Rolling on the River in the City of New Orleans

Steamboat NatchezYes, the allusions in the title are intentional. Creedence Clearwater Revival (aka, CCR) wrote a song called Proud Mary, though many know it by its famous refrain “rolling on the river” (and the remixed version by Tina Turner). It refers to a riverboat plying the Mississippi River. The City of New Orleans is a song by Steve Goodman made famous by Arlo Guthrie. It refers to the name of a train that traveled between Chicago and New Orleans. Both came to mind as I watched this:

The Natchez is the last authentic steamboat on the Mississippi River. Abraham Lincoln would have ridden a similar boat on his way back upriver following his second flatboat trip to New Orleans. I recently had the privilege of doing some research on the boat for my upcoming Lincoln book. It is the only boat left on the river that uses steam as its sole means of forward and reverse propulsion. Today the steam is produced by burning diesel fuel; in the past it would have been wood-, and then coal-, fired.

The two steam engines drive the pistons, which turn the rear paddle wheel, a 25-foot in diameter, white oak and steel behemoth weighing 26 tons.The boat itself is 265 feet long and weighs 1,384 tons. The pilot on the bridge uses a telegraph for communication to the chief engineer in the engine room. As the pilot turns the knob to the position he wants, it turns the corresponding dial in the engine room and sounds a bell. When the engineer moves his knob to the corresponding position it stops the bell, thus indicating to the pilot that the engineer received the signal. It’s a fascinating process to watch.

Amazingly, the boat draws only five to seven feet, which allows it to get up into the very shallow waters of the Mississippi.

Abraham Lincoln would have been happy that an authentic steamboat still travels the lower Mississippi, though he also would be happy that “internal improvements” have progressed so much further.

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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3 thoughts on “Rolling on the River in the City of New Orleans

    • It’s an amazing river, and New Orleans was a spectacular city (though some areas never have recovered from the twin Hurricanes Katrina and Rita).

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