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CAJUN CHRISTMAS ON THE DELTA QUEEN

By
Shirley Linde

The Delta Queen will soon be celebrating her 80th birthday. I hope when I am celebrating my 80th I will be as surrounded by music, loyal friends and fun.

This traditional paddlewheel steamboat has been cruising up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries for decades, recapturing the days when hundreds of steamboats plied these waters. In fact, dozens of steamboats were tied up, one after the other, all along the docks in port cities.

Delta Queen is a part of history, an American treasure, making the steamboat days live again for those who cruise her. In fact the Delta Queen has been named a National Historic Landmark and a member of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America. And just recently she was inducted into the National Maritime Hall of Fame as a vessel that made an outstanding contribution to the maritime industry, in fact the only vessel still operating that is in the Hall of Fame. She used to cruise along the California coast, then in drab grey was a troop ship in World War II, then guided by tugboats came through the Panama Canal to her present Mississippi and tributaries itinerary.

Our cruise was a week roundtrip from New Orleans so we arrived early enough to wander the city, walked the French Quarter, bought a nice print of a jazz pianist at the French market, took the trolley ($5 for the day for unlimited rides anywhere on anything), searched for an internet center, and then since it was cold and windy, headed back to the boat for the first of many hot chocolates always on hand along with chocolate chip cookies.

Walking around the Delta Queen is like a walk through history … Victorian furnishings, Tiffany-style lamps, some leaded glass windows, tin ceilings, mahogany trim everywhere, and rocking chairs and a swing forward on deck 2. Large prints of old riverboat scenes are on many walls. The dining room which also serves as the show lounge has old Siamese iron bark flooring, now honey-colored and smooth after being cleaned of the grime when that level was used for cargo.

Since the boat has an all-wood superstructure (the hull is steel clad) there is no smoking allowed in cabins or in the interior public rooms.

There is a calliope at the stern, built in Cincinnati in 1897, which is played at departures from the river towns, usually by the band’s piano player, but occasionally by passengers, and one night by the captain. Typical of the casual family atmosphere on board, the captain also played the piano at the party given for repeat cruisers.

The engine room, open to passengers, has the original old steam engine that drives the big red paddlewheel. Parts are sometimes pirated off the engine of sister ship Delta King, now serving as a restaurant in California.

There is even reputed to be a ghost on board -- the ghost of Capt. Mary B. Greene, of the Greene family who owned the steam boat for decades after the boat was a troop ferry in California. She had both a Master’s and a Pilot’s license. Knocking sounds sometimes are still heard in the cabin where she died of a heart attack and it is said she still walks the decks.

Delta Queen has accommodations for 174 passengers. Cabins are air-conditioned and have a private bath with shower. Higher category staterooms also have a tub. Some cabins open only onto an outside deck; others open into the interior.

The staterooms have been lived in by many famous people including Presidents Carter, Truman, and Hoover, Lady Bird Johnson, Princess Margaret, the Vanderbilts, Errol Flynn, Helen Hayes, to name a few.

The loyalty to the Delta Queen is one of the highest in the cruise industry. Most passengers on our cruise had been on Delta Queen cruises previously, some booking a different itinerary every year … lower Mississippi, upper Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee … with the goal of experiencing them all. One man on our cruise, from Virginia Beach, had cruised on the paddlewheelers 81 times. The frequent cruisers all said that they liked the fact that the boat was small and it was casual.  One veteran cruiser, not on our cruise, has cruised with the company more than 100 times.

The Master, Capt. Gabriel Chengerry, began his career on board in 1968 as night watchman and has been Master since 1976.

The three Delta Queen paddlewheelers have many theme cruises -- Civil War history, antebellum plantations and gardens, Mardi Gras, golf, quilts, fall foliage. Each of them is like a step back in time.

Our cruise was on Cajun heritage. There were lectures on Cajun history and about the history of the river and the river towns we visited. Much of the US Cajun population is in the small towns from the mouth of the Mississippi River west to nearly Texas and north to about 300 miles.

Acadian (Cajun) culture has been in Louisiana for almost 300 years. Acadians formerly lived in eastern Canada; then when he English took control there after war with France, they made a deal to remain neutral in any future conflicts if they would be left to live in peace. But a new governor in 1755 ordered them to swear allegiance to the crown of England. When they refused and reaffirmed their desire to remain neutral, the governor confiscated their lands and forced them to leave. Some returned to Europe, some moved to other parts of Canada, some to areas in the colonies later to be the United States. Over the next decades thousands of Acadians from all these areas began moving to southwest Louisiana. The name Acadian got shortened to Cajun. Their bonds were close and their culture survives today.

