November 15, 2001
Down by the Riverside
About the most pleasant way to arrive in New Orleans is aboard a steam-powered paddlewheel boat, as that old Mississippi River pilot Samuel Clemens, who adopted the pen name Mark Twain, used to do.
We boarded the good ship Mississippi Queen at Memphis, and for the next seven nights and six days leisurely steamed down the mighty river at an average speed of 8 mph.
Our outside cabin came with a small veranda, where occasionally we took our breakfast while waving to passing barges and the apparently friendly natives on shore.
Speaking of breakfast, the greatest danger to bodily welfare was overeating, what with three heaping meals, snacks and tea in between, and a midnight repast. For inveterate gluttons, the deck bar served hot dogs and ice cream at all hours.
Every day but the first, the "Queen" docked at one of the Southern towns en route, first Vicksburg and Natchez in Mississippi, then St. Francisville, Baton Rouge and Oak Alley in Louisiana.
My wife and I traveled with three other couples, old friends from UCLA, and each couple was charged with researching the history of one of the visited towns.
The resident Civil War buff guided us through the huge Vicksburg National Military Park, on whose battlefield some 36,000 Union and Confederate soldiers fell in 1863, during a six-week campaign and siege. In one corner of the battlefield, near the visitors' entrance, stands the Temple Anshe Chesed synagogue and cemetery, established in 1860.
Natchez, practically untouched by the Civil War, displays some 200 stately antebellum mansions and the restored Frogmore cotton plantation, replete with the old slave quarters.
Crossing the state line into Louisiana, St. Francisville is now a sleepy river town, but in the mid-1800s, half of all American millionaires had their palatial homes here. One stately mansion is Evergreenzine, whose historical marker notes that it was built "by a prominent member of the German-Jewish Post-War Mercantile Community."
A self-guided walk through Baton Rouge brought us to the Old State Capitol, which Mark Twain described as "the ugliest building on the Mississippi River."
At the New State Capitol, the tallest such building in the United States, visitors can inspect the bullet pockmarks in the lobby, where the notorious Gov. Huey P. Long was assassinated in 1935.
The cost and milieu of the river cruise tilt heavily toward an older passenger list, with the nightly band concerts and shows favoring Dixieland, blues, ragtime and golden oldies from the 1940s and '50s, with Elvis Presley being the closest thing to rock 'n' roll.