to the current
Photo: These two steamboats will carry passengers up and down the river from the fair: the 285-foot Delta Queen (with single stack) and the 382-foot Mississippi Queen. The two seldom travel together
Photo: Vicksburg, as mapped in the Mississippi River navigation book above. During the Civil War, the river flowed where Vicksburg harbor is now; whichever army held the town and the bluffs above that hairpin turn had strategic control of the river. The book charts the river from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico. Copies are on the boats for passengers to peruse
Photo: Along the deep-water stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, you'll see ocean-going vessels like the one ahead
Photo: Churning downstream, towboat Parthenon pushes 25 barges carrying 37,500 tons of grain from St. Paul, Minnesota, to New Orleans for export. Each barge carries bulk cargo equal to the capacity of 30 railroad freight cars
Photo: Nottaway, Louisiana, is the South's largest plantation home, with 64 rooms. It's on every steamboat cruise from the fair