During the 1800s, the Mississippi River was crowded with steamboats. The river divided the United States in half, separating the older, more populated eastern states from the West. Steamboats transported goods and people up and down the waterway. But only a few such boats can be seen there today. This month marks the 40th year one of them has been operating on the mighty Mississippi.
Steamboat Natchez was built in 1975. The Natchez is made mostly of steel. Its steam engines came from a boat that was built in 1925.
Today, the Natchez carries people who want to learn what life was like in the 1800s on the Mississippi River. In those days, the arrival of a steamboat was announced by a steam-powered organ, called a calliope.
Clarke Hawley is 79 years old. He is known as “Doc.” He was the first captain of the Natchez.
“In the days before mass communication, a lot of these little river towns didn’t have a weekly newspaper, let alone a daily newspaper, but when you played the calliope, everybody in town knew the boat was there.”
Doc Hawley is now retired. But he still sails on the boat as the calliope player.
“There were steamboats that carried people, steamboats that pushed barges, there were sawmill steamboats that went from farm to farm, plantation to plantation, sawing up wood. Farmer Brown wants to build a new barn, he’s got to go 40-50 miles (60-80 kilometers) to get to the closest sawmill, boat comes right to the front yard and grinds it. There were showboats that put on shows and melodramas before movies. There were gospel boats, believe it or not, that went from town to town, taking up collections.”
Donald Houghton is the current captain of the Natchez. He says he is honored to be one of the few steamboat captains in the country.
“This is a one-of-a-kind thing, you know, running a true steamboat in the Port of New Orleans, in a busy harbor, showing people the Mississippi River and where the Battle of New Orleans was fought, and the whole reason the city is here is because of the Mississippi river and steamboats.”
Passengers can dance and listen to jazz music. Jazz was born in the city of New Orleans, which is often called “The Big Easy.”
Doc Hawley says this is how life was when many steamboats sailed up and down the river.
“It was a way of life, and it’s still, it’s still amazingly a way of life, for people who live along the river, you know.”
Because the Natchez is so well cared for, it could keep paddling up and down the Mississippi for many years to come.
I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.
George Putic reported this story. Christopher Jones-Cruise wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
steamboat – n. a boat that is powered by steam
mighty – adj. having or showing great strength or power
barge – n. a large vessel that has a flat bottom and that is used to carry goods in harbors and on rivers and canals
sawmill – n. a mill or factory where logs are sawed to make boards
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