Cruising Twain's mighty Mississippi
January 18, 1997
(CNN) -- "Four years at West Point and plenty of books and schooling will learn a man a great deal," Mark Twain wrote in 1883. But, he added, "It won't learn him the
Those words paint an image of American river culture that seems as colorful today as it was a century ago. The banks of the Mississippi River continue to beckon travelers on a misty, winding voyage, hearkening back to the idle rafting days of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote his tales of the two boy adventurers, as well as many other literary works, under the pseudonym Mark Twain.
The "majestic, magnificent Mississippi," as Twain called it, rolls through more than 2,300 miles of the U.S. heartland, from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it collects the currents of dozens of other rivers, including the Ohio, the Arkansas and the Missouri.
The Mississippi is the main U.S. inland waterway and ships can ply its waters year-round, all the way to Minneapolis-St. Paul. These days, most of the vessels seen on its waters are barges and tug boats. However, reminders of a bygone era are still visible in some places.
The Delta Queen Steamboat Company operates the world's only steam-powered paddle wheelers offering overnight river cruises. The company has ensured that the sounds of centuries past still echo downstream.
The pride of its fleet, the Delta Queen, is a registered National Historic Landmark and, fittingly, still uses a 40-ton paddle wheel as its primary means of propulsion. The 70-year-old steamboat has many of its original features preserved, including the dining room's ironwood floor and the grand staircase, crowned with a crystal chandelier.
The Delta Queen's larger and newer sister ship, the Mississippi Queen, boasts the largest operational steam calliope in the world. The calliope, a keyboard instrument resembling an organ, emits a series of whistles sounded by steam.
"It's sort of the 19th century equivalent of a blow horn," said calliopist Bobby Van Deusen. "It was used primarily as a form of communication to let people know that the steam boat or the circus was around the bend and headed to town ."
The first big steamboats set sail in 1811 and quickly became the "grand belles" of river travel.
"People would refer to steamboats as floating palaces. And indeed they were. It was probably in the 1880s that they reached their peak," said Capt. Gabe Chengery of the Delta Queen. "They were beautiful places, rivaling some of the finest hotels in the country ... moving people up and down the Mississippi River."
The Delta Queen Steamboat Company offers 2-14 night cruises from a dozen different cities, including St. Louis, New Orleans, Memphis and Cincinnati. The cruises include five-course dinners and professional showboat style entertainment each evening, as well as a chance to hear river stories from an onboard "riverlorian." The boats sail in all four seasons, only shutting down a few weeks in January for maintenance and repair.
Steamboat cruise prices range from $1,000 to more than $4,300 for a seven-night excursion. It's best to reserve early since many cruises sell out six months ahead of time. Delta Queen Steamboats offers an early booking bonus of free round-trip airfare that's good from most U.S. cities, if travelers buy a seven-night or longer tour at least eight months in advance.
Mark Twain would likely be pleased to know that a popular stop on many cruises is his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. For a journey steeped in Americana, visitors can disembark to tour Twain's boyhood home and see the setting for his river tales featuring Tom, Huck and Becky Thatcher.
But Twain's most influential character was probably the Mississippi River itself. He wrote that: "The face of the water became a wonderful book ... (with) a new story to tell every day." Even now, "Old Man River" seems to tell a different tale to every visitor who comes along for the ride.