2016-12-03 Saturday in Baton Rouge

I actually discovered that we were docked at the Paper Clip here in Baton Rouge last night just after 9. This is the first time that we’ve been docked this trip, believe it or not.

Baton Rouge is the capital of the state of Louisiana. It is a rather good looking city. Interestingly, Barry noted that even though there is river passenger traffic these days, there are no touristy shops and restaurants near the river to capture the tourist dollar.

Our morning began with a very wet 3 mile walk around deck 4. There was a rather steady rain, and we were competing with deck hands with squeegees.

After breakfast, we stopped down for the 8:30 “Dare to Dream – the building of the American Queen” presentation –  a film documentary done back in the mid-90’s by the Delta Steamboat Company, which conceived of and built the American Queen.

It took nearly 2 years to construct the largest steamboat on the river, by far, starting in 1993 and the ship was delivered to its new owners on May 4, 1995. The paddle wheel weighs in at 50 tons! And, the 84 year old steam engine was discovered and recovered and restored from an American Corps of Engineers vessel named the “Kennedy”. It took a series of short test cruises up to Pittsburgh for its inaugural cruise – Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Their intention was to take people back in time to the hey day of the luxury steamboat passenger boats of the 1800’s. They did it – and it came in around $65 million, which doesn’t sound too bad.

Delta Steamboat Company had issues, and eventually went bankrupt somewhere around 2007. It was said that the American Queen was actually owned by the US Government for a few years and spent that time in Texas, until the American Queen Steamboat Company formed in 2012.

The American Queen is the largest vessel, by far, with a capacity of 430 with about 160 crew. They also own the American Empress, which holds about 230 passengers. Their new boat, the American Dutchess will hold about 166 – with all suites – setting sail in 2017.

The slow, or “shoulder season” is November into early March.

We had no excursions planned for the day, so we wandered over to the USS Kidd, a World War II era destroyer that saw action – and suffered some fatalities. It is now part of a museum, like the New Jersey, back home. We started with the gift shop and then took the tour. It was a good self-tour.

We were told during the evening show and announcements that Tom Hanks was on the USS Kidd this afternoon, too – scoping out the ship for a potential new movie.

We opted for the relatively short Hop On Hop Off Bus tour – basically to stay warm and get a free bus tour of the city – non-narrated.

Back at the boat, we grabbed lunch and then caught Bobby Durham’s presentation at 1:30, “Controlling the River”. In summary, while they’ve tried many things over the years, you can’t prevent flooding, entirely.

Naps, reading, blogging, and whatever ensued for the rest of the afternoon; getting ready for our normal dinner hour. Barry pulled a fast one on me at dinner tonight. While everyone else got this delicious looking desert, I was handed a fork and a spinach and arugula and broccoli salad! – everyone, including the staff had a good laugh – and, yes, I did end up with my desert, too.

Tonight’s show was Terry Mike Jeffries band, which does some excellent Elvis music. We will get to listen to them again tomorrow night.

2016-12-02 Friday – Angola State Prison, a Gated Community

I couldn’t believe my ears – no walk this morning. That’s OK. We had no trouble making it downstairs for opening of the 7 o’clock breakfast.

We landed on a desolate bank on the river side of an Army Corps of Engineers facility. The levy isn’t high enough to scare the river, so they just let it go. Where we landed was a small town called Bayou Sara. The town was totally flooded in the 1927 flood, and everyone moved away and up the hill to St. Francisville, or elsewhere and safety. Bayou Sara was gone.

At 8 o’clock, we boarded the bus and left for our “Redemption and Rehabilitation at Angola State Prison” excursion. Our local guide was pretty good and told us of the history of the area during our long ride out to Angola State Prison. She told us about the Army Corps of Engineers moving in to the site where Bayou Sara was, and manufactured and inventoried acre upon acre of what I think were called “ribbons” big blocks of concrete that would be moved to places of need — how they could manage that is anyone’s guess. The location floods routinely, and the guide said that she does NOT want to be one of the people that goes into that area after the flood – with gunk, alligators, snakes and whatever left over. I’m with her!

St Francisville has a population of some 1,200 people. It is described as 2 miles long and a half-mile wide. Yep. On either side of the cute town, there are STEEP drop offs to nothing. The only real business of note is Granma’s Buttons — as described. There are 3 streets and one traffic light. We were told that they re-shot the moving Bonnie and Clyde here. Hmmm.

