Steam Spirit

Riding the Delta Queen to New Orleans costs a lot more than a short-hop flight, but you get what you pay for—great food, beautiful views, and five days of glorious peace.

February 1996By Comments

MY WIFE, PHYLLIS, AND I HAVE A BASIC RULE ABOUT TRAVEL: Never get aboard a vehicle that you can’t get off and walk home, flights to Europe excepted. I have this recurring dream of being trapped in a small room with a man who sells insurance. We were somewhat apprehensive, therefore, when we boarded the Delta Queen (DQ) last December for a five-night cruise from Galveston to her home port, New Orleans. We guessed the average age of our fellow passengers would be about 65—only a few years older than we were—but we wondered if we’d have much in common. As it turned out, we had a great deal in common, not the least of which was a deep love for life and adventure.

A National Historic Landmark and the only authentic, fully restored overnight steamboat in the country—maybe the world—the Delta Queen had arrived in Texas for the first time two days before, for Galveston’s annual Dickens on the Strand festival. This month she’ll return to Galveston for Mardi Gras, then again in December for the Dickens celebration, and after that, as often as demand dictates. Demand should be high, for the DQ is the last of that noble breed of steamboats that connected the cities of the western frontier. The DQ and her two larger sister boats, the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen, still steam more than 30,000 miles a year combined up and down the heartland rivers of America. They cover all of the Mississippi, stretches of the Ohio, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee, and the Arkansas from where it connects to the Mississippi. Now that the leg of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway between New Orleans and Galveston has become a regular route, there is almost no port in the middle part of the United States not served by the Delta Queen Steamboat Company of New Orleans.

Almost all of the nearly 130 or so people we met at the Port of Galveston had traveled before on the DQ or one of her sister boats. Many had done so fifty or sixty times; river people collect rivers the way bird people collect bird sightings. Pat Sullivan, a retired Procter and Gamble employee from Cincinnati, was making her eightieth voyage. Earle and Bette Tucker, a handsome couple in their seventies from Charlottesville, Virginia, have logged eighteen trips aboard the DQ, covering every inch of every river except for one short stretch of the Arkansas that they are booked to cover this summer. Where water travel is concerned, river people have phenomenal memories. Some are able to recall each snag and sandbar on each river they have ever traveled; others claim they can identify a river pilot from a mile away by how he plays the steam whistle. River people, as they say, are different from you and me.

They’re so different, in fact, that they’re willing to pay a great deal of money for a river ride that costs nearly as much as a vacation to Europe. There are eight classes of staterooms and suites on the DQ, and voyages last from two to twelve nights (for dates and fares, call 800-543-7637). Fares for a five-night trip, such as Galveston to New Orleans, range from $3,030 per person double occupancy for a AAA suite on the Cabin Deck or the Sun Deck to $740 for a small F-class stateroom on the Texas Deck. Phyllis and I shared a class-A stateroom, which cost us $4,260 plus tax. Fares include four meals a day plus a moonlight buffet, but while wine and alcoholic beverages are available in great abundance, they’re not figured into the cost. Neither is airfare, which can add a few hundred dollars—or even a thousand—to the total.

Cost aside, though, Phyllis and I agreed that this was one of the great trips of all time. From the moment we arrived at the gangplank, we were pampered shamelessly by the DQ’s staff and crew. Our luggage magically found its way to our stateroom at the stern end of the Cabin Deck, where a basket of fruit and cheese awaited us. The stateroom was surprisingly roomy and comfortable (once we had coordinated our dressing schedules and mastered a do-si-do manner of moving about) and featured antique-style twin brass beds, brass fixtures, and wood paneling. Although we were situated directly above the engine room, there was little noise except for an occasional lugging sound. Steamboats are among the quietest and most peaceful methods of transportation. One hears only the hum of pistons, the lap-lap-lapping of the paddle wheel, and a chorus of solitude.

The Cabin Deck is the DQ’s principal common area. All Cabin Deck staterooms open onto the Betty Blake Lounge, a well-appointed parlor where people read, write, work jigsaw puzzles, and study charts, maps, and printed histories of the boat. It was there that I learned how the Delta Queen started shuttling passengers on the Sacramento River in 1927 and later served as a Navy ferry in San Francisco Bay during World War II. At the end of the war, Tom Greene, the president of Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, purchased her for $46,000, had her crated up and towed by way of the Panama Canal to New Orleans, and spent another $750,000 fixing her up. In 1965 Congress passed a law outlawing vessels with wooden superstructures that carried more than fifty overnight passengers, but after a heroic petition campaign by the Greene Line’s legendary public relations woman, Betty Blake, for whom the lounge is named, the Delta Queen was given a temporary exemption, which her owner must renew every five years.

