The hot steam warms up the brass whistles of the Calliope on the Steamboat Natchez on a chilly winter morning, signaling the start of a journey steeped in history and tradition. This iconic steamboat is a symbol of New Orleans’ rich maritime heritage.
the calliope calls the curious to the riverfront
The old-time melodies of the calliope greet passengers boarding the Steamboat Natchez for a midday cruise. Played by Debbie Fagnano for over three decades, her rendition of “Blue Skies” serves as a unique weather report. The music echoes throughout the French Quarter and draws people to the riverboat dock.
crew and passengers step back in time
Steve Nicoulin is the captain of the Natchez. He replaced his father, who has worked on the steamboat since it arrived in New Orleans in 1975. Nicoulin Senior still takes the controls on some river cruises. The tug of a brass ring in the pilot house shoots steam through the boat’s loud whistle. The brass ring is the oldest thing on the boat, Nicoulin tells me, explaining, “This ring actually came off an old steamer back in 1889.”
pieces from the past
The Natchez, nearing its 50th anniversary, is powered by steam engines from a 1925 vessel, the Clairton. Twin diesel-fired boilers generate the 200 pounds of steam that drive the boat’s antique piston engines and large paddle wheel. A World War II era communication system, salvaged from a Navy destroyer, connects the captain to the engine room.
steamboat natchez cruise featured on tv
steamboat natchez survives fire during renovations
The steamer has an “old school feel”, Nicoulin says, noting how rare the vessels are now. “When I started with the company, there were six remaining steamboats,” he explains. “Now there are only two left on the whole Mississippi River.” The Natchez resumed taking tourists on daily trips up and down the Mississippi River after a three year absence. A fire broke out in the steamboat’s generator room while the vessel was undergoing renovations.
A slower pace on the steamboat natchez
Matt Dow, the Director of Marine Operations for the New Orleans Steamboat Company, says it was important to get the Natchez back in service. He describes it as an icon of New Orleans. When I asked Dow what makes the river cruises so enjoyable, he quotes Mark Twain. “Twain said it best,” Dow says. “Someday man will figure out how to go 700 miles per hour. But we’ll still only want to go seven.”
The Natchez takes passengers on several daily cruises that depart from the New Orleans riverfront near Jackson Square. The paddle wheeler first travels several miles downstream, passing the Chalmette Battlefield where Andrew Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans. Then the steamboat heads back upstream, passing by the French Quarter and St. Louis Cathedral. The Natchez turns around at the Mississippi River Bridge and returns to the dock. The cruise is a relaxing ride that begins with the calliope and a jazz band, that preserves bits of river history and tradition on the Mississippi River.
Passengers board the Steamboat Natchez on the New Orleans Riverfront near Jackson Square.