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Whatever FLOATS your boat; BY RIVERBOAT

By ROBERT N. JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times


ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It is an unusual scene in the lobby of the stately old St. Paul Hotel at 7:50 this Monday morning. Japanese businessmen, in tailored suits, wait with their leather briefcases to meet American counterparts. Just beyond the sofas and wingback chairs, men and women shake hands and head off purposefully for meeting rooms. But increasingly, these functionaries of commerce must weave through a crowd that grows gaudier each time the elevator doors open.

The newcomers are wearing a sort of uniform that identifies them to one another. With variations, they are wearing pin-bedecked baseball caps, brightly colored suspenders, sensible walking shoes.

And oval name badges.

If you get close enough to read the names, you can also make out a tiny red design that is the grail for these folks: It is a paddlewheel.

These folks are members of the Paddlewheel Steamboatin' Society of America -- a clan for whom Kathie Lee Gifford's chirpy "Fun Ship" commercials hold no interest.

The plastic name badges are awarded by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. to passengers making at least their second trip on one of the company's three authentic paddlewheelers. These flatbottom boats are built to resemble the proud monarchs that once offered the fastest, most elegant passage on America's big rivers.

Now the Delta Queen, American Queen and Mississippi Queen cruise on nine rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway, from Pittsburgh to Galveston -- and, of course, from Minneapolis/St. Paul down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

This morning in the landmark St. Paul Hotel, dozens of steamboaters are eager to begin a day of activities before boarding the splendid Mississippi Queen. They will be aboard this 382-foot-long history exhibit for a six-night glide to St. Louis.

For many of these passengers, the boat is simply the best kind of vacation. "This will be my fifth trip," one man in a Steamboatin' baseball cap announces to the lobby full of devotees. "Once you've been on the river, you're hooked."

Around him, white-thatched heads nod in agreement.

But for other passengers, such as Ann and Bill Eaves of Rancho Mirage, Calif., this trip is part of a goal. "We've done the lower two-thirds of the river, on two other cruises," says Eaves, who doesn't deign to wear his Steamboatin' Society badge. "We'll finish the river with this trip."

The Eaveses eye the rest of the lobby crowd and Mrs. Eaves, also sans name badge, tells her husband in a quiet voice: "It looks like it's going to be a geriatric crowd."

Indeed, the typical passenger on most of the paddlewheelers is 65 or 70, according to crew members and officers I spoke with during a two-night trip on the Mississippi Queen.

That trip was a weekend treat for most of the 439 passengers on board, including the 70 or so children who always seemed on their best behavior. As were the grown-ups, few of whom wore the name badges and all of whom appeared to be enjoying the trip with every splashing turn of the Queen's 36-foot-wide paddlewheel.

Passengers by the dozens even stood in line to try blasting out a shrill tune on that other 19th-century symbol, the steam calliope.

For that amateur hour, banjo-player Fred Dodd pulled out a plastic bag of disposable ear plugs and twisted a couple in place. So did bartender David Rodriguez, smoothly handling the steady demand at the aptly named Calliope Bar.

The passengers were promised a certificate -- Dodd supervised the clipboard where the calliope amateurs signed in -- if they could coax five tones from the surprisingly small keyboard.

As piano/calliope master Bobby Van Deusen kept up a line of patter and ushered the players to the keyboard, no one seemed to mind the occasional screeches. More often they were pleased when one of their number produced a passable In the Good Old Summertime, the Notre Dame Fight Song, some Bach or even the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Van Deusen of Pensacola teams with Dodd to lead cornpone-fueled afternoon sing-alongs ("The river is only 9 feet deep here, and the Mississippi Queen is 56 feet tall," advises Van Deusen, "so if we start to sink, just climb up the decks."). They switch to delicately risque Night Owl's Club cocktail music.

Though he was concerned about what Hurricane Danny was doing to the Gulfcoast on the July weekend I cruised, the pigtailed Van Deusen was relentlessly pleasant. And Dodd, a 21-year-veteran of the paddlewheelers, was especially happy working this, his favorite section of the Mississippi.

The feeling seemed mutual. A couple hundred folks lined the dock as we left St. Paul. On the river's wooded banks, on its levees and high bluffs, people turned out day and night to watch us go by. In Red Wing, they interrupted their picnics to wave; three young women helped raise a Norwegian flag, for no discernible reason. At night, they came down to salute the boat by waving flashlights and cigarette lighters, even turning on their car headlights.

This love affair has been going on for more than 150 years. Putting steam engines on flat-bottom riverboats was a boon to commerce. It meant a quicker, more certain way to move produce, fur pelts, livestock and manufactured goods from Cincinnati or St. Paul down to Natchez or a thousand smaller towns. One of those villages was Hannibal, Mo., where a boy named Sam Clemens lived.

