Natchez, beloved jazz steamboat of New Orleans, turns 40

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley was there as the captain barking out orders on a megaphone 40 years ago when the Natchez steamboat launched its maiden voyage on April 13, 1975.

“I thought, hell, this would be the first boat I’d work on with primer and one coat of paint,” the 79-year-old river captain said. “Now the Natchez has 40 coats of paint!”

The Natchez, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on Monday, is only one of three steam-powered boats left in the Mississippi River valley.

“The Natchez is about the last of the steamboats,” said Chris Rieder, a 71-year-old Mississippi captain and pilot instructor with the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association.

Year-round, the elegant steamboat sits moored in front of the bustling French Quarter, a short walk from the beignets and coffee of the Cafe du Monde and the banana trees of Jackson Square.

Its decks take throngs of passengers each day for two-hour trips up and down the harbor.

“It’s just a one-of-a-kind thing, running a true steamboat in the Port of New Orleans with a busy harbor, showing people the Mississippi River,” said Donald Houghton, the current captain on the Natchez.

He stood outside the pilot house on a recent trip, the river swollen from spring flooding.

“The whole reason the city is here is because of the Mississippi River and steamboats.”

Below, the boat’s watchman is on the loudspeakers, pointing out landmarks.

At this point in the tour, the halfway point, the Natchez is about to turn around having passed the Domino sugar refinery, one of the nation’s largest, and gotten a view of the Chalmette battlefield where Gen. Andrew Jackson defeated the British 200 years ago at the Battle of New Orleans.

A ride on the Natchez and a visit to its 85-year-old U.S. Steel Corporation-built steam engine and multi-ton white oak paddlewheel is part of the pleasure of visiting this old French city of New Orleans, so associated with steamboats and the Deep South.

Although it was built only 40 years ago, the boat was made to resemble the old sternwheelers and is one of the last true steamboats to have ever been built.

The crew diligently stick to steamboat traditions.

When the boat leaves and arrives at its wooden dock, the captain shouts orders through a megaphone to the pilot. All the crew are impeccably dressed, and the music and fare are high quality. Once underway, the pilot pulls the antique copper and steel whistle that shoots out a jet of steam high into the sky.

Presidents Gerald Ford and both Bushes have been aboard. Placido Domingo, Dick Van Dyke, Brooke Shields, Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali and Dolly Parton are among the celebrity passengers.

Its 32-note calliope — a steam-powered piano just like the old boats had — is certainly one of its main attractions.

“When you hear the calliope, you realize how special New Orleans is,” said Deacon John Moore, a New Orleans blues musician and union president who, like countless others, has taken turns playing on the Natchez.

Louis Armstrong and many other great black musicians barred from the steamboats in the early days of jazz came to prominence playing on the steamers after black musicians formed their own unions in the 1920s and broke the color barrier, he said.

On Sundays, Hawley — who retired in the 1980s from the river — still plays the calliope.

Hawley got his start on the rivers playing the calliope before he went on to become a pilot and captain.

It was 1954 and the Avalon steamboat showed up in Charleston, West Virginia, his hometown, without its calliope playing.

Young Hawley was 16, and his family on his mother’s side had been river workers. He played the parlor piano in the living room well, and could play by ear.

So, he quipped to the captain that he could play the calliope and get people down to the boat.

Next thing he knew, the captain offered him a job that summer playing the calliope in the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

“My mother said, ‘If it was good enough for daddy and Uncle Mills, it’s good enough for him,” Hawley said.


Associated Press writer Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans contributed.