Posted on Saturday, June 30, 2012 by Shawn Dake
Steamboat NATCHEZ in New Orleans
By Shawn J. Dake
All photos by Shawn J. Dake, copyright 2012.
No trip to New Orleans would be complete without a cruise on the Mississippi River. After all, the Crescent City’s famous nickname comes from the huge bend in the river where commerce by steamboat has been taking place for over 200 years. One of the best ways to experience present day life on the river is to step back into the past with a two-hour cruise aboard one of the last authentic steamboats plying these waters, the 1,384 gross ton sternwheeler NATCHEZ.
Most days, the steamboat offers three cruise departures at 11:30am, 2:30pm and 7:00pm from the company dock at Toulouse Street at the River near the French Quarter. More than just a typical harbor cruise, these trips offer a look not only at the sights along the river in this busy port but also at the inner workings of a vintage steam engine. The engine and boiler rooms are open to visitors and the deck operations and piloting are done in the traditional manner with orders being called up to the pilothouse by hand-held megaphone. Attractive saloons aboard serve cocktails, lunch or dinner and can be reserved for private functions.
The NATCHEZ was built in 1975 for the New Orleans Steamboat Company founded by the father and son partners Wilbur and Bill Dow. The elder Mr. Wilbur Edgerton Dow, Jr., was also president of the Lake George Steamboat Company in New York for over 40-years. That line is the oldest continuously operating passenger steamboat company in the world, dating back to 1817 at the dawn of the steamboat era. Commissioning a genuine steamboat in 1975 preserved the long heritage of paddlewheel steamboats serving New Orleans since the namesake steamer NEW ORLEANS arrived in January, 1812. The father/son tradition continues onboard the NATCHEZ to this day with no less than three family teams working together. Captain Steve Nicoulin and Pilot Steven Nicoulin are perhaps the most visible on the decks and in the pilothouse. Chief Engineer Scott Vieages, Sr. and son Scott Vieages, Jr. maintain the engine room while Engineers Juan Mendevil, Sr. and Juan Mendevil, Jr. can be found in the boiler room.
Like most river steamboats, the NATCHEZ is made up of many parts, some salvaged from steamers that came before it. The engines on the NATCHEZ came from the 1925-built steam towboat CLAIRTON. They are tandem compound condensing reciprocating steam engines that generate 1,600 horsepower. The two huge boilers are nicknamed Thelma (No. 2) and Louise (No. 1). Both can be viewed while underway on the lowest deck. The red paddlewheel weighs 26 tons and is 25 feet in diameter. The ship’s bell came from the steamer J.D. AYRES and the steam whistle is also vintage. The 32-tone calliope was custom built for the boat. The NATCHEZ is 265 feet long with a breadth of 46 feet and a draft of 7 feet. It is U.S. Coast Guard approved to carry up to 1,200 passengers on excursion trips.
Depending on who is counting, this NATCHEZ is either the 9th or 12th steamboat to bear the name. The onboard builder’s plate reads: “NATCHEZ IX built for Robert E. Lee, Inc. by Bergeron Machine Shop, Inc., Braithwaite, Louisiana, March 1975.” The very first NATCHEZ was a small 206 ton sidewheel steamer built in 1823. All of the subsequent vessels named NATCHEZ have interesting historical footnotes but perhaps the most famous of all was the 7th NATCHEZ which was a 301-foot long steamer with eight boilers built in 1869. She was reputed to be the fastest steamboat on the Mississippi, and in June, 1870 engaged the ROBERT E. LEE in what has to be considered the most famous steamboat race on record from New Orleans to St. Louis. In a controversial decision the ROBERT E. LEE has gone down in history as the winner but had each boat raced side-by-side under the same circumstances the NATCHEZ was undoubtedly faster. In any event, it made the trip upriver between the cities in 3 days, 14 hours including stops.
Today, this NATCHEZ sails downriver at a more sedate pace with the red wheel turning at 16 revolutions per minute. Passengers line the decks as the boat makes its way past Jackson Square and the French Quarter then along the shipping wharfs. A bit farther down, the Lower 9th Ward is viewed along with Victorian-era Steamboat Houses, the enormous Domino sugar factory and the historic Jackson Barracks. All were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The NATCHEZ herself moved upriver to a temporary home in Baton Rouge in the aftermath of Katrina before resuming normal operations out of New Orleans.
On the topmost deck guests can imbibe at both indoor and outdoor cocktail bars or peruse souvenirs in the well-stocked gift shop. Live Jazz is played on deck for passenger’s entertainment. Each cruise is also narrated as the guide points out highlights along the way. There is a sheltered viewing area on the forward end of the middle deck. Otherwise the majority of this deck is given over to the large dining saloon with another bar all the way aft. Optional buffet meals are available at both lunch and dinner with a large selection of Southern-inspired items on the menu. The Louisiana Style Fried Fish was particularly excellent. The food items are prepared fresh onboard.
Only three steamboats remain on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers out of the thousands that once were a ubiquitous sight along the river. Besides the NATCHEZ the only other two are the 1914-built BELLE OF LOUISVILLE (ex IDLEWILD, AVALON) which runs excursions at Louisville, Kentucky and the 1995-built AMERICAN QUEEN, brought back to life by the Great American Steamboat Company and offering the only overnight paddlewheel steamboat service along the entire navigable lengths of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Whenever your travels lead you to New Orleans, get out on the river and enjoy a cruise aboard the NATCHEZ. You’ll be glad you did.
Thanks to Martin Cox, Adrienne Thomas and the staff of the Steamboat NATCHEZ.