Traveling on the paddlewheel boat America cruising up the Mississippi out of New Orleans means a couple of things: the boat is quiet, the beds are comfortable, the breeze coming in off the balcony is glorious, and docking in late evening half a day after leaving New Orleans means an early morning start is possible for the first day of touring. For this cruise, the first of three plantations we visited was Houmas House, a short walk over the levee to this once active Sugar Cane plantation, nicknamed The Sugar Palace and identified as the crown jewel of Louisiana’s River Road. Now listed as one of the state’s top tourist attractions, this plantation is just that…it offers plantation and garden tours, a restaurant, café, bar, a new inn, and accommodations in modern cottages depicting the historic structures that once housed slaves.
Period dressed tour guides take over at the front porch of the mansion and they’re efficient, if not smiling, in guiding you through the 16 rooms of the house, all the while pointing out the period antiques, artwork, china and artifacts that show how life was lived among the wealthy in the South in the years before the Civil War. Originally there were 1,000 slaves on the plantation which was built over two centuries and has had seven different owners including the present day owner who still lives there with his dogs. Most unusual construction in the mansion are the 42 steps leading from floor to floor, split over three spiral staircases with each step built on itself and supporting the next, unique, beautiful and historic.
Back across the levee, a fascinating piece of engineering in its own right, and on the boat, it was interesting to watch the deckhands haul up the long gangplank by hand, swing it around and settle it in place at the bow of the boat, secure until the next landing where the captain would head into the levee, rather than pull alongside because of the depth of the water and rush of the downward current. Houmas House behind us, it was time to spend the rest of the afternoon heading up the river for an afternoon docking the next day at Natchez, Mississippi.
Warm cookies served in the boat’s Paddlewheel Lounge could hold guests over until lunch, but the true piece de resistance for the day was the afternoon talk by river historian Bill Weymuth. His depiction of the Mighty Mississippi and how it impacted the Louisiana Purchase negotiated by President Thomas Jefferson’s team in 1803 gave even the most uninformed traveler a new appreciation of our third President and the teams he gathered for further exploration. Bill gave an enthusiastic, exciting, brilliant, fun packed view and understanding of the importance of this river touching on its start as barely more than a rivulet in Minnesota describing some of the twists and turns, its graceful gliding and forced rushing as it headed to the Gulf of Mexico, going through or touching 10 states on its way, forming the boundary lines for several and necessary for life to all. Once you’ve heard Bill’s description of the river, it will never simply be the Muddy Mississippi any more.
It’s easy to get caught up in Bill’s easy going explanations, descriptions and fun facts about the river. You quickly get to learn it’s 2320 miles in length, all the states it impacts, and is arguably second in length to the Missouri river, though that’s dependant on whether you include the sections of the Mississippi that are called by other names. Once the western boundary of the United States before 1803, it carries silt and mud from its start high up in the north and since water always looks for the easiest quickest way to keep moving, often changes its channel once the silt builds up and clogs an area, forcing it to create another route. In some instances, fascinating enough, since it’s the dividing line between some states, a small island in Illinois, once a peninsula, is still in Illinois but now only accessible from Missouri. Another town in Kentucky, which can only be reached from Tennessee is one more example of how the meandering Miss truly rules.
It was the second lecture of the day I was really looking forward to, in spite of already being overwhelmed with fun facts, more information and a greater appreciation for the Mississippi River. Our second lecturer for the group on this very fortuitous voyage, was Bertram Hayes-Jefferson, the 21st century great great grandson of Jefferson Davis.
A brilliant historian, a proud descendant of the President of the Confederacy, and a speaker who could hold you mesmerized whether he’s explaining his lineage or outlining the battles at Vicksburg, Davis had already challenged me to see how his President Davis had a connection with my Garden State. I was armed with my information and ready to tell it all.
But first, Davis had to lay the groundwork to keep us pseudo historians armed with sufficient background for future talks and visits to sites leading up to the battle and subsequent siege of Vicksburg, so we could appreciate history so much more. Over the next few days, Davis would slowly draw all of us into understanding the Anaconda Plan, what preceded it, how it was put into use and in the end, the eventual 47 day siege of this beautiful city which truly marked the beginning of the end for the South’s attempts to be a separate nation. The New Jersey connection would wait for another day.
Davis likewise enjoyed telling his family’s story and his person pride in his grandsire. During the first, and many more, of the nightly cocktail hours preceding dinner, both Davis and Weymuth invited those still interested in learning more to take their cocktails, to fill a plate with hors d’ouevres from the resplendent cocktail hour buffet, and head to the Paddlewheel Lounge for more casual conversation, and a more intimate conversation about the men and river that changed America.
My wine never tasted so terrific!
Next: Natchez, Mississippi and another plantation