We will be visiting several of the towns that still maintain the traditions.

Whether it’s Cajun, zydeco, or swamp pop, Cajuns like to dance. A Cajun band played several afternoons and evenings on the boat, plus Walter Kross and the Riverboat Five played jazz and dance music to continue our taste from New Orleans. Unfortunately there were no dance hosts on board for dancing and no instruction in Cajun dances. Shows each night also contained some great ragtime, and the lounge pianist sang hilarious old vaudeville songs.

We were scheduled to go to Morgan City first, but you need to be flexible on river cruises, and that night because of fog a couple of barges got stuck on a sand bar and we could not get past them. So we went instead to the port of Iberia. There were shore tours past sugar cane fields and old plantations to St. Martinsville and to Avery Island where rock salt is mined and Tabasco sauce is made and thousands of snowy egrets come to nest. In St. Martinsville the Cultural Heritage Center has a mural depicting the 1765 arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana, a genealogy center, and exhibits on free people of color in Louisiana who before the Civil War were active in business, owned plantations, and indeed sometimes had large numbers of slaves of their own. You could also visit Acadian Village with authentic Acadian structures including the home of senator and Hadacol inventor Dudley LeBlanc.

The next day we cruised to Morgan City. There were more sugar cane fields, and rice fields (which are later flooded for raising crayfish), and bayous and large cypress trees that were crucial to building houses and the railroad in the development of the area. We visited beautiful Oaklawn Manor, built in 1837 and now the plantation home of former Louisiana governor Mike Foster and featuring a large collection of John James Audubon carvings and prints. Audubon spent many years in this area. And we visited the Wedell-Williams Aviation Museum, with Wedell’s famous plane that broke the world speed record in 1933.

Next stop was the port at Krotz Springs, and our tour guide on the bus played a guitar, sang songs, and told stories about his memories as a boy of sitting in the bayou with his father, building a fire, their food cooking in a big black pot. Another guide talked of their family land and how they grew and shipped sweet potatoes, a big crop in this area. We visited the Academy of the Sacred Heart and heard their stories from Civil War days when soldiers were camped outside. And we visited the Chretien Point Plantation built in 1831, often used as a set for films, including Gone with the Wind.

At the next stop, St. Francisville, were many antebellum houses. One tour was of the Rosedown House, built in 1835, and The Myrtles, a West Indies style home, supposedly haunted. The other tour was of Greenwood Plantation, a grand old home lovingly restored by owner Richard Barnes who personally showed us through the rooms it took him 16 years to restore. Many movies were filmed here. This same tour went to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a maximum security prison where prisoners farm their own produce on 18,000 acres, hold an annual “Wildest Rodeo of the South”, and participate in many educational and work programs, including an inmate band. There are 5,000 prisoners here, all with a 50 year sentence or longer. The longest escape time -- three hours.

Our departures from the river towns visited are accompanied by loud calliope music. Every day a riverlorian told us about the river and steamboat days. Or maybe you would fly a kite from the top deck.

In between it was just relaxing on the river, watching the shore go by. It was too chilly for alligators so we did not have the opportunity to take a swamp boat trip to see alligators or birds in the bayou.

The last day was spent in Baton Rouge. We docked beside the Mississippi Queen and passengers could visit back and forth.  Shore tours included such things as a tour of the destroyer USS Kidd and Memorial Museum, visits to historic homes and plantations, and to the old capitol building to hear stories of Louisiana governor Huey Long, assassinated one day on his way to his office. Our tour was a Cajun Heritage Tour to a Fais-Do-Do dance party on the bayou at the Cajun community of French Settlement. We sampled Cajun appetizers of alligator, crayfish, boudin, and jambalaya, and were taught some Cajun dances finally, then were given the opportunity to spend the next half hour dancing with the dance instructors. This was one tour that I did not want to leave.

That night on our way back to New Orleans, there were bonfires and fireworks along the river in our honor. The century-old tradition started so Santa Claus (Papa Noel) could find Cajun children at Christmas even though they were back in the bayou. On Christmas Eve there will be more than 100 such fires all along the banks of the river. 

We had gone through many locks and under many bridges, steamed along on the Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya River, several canals, and the Intracoastal Waterway, for a total of 518 miles.

If you go: Check for occasional special offers such as 2-for-1 pricing, 50% off second passenger, or free airfare, and past passengers (called Frequent Floaters) often get a discount or a cabin upgrade.

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