Since I saw, as a teenager, Show Boat at the movies, I dream of taking a cruise on the Mississippi River aboard a paddle boat.
Now I’m on a dock in New Orleans, Louisiana, waiting to board the American Queen. With its finely crafted white balconies, bright red paddle wheel and imposing ebony black fireplaces, the Queen undoubtedly deserves its royal name, both inside and out. To the loud but exhilarating sound of the steam organ, against a background of paddle wheels slamming on the surface of the water, we leave the harbour and I go to the Chart Room, where a great river specialist, Jerry Hay, gives us some important facts. The river takes its name from the Amerindian word “Missis-Sepi”, which means great river. And to be tall, he is! The river flows approximately 3,700 kilometres from its source in Itasca State Park, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. It was probably discovered by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541, and 130 years later, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claimed it on behalf of France. It only became the property of the United States in 1803, when Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory to American President Thomas Jefferson.
A river bordered by plantations and posh cities
In the first half of the 19th century, when it was bordered by flourishing port cities and millionaires’ cotton and sugar cane plantations, the river was a major traffic route for steam and keelboats, barges and other ships. Among the crew members was a river pilot named Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, who would later share the river’s colourful lifestyle with the world through novels such as Life on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn’s Adventures and Tom Sawyer’s Adventures.
Then there was the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, which was marked by the defeat of the Confederate states and put an end to the plantation regime, and decimated some riverside cities, including Vicksburg, Mississippi, our terminal about 480 kilometres upstream.
I’m planning to buy a canoe as a second hand to come and rebuild a part of the river!
While there were more than 1,200 steamboats on the river in 1833, there are only a few left today. Only the American Queen travels long distances up the Mississippi and its tributaries Ohio and Tennessee, with up to 436 passengers on board. Inaugurated in 1995 as the largest steamboat ever built, it was renovated and put back in the water in 2012. On the way, he stops in several cities, including Memphis (his home port) and Chattanooga in Tennessee, St. Louis in Missouri, St. Paul in Minnesota, Cincinnati in Ohio, and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. The boat also stops in many plantations and smaller towns.
The American Queen stops at several large plantations on the Mississippi River, including the Oak Alley plantation in Louisiana, where actors bring visitors back to life the atmosphere of the site that prevailed in the 1800s.
Visit of a plantation worthy of a Hollywood setting
The next day, we made our first stopover at Oak Alley Plantation, located in Vacherie, Louisiana. It’s like a Hollywood movie: a large driveway lined with 300-year-old oaks wrapped in Spanish moss leads to a majestic neo-Greek-style mansion, adorned on the façade with 28 imposing Doric columns. And to tell the truth, many films have been shot here, including Interview with the Vampire with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, Hush, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Shh…Shh, dear Charlotte) with Bette Davis, not to mention the Beyonce video for the song Déjà Vue.
After visiting Oak Alley, we go by minibus to an even more fascinating nearby plantation: Laura Plantation. His main residence was built in a very different Creole style, standing above a brick cellar, with large French windows that open onto the vast gallery and directly overlook the apartments. Here, we learn a little more about the way of life of the region’s inhabitants before the Civil War. In particular, we discover that the folk tales of Uncle Remus (with Bibi Lapin and other animal characters), which are generally attributed to Joel Chandler Harris, a white author from Georgia, actually come from folk tales from West Africa.
The bright yellow pavilion of the Laura plantation was built in a Creole style and offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of the South.
Natchez, a place of pilgrimage in spring and autumn
The next day, we arrive in Natchez, Mississippi, which has a population of just 20,000 but is one of the best known cities along the river, mainly because of its beautiful pre-Civil War homes, which attract crowds in the spring and fall. We are greeted by pretty southern ladies dressed in ornate crinoline dresses, and we visit three residences: Rosalie Mansion, requisitioned during the Civil War to serve as the headquarters of the Union Army; Magnolia Hall, built to serve as the residence of a rich cotton merchant; and the elegant Stanton Hall, whose gardens extend over an entire block of houses.
While Natchez did not leave scars from the Civil War, our next stopover, Vicksburg, still bears the marks of the traumatic headquarters of the unionist forces that lasted 47 days, and which had forced the inhabitants to eat rodents and take refuge in caves. At the same time, some 37,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the nearby battle, considered a turning point in the war.
Instead of going to the battlefield, I decided to explore the city, starting with the Old Courthouse Museum, perched on top of a hill and featuring a large number of exhibitions and souvenirs from the South of yesteryear. I then visit Church of the Holy Trinity, a church decorated with six Tiffany stained glass windows in memory of those who fell during the Civil War, both on the northern and southern sides. I then make a brief stop at the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, located in a former candy store whose owner first bottled the famous drink.
The beautiful Stanton Hall Mansion in Natchez, Mississippi, was built in 1857 by Irish cotton merchant Frederick Stanton.
Baton Rouge and the Bayou heritage of Huey Long
On the way back, we stop at Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, where we have a delicious Cajun meal and dance to good music at Boudin’s, a rather touristy restaurant, before heading to Louisiana State Capitol, where the popular but controversial Governor Huey Long was murdered in 1935, an event that will inspire a novel and several films. We then visit the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum, which includes a collection of traditional rural buildings and a large rustic museum filled with agricultural artifacts and other memorabilia.
On the last day, we are supposed to visit Houmas House, the “jewel of the Louisiana waterway”, but the river level is then too high for the American Queen to moor on the plantation dock. We are therefore returning to New Orleans earlier than expected. The next day, some passengers return to the plantation by bus or take part in an excursion in the bayou. I decide, for my part, to spend more time in the charming historical heart of New Orleans, but this will be the subject of another article…