Being aboard the DQ is like being a guest at a small Victorian resort, except that the view changes constantly. Coffee, tea, and snacks are usually available in the Forward Cabin Lounge, and there are various types of organized activities—kite flying, quilting, lectures, films, and tours of the galley and pilot house. An ornate grand staircase leads up to the bar on the Texas Deck, where the conversation is invariably about subjects close to the hearts of river people. Pat Sullivan remembered what was supposed to be the DQ’s last trip and how Betty Blake worked the port cities with a wheelbarrow load of save-the-DQ petitions. Pluma E. Orcutt, a retired insurance agent from Fort Wayne, Indiana, on her sixtieth river trip, carefully removed the protective cellophane wrapper from a dog-eared copy of a book she bought in 1972 about the DQ’s passage through the Panama Canal. The margins of the book overflow with autographs and handwritten notes from the captains and crews of bygone voyages. It’s her most cherished possession.

There are so many things to do aboard the DQ that it’s easy to forget that anything else is happening in the world. Each night after dinner a versatile group of musicians called Scott Black and the Riverboat Five entertain and play dance music in the Orleans Room until it’s time for the moonlight buffet (about ten-thirty). Meanwhile, other passengers listen to or sing along with Phyllis Dale, who plays piano in the Texas Bar until the last drunk has had an opportunity to do his or her rendition of “My Way.” Unobstructed passageways circle the three upper decks, offering freedom to stroll or space to relax in one of the rocking chairs that line the decks. About the only recreation not offered aboard the DQ is gambling, which the company long ago decided was not in keeping with its image.

Meals aboard the DQ are explorations into decadence and Herculean tests of willpower. Chef Jeff Hunter grew up in Philadelphia but cooks with a Creole flair and Cajun intensity. Tables in the dining room are assigned at random, so Phyllis and I experienced another jittery moment as we introduced ourselves to our partners at table 64, an elderly couple named John and Dolly DeYoung from Woodstown, New Jersey, who immediately told us they had been married 56 years and were on their sixty-fifth cruise. They turned out to be a pair of certified hoots: Privately, we referred to them as George and Gracie. John played straight man, with a twinkle of mischief in his eye, while Dolly regaled us with risqué poetry and jokes like the one about two spinsters who honor their brother’s memory by stretching his condoms over the piano—not owning an organ, you see.

Life along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway ranges from peaceful to bracing to downright mystical. My favorite place to watch it drift by was the bow of the Texas Deck, just below the pilot house. Eight or ten dolphins escorted us across Galveston Bay. Turning northeast, the waterway slices through the Bolivar Peninsula on its 350-mile journey to the Algiers Lock. Mileage markers along the bank signal the distance to the lock, which will lower us onto the Mississippi River just downriver from New Orleans. Someone reports seeing a flock of flamingos, which turn out to be roseate spoonbills. The waterway is straight and narrow, seldom wider than the required 125 feet except where we cross rivers or bays. Tons of cargo stream by in an amazing variety of shallow-draft boats and barges. On either side are salt marshes and gray banks of silt dredged out of the channel. Shortly after dark we pass under the West Port Arthur bridge, as a profusion of refinery lights twinkle in the darkness. Who could have imagined such a storybook night in the Golden Triangle?

By the second morning we’re deep into Louisiana. Swamps and marshes slide by. Rice fields blend into the gray horizon. A bald eagle watches from a snag in the channel. Trunks of dead cypresses protrude like bleached ghosts from the water’s edge, shrouds of moss draping their outstretched limbs. A great blue heron swoops low over our bow and spears a morsel from the water. White snow geese and Canada geese blanket a field. As we pass by small Cajun towns, people wave from their front porches and we wave back. Off the port bank is a graveyard of rusting boats and barges. And hard against it, a shipyard where two new casino boats are under construction.

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway has become an enigma. It is constantly intersected by bayous, canals, cutoffs, drainage ditches, bays, and lakes. In some places it seems dangerously narrow, in others a mile wide. I see now what Mark Twain meant when he wrote that in his day a pilot was “the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.” Applicants for a first-class pilot’s license are given blank sheets of paper and required to draw every buoy, light, underground cable, bayou, canal, inlet, bend, and landmark for a hundred-mile stretch. The pilot is the unchallenged master of the boat, as long as she is under way. No one else, not even the captain, is allowed to touch the controls. Approaching a barge or lock or drawbridge, the pilot pulls his steam whistle, every pull having its own meaning. One blast, see you on port. Two, see you on starboard. Five, danger. One long and one short, open the bridge. Though pilots communicate by marine radio now, whistles are part of the river’s tradition and romance, its native music, and pilots use them at every opportunity.

The nights are particularly hypnotic. The moon is full. A heavy fog hangs over the bayou. The pilot plays his spotlight off one bank, then the other, looking for landmarks, checking his position. An alligator slithers back into the swamp. Eventually, we make a hard left off the waterway and navigate a maze of waterways toward the Port of New Iberia, where we will tie up for the night. By the final night, we are on the Mississippi, a cold wind blowing in our faces, coasting past a levee where Cajuns have lighted one of their traditional bonfires welcoming Papa Noël. Our pilot acknowledges the bonfire with a long, mournful whistle.

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