The Angola State Prison is quite a distance from St Francisville. There are presently 6,400 inmates. The prison is the largest maximum security prison in the United States, if not the world, and because of its physical attributes (the Mississippi River on 3 sides and very dense woods on the other) it is called the Alcatraz of the South. No fences. Only one road in and out. One guy reportedly escaped via the wooded side – and after 3-4 days, just sat down and waited for the dogs to find him. The prison sits on 18,000 acres of good farm land – it was probably part of a plantation prior to being a prison.

It is known as an agricultural prison. Most of the inmates – generally all men, but they are currently housing a few hundred women form a nearby prison that was flooded out earlier this year – live in military style dorm-like facilities and are separated into multiple “Camps”. They have their own radio station, magazine, close to 20 different religions represented, and a variety of education and technical training/certification programs – in 16 vocations. They even have their own fire department, geriatric section, grave yard, etc.

Most inmates are serving life sentences – and in Louisiana, the saying is “life is life”. Seventy inmates are currently on death row. You don’t get out. Fairly recently, they introduced shorter termed inmates (less than 20 years) that number close to 1,000, with the goal of rehabilitating these inmates and returning them to society. So far, so good. They used to see recidivism rates of about 50% – and due to new programs, they are seeing less than 10%. Wow!

The prison has been implementing a “seminary”-based program for the last 20 years, and there is no denying that it appears to be working. All newcomers are assigned a senior inmate mentor, who watches over 3-5 inmates. Newbies spend their first 3 months in the agricultural fields until they settle in. If you are capable of working – you work – basically a 40-60 hour week. If you earn it, you become eligible to work half-time, and become educated in a trade or other area the other half. They grow nearly 4 million pounds of vegetables, which go toward feeding prisoners here and at other facilities. They also breed and raise horses, train dogs, have a camel that was donated, and run a successful rodeo for the weekends during October; proceeds of which go to their ‘transition’ program.

In the old days, they used to record on the order of 1,500 violent acts within the prison in a given year. That is now just down to about 300. Impressive.

We listened to one prisoner, who has been there 21 years of his life term for 2nd degree murder. Nice guy. He is a mentor and spoke about their program. No gangs. Stay active. Live FOR something, even though you are there, literally to death. It is “home”, so make the best of it.

Angola had a simple, but interesting museum and gift shop – they highlight being the t-shirt that reads Angola State Prison – A Gated Community.  I bought one!

On the long trip back to the ship, our guide played a video about the Angola Rodeo. I think I might like attending a rodeo, but I’m not sure about this one. The inmates are the cowboys and are also in the audience, and the general public audience appears quite interesting, too.

Did I mention that due to budget cuts, the guard towers are no longer manned, and we didn’t see a single guard with a gun.  But the assistant warden assured us that we were safe, being tracked, and the staff is VERY well trained. They also reminded us that they don’t negotiate in hostage situations.

We returned to the ship in time for lunch in the Main Dining room – lamb burger and fries (eh) and a good beer and cheddar cheese soup, and a not so good cherry pie for desert.

At 1:30, Alison and I went down to the River Laureate, Bobby Durham’s  presentation – a good one, where we learned of the very first Pittsburgh to New Orleans discovery into the viability of steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi – and then the inaugural trip of the first steamboat in 1811-12, which happened to correspond with a 7.5 to 8.0 earthquake centered on Madrid, just north of Natchez, that was felt as far away as Philadelphia and New Orleans. I never heard of it, but validated via Google. Wow! I may have to read the book, Mr. Roosevelt’s Steamboat.

We lounged on Marion and Barry’s patio on the front of the boat – fruit platter, cheese and crackers and wine. Mmmm. We watched a dredge barge being landed, and watched other barges being pushed down river. One was 7 across and 7 deep, for 49 barges, in total – the larges that we have seen to-date.

The American Queen shoved off just before 5. No fanfare, as usual. But, wait! The ship’s steam carillon was playing, no, it can’t be….. Popeye the Sailor Man, and other favorites.  LOL

Dinner at 5:15. The tables are no longer numbered. We all know where to go. Dinner was generally good, or in Alison’s words, OK. Marion brought the drawing book and we each drew our page for the day, and we also generated couples pages – that’s new. The book has become a big tradition on our trips.

Tonight’s show featured the house band and singers with a theme of Broadway Musicals. We generally decided to pass on this one; yet we look forward to tomorrow night’s show.

Before closing. I told you about the twin stacks and the pilot house and communication tower that can be raised and lowered. Well, apparently, Marion and Barry were standing on deck when the stacks were lowered. They are relatively quiet, and came down on their resting spot very close to Marion – scary. At her height she would probably have been OK, but if Barry had been standing there – thunk. They made comments to two different parties regarding the incident. No feedback, yet.

