Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

October 31, 2004


Steamboating on the Mississippi a fine vacation


          People have been traveling the Mississippi River in steamboats since 1811. My wife and I took our turn steamboating during an October vacation, accompanied by my sisters Neva Williams and Margie Flomer, and my Aunt Gene Johnson.

          We all agreed the experience more than met our expectations. It was fun being with family, seeing new sights, and most of all, very relaxing. Was it expensive? Costs are relative to old folks.  It cost no more than what we spent on “hamburger helper” while raising four sons. We must have bought a ton of that stuff. Any way, we enjoy spending our sons’ inheritance since we don’t want money to ruin them.

          Can you believe Robert Fulton helped build the first steamboat to travel the Mississippi? Called the “New Orleans,” it was constructed in Pittsburgh in 1811 for only $40,000. It was only 148 feet long and 32 feet wide.

          Our boat, the “American Queen,” was about four times as large. It was so big the stacks had to be lowered to pass under one bridge. We were surprised to learn that the stacks and the pilot house could be lowered hydraulically more than eight feet to accommodate the bridge.

          The Queen had room for 436 passengers and 167 crew, plus at least 50 tons of food. The rear-end paddlewheel, steel-reinforced, is powered by steam, thus the term “steamboatin’.” The meals were excellent, comparable to those offered on most cruise ships. We all complained about being “forced” to eat too much, of course.

          We drove 80 miles an hour down to New Orleans, boarded the steamboat, and traveled eight miles an hour up the river. I had forgotten how much fun it can be to slow down and smell the roses. The slower pace was as enjoyable as any part of the four-day excursion. Most of the time we hardly knew the boat was moving.

          How much money did we lose in gambling? None. There were no gambling casinos on board. There are some on the river but we declined to check them out. Wasting money gambling has never been a temptation for me. Chocolate? Well, that is another story.

          Our journey was not long. We went upriver only as far as Natchez. We spent most of a day there, exploring this lovely, ancient town. We rented a horse carriage to enjoy another slow ride. Our driver, James, talked a lot to us and to Norma Jean, our haggard old horse. James told us much more about Natchez than we really wanted to know. My wife said he reminded her of a preacher she knows.

          James was full of old jokes. He did have one good new one. There was this man crying in the cemetery, saying repeatedly, “Oh, why did you die and leave me in this mess?” A compassionate pastor upon hearing the poor man, said to him, “Brother, I am so sorry your wife died.”

          The man turned and said, “Wife? No, my wife is still living. The one who died was my wife’s first husband. He is the one I wish had not died!”

          Native Americans were the first people to use and enjoy the mighty Mississippi. The Indians had many names for the river -- “Meche-Sepe,” “Meze-Zebe,” and “Missis-Sepi,” among others. Mecha, Meze, and Missis all mean large. Sepe, Zebe, and Sepi, mean river. The Mississippi is indeed a large river.

          It cuts America almost in half, coursing from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, separating East from West. Historian Stephen Ambrose calls it the “spine of our nation,” for it knits the nation together and connects the heartland to the world.

          While Americans owe much to Thomas Jefferson, few of his accomplishments were more important than the Louisiana Purchase. Ambrose said this purchase was “surely the best thing Jefferson ever did as president.” Jefferson also ordered the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.

          We do owe much to the visionary founders of our nation. So, a few days ago, traveling slowly on that large river, I gave thanks for the vision of one Thomas Jefferson, and for the priceless treasure that the Mississippi River is to all Americans. + + + +