He would write, years later, that Hannibal woke from its slumber just twice a day -- when the steamboats arrived. Like most of his chums, he longed for the prestige of a job on one of the boats. Unlike most, he made it. After 21/2 years of apprenticing, young Sam became a licensed riverboat pilot -- the person who steers the boat, day or night.

That required Clemens to memorize each twist and bend of both banks -- and every submerged snag near the unmarked channel -- for 1,200 miles or so. The knowledge cost him dearly. Under the pen name Mark Twain, Clemens wrote in Life on the Mississippi:

"When I had mastered the language of this water,and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. . .

"All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! . . . All the value any feature of it had for me now was toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat."

Steamboats reached their golden era in the 1870s, according to Clemens, who took "Mark Twain" from the constantly checked depth measurements -- in this case, two fathoms, or 12 feet of water below the deck.

Much of this sort of history is offered in easy-to-digest fashion by the steamboat's historians, called "riverlorians" because they focus on the lore as well as the facts of the rivers. There are regular lectures, occasional commentaries on notable places of passage or towns.

In addition to these rambling talks, passengers can pass time in a pool not much bigger than a large hot tub, play shuffleboard, exercise on a handful of machines or play carnival games of chance. A small room with windows for walls at the bow holds chart books so passengers can translate the numbers on each channel marker to pinpoint the boat's location on the river. Cairo, Ill., the starting point for travel north or south, is at mile marker 0, and St. Paul was mile marker 839.

The tiny library has puzzles to work and a few dozen books -- a thorough historical library is monitored by the riverlorian. There are also second-run films to watch and oldtime music to sing or dance to. My cruise featured the mellow sounds of the Steamboat Syncopators, while the crowd assembling in the St. Paul Hotel heard the Jan Garber Orchestra, Jack Morgan and Russ Morgan Orchestra, and the Ink Spots).

The two-channel, in-cabin taped music plays everything from the World War II Eddie Cantor radio shows to Vaughn Monroe and Al Jolson to bluegrass.

What is not on board the three Delta Queen company riverboats are casinos, fancypants dance choruses, glass-walled elevators or in-cabin televisions. Steamboatin' is all about taking it slow.

Claire Teryll, of Taylors Falls , Minn. ("I've lived there 25 years and I'm still considered a newcomer") was giggling as she tried to fly a kite from the stern. More than a dozen other passengers joined in this typical Steamboatin' activity -- oldtime, low-exertion, no losers.

"Riding on a steamboat is one of the 50 things I want to do before I die," said Teryll, "along with seeing the Straits of Gibraltar and the Great Barrier Reef.

"I went to Orlando once. I wouldn't go back if you paid me."

An older passenger, seated beneath one of the numerous glass chandeliers in the dining room, told a tablemate, "I grew up in Cincinnati and used to watch the Delta Queen, and I always wanted to cruise on a riverboat. This two-day thing is perfect -- I don't think I could do a week, but maybe just another day or so."

Similarly, Tom and Loretta Horowitz, with their 14-year-old daughter Sarah, were taking time from their 46-day tour of the United States to sample riverboat life. Sarah found other teenagers to hang with, while Loretta helped a young passenger with a jigsaw puzzle one afternoon and Tom rested from his driving to watch the river go by. The family, from Orcas Island, Wash., agreed that two nights of doing nothing, slowly, was long enough for them.

But piano player Van Deusen is sold on the experience: "There's nothing better than exploring this country from the inside out, at 61/2 miles per hour."

To that end, hundreds of white rocking chairs and a few wrought-iron gliders beckon on the five decks of the Mississippi Queen, offering the perfect way to admire the scenery.

Passengers rock and watch for poignantly picturesque scenes of rural America. They wave back at the people who have come to salute from the shore or from fishing boats -- each carrying a family and its dog -- that circle the big steamboat.

As the paddlewheel lap-lap-laps the muddy water, the passengers glide along a river of nostalgia, even if they have to make it up rather than remember it. If you go The three vessels of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. cruise sections of mid-America's waterways on 2- to 14-night trips year-round, departing from 12 cities. The three boats have either seven or eight cabin categories, including some with small verandahs. The Mississippi Queen and larger American Queen have elevators and wheelchair-accessible cabins, but the 70-year-old Delta Queen does not have either, so people with impaired mobility would have a difficult time moving about that boat. The company says a typical seven-night cruise begins at $990 per person, plus $60 port charges, based on double occupancy. This does not include airfare to the port of departure. Early booking discounts are available, and two-for-one discounts are available for any cruise during the months of January or February 1998. For catalogs, more information or reservations, contact a travel agent or the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., Robin Street Wharf, 1380 Port of New Orleans Place, New Orleans, LA 70130-1890; call (800) 240-3703 or (504) 586-0631.

Originally published September 7, 1997



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