When you fly into the Louis Armstrong International Airport, the first thing you’ll see is the mighty Mississippi River. It dominates not only the landscape, but the life of the city of New Orleans. It is the reason why the colony was first settled nearly 300 years ago, and still provides the water supply, the economic engine, and the majority of transport traffic in the city.
One of the best ways to take in all of the sites along the shoreline of the Crescent City is by riding the river on the Steamboat Natchez. The ninth steamer to bear the name NATCHEZ, it was her predecessor, NATCHEZ VI, that raced the ROBERT E. LEE in the most famous steamboat race of all time. Even today, the NATCHEZ is proudly the undisputed champion of the Mississippi, never having been beaten in a race. In many ways, she’s the best of her line.
The ship is one of only two true steam powered sternwheelers plying the Mississippi today, and provides the thousands of passengers who travel with her each year a glimpse into history, from the placid antebellum plantation era through the turbulence of the Civil War to the Gay Nineties, and, ultimately, the new millenium. The NATCHEZ combines the best of contemporary construction, safety, and comfort standards with all the authenticity and style of her classic steamboat gothic predecessors.
The engine room itself is a thing of beauty, in the ultimate industrial sense. Her powerful steam engines were built for U.S. Steel Corporation’s sternwheeler CLAIRTON in 1925. Her genuine copper and steel steam whistle is a treasured antique. Her copper bell, smelted from 250 silver dollars to produce a purer tone, once graced the S.S. J.D. AYRES. Her 32 note steam calliope was custom crafted and modeled after the music makers of the Gilded Age.
True to tradition in every detail, boarding the NATCHEZ makes you feel as if you have entered another era. Everything aboard the vessel is done with true nautical precision, the same way it has been done for generations. The captain barks his orders through an old-time hand-held megaphone. The calliope trills a melody into the air while the great wheel, 25 tons of white oak, churns the heavy waters of the Mississippi.
As the ship glides past the French Quarter and through one of the world’s most active ports, you begin to understand the magic of the experience. Some of the highlights of the tour include the second largest sugar refinery in the world, one of the largest oil refineries in the country, and the Chalmette Battlefield, where Andrew Jackson and his men (including pirate Jean LaFite, Native Americans, and free men of color) defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans. For all its history and romance, the excitement of riding a steamboat is as real and rich and genuine now as it was a century ago.
Her daily two-hour jazz cruises depart from the Toulouse St. Wharf (behind JAX Brewery in the French Quarter) at 11:30 A.M.; 2:30 P.M.; and 7:00 P.M. It’s not only the music and the history that you enjoy aboard the cruise, however. The buffet, which features New Orleans staples such as beignets, cheesy grits, and more, give you a taste of why you’ll need two sets of clothes when you visit the Big Easy; when for when you arrive, and another for when you leave!
Now that you’ve explored the mighty river, it’s time to get a better idea of how water dictated the development of the city, and the role it plays in the future as well. One of the best ways to do this is by taking the Isle of Orleans Tour. Offered by Gray Line Tours, this four hour bus ride throughout the Big Easy describes the early settlement, which due to meandering water and floods, was basically an island.
They start on the Missisippi River, within sight of the Steamboat Natchez, and take you all over town, discussing different aspects of the culture, including the impact of Hurricane Katrina, the various historic districts, and the numerous water projects that have been an integral part of life in NOLA. Highlights of the tour include the Irish Channel, the “neutral ground,” St. Louis Cemetary No. 3, Industrial Canal, Ninth Ward, Besthoff Sculpture Garden, the Garden District, French Quarter, and Lake Ponchatrain.
After taking the tour, you are left with a better understanding of the power of water, and how disasters, both natural and man-made, have helped to develop the Crescent City.
Next week, we’ll explore the wartime history of New Orleans by visiting Confederate Memorial Hall and the National World War II Museum.