It started raining around 8pm. We heard the stacks go down – although I missed them. I was able to hear them start to go back up, so I wandered out in my PJs (shorts and a t-shirt) and watched them. Woot! Now I can cross that one off my list.

Good night.



2016-12-01 Thursday a true Southern Bell – Natchez, Mississippi

We arrived, and landed in Natchez, Mississippi around 1AM.

It was a more-or-less typical start for us: a power walk of 15 laps, or more than 2 miles. Breakfast in the main dining room. Shower and dress and return to the Grand Saloon for our Disembarkation Session, which I’m not looking forward to.

The day was sunny! – and varied between needing a jacket and not. We had some time prior to our excursion for the day, so we wandered up to the gift shop up on the levy. The owner has been up there for about 18 months, and is feeling good about the future. Tourism is basically becoming the driver for revitalization of this part of town, and she’s in a good spot – if it continues. She had a good selection of products, in my opinion.

At 10:30, we returned with our tickets in hand for our  Southern Hospitality with Regina Charboneau excursion. She is a famous chef (cookbooks, TV shows, and serial entrepreneur, who returned to Natchez and bought one of the Antebellum homes, originally built in 1805 and expanded at least a couple times. She welcomed our bus with open arms, greeting each one of us. The only rules – no rules. We could go anywhere and see anything in the house – including a Picasso. She had prepared some drinks – known as libations instead of cocktails, since we were imbibing before lunch! And a few appetizer and desert dishes that were pretty good. She provided each of us with the recipes on CD, and sold a number of copies of her new cook book – at only $39.95. Uh, no thank you, darling. Biscuits are an important part of Southern cooking, and she showed us how to make them properly, in her opinion, and I’m inclined to agree with her. I look forward to trying this recipe!

The excursion bus returned to the boat around 1, so we had 30 minutes to put some of our goodies away and climb the levy, again, to the  hop-on/hop-off tour bus. We had no pre-ordained plan, so we decided to get off at stop #5, Stanton Hall; then walk to #6, the rum distillery run by one of Regina’s sons, and an associated restaurant next door for appetizers and rum punch.

Stanton Hall was a wow. The original owner had prior homes in Natchez, was ill, but wanted one final splash before dying, so he built and furnished Stanton Hall, in addition to his almost 400 acres cotton plantation, etc. He died 9 months after moving into Stanton Hall. Over time, the Civil War disrupted the life of the household – losing the plantation land as “the spoils of war” and most likely their slaves, so there were income issues and manpower issues for taking care of the household. The home was sold a couple times, and was eventually purchased by a woman’s club (backed by their husbands). They rented rooms, ran fund raisers, etc., to keep it going all these years, since. At this point, some of the “family” furniture and decorations are making their way back to the home for exhibition. It really is remarkable.

From there, we walked a few blocks to bus stop #6, and received a standing tour of the rum distillery by Regina’s son – inclusive of a very small sample. Whew! Then we wend next door to the restaurant for an appetizer and some rum punch. The gift shop for the restaurant and distillery was on the second floor and the ladies came back down with a couple of items.

Rather than wait for the bus, we decided that we had little more than a mile walk back to the boat, and the neighborhoods were pretty good, and it was light, so we walked. No regrets.

Dinner was good. Barry tried the oysters, and in addition to our entrees, we ordered one entree that was a little different, as an appetizer to pass around the table. All was good. We finished well in advance of the show.

The show was a Christmas preview show, starring the house players and band and our Cruise Director hamming it up and having fun.

All-in-all, a good day – totaling almost 14,000 steps.


2016-11-30 Wed – Vicksburg – Civil War History

Ah, what is vacation without Alison getting up early and engaging me in a walk! Deck 4, the Observation deck specifies 6 laps per mile – so we did 12 laps. Not bad.

Along the way, we “landed’ in Vicksburg, a historical community famous for a Civil War battle of comparable historical value to Gettysburg – more on that later. From the shore line, it didn’t look like a bad community, and although there were clouds on-and-off throughout the day, no rain was forecast. Yay!

Alison and I finished out laps and went directly to the dining room for breakfast. We hooked up for the River Laurian presentation at 8:15, which was good, but somehow not as good as yesterday’s initial presentation. People are definitely passionate about their material!

Next stop: the Chart Room, where we were to meet for a Pilot’s tour – basically, the bridge tour. There ended up being 23 of us – more than the 20 max that was advertised – but we all hiked from the Chart Room to the bridge. We was the radar, the electronic identification system, which  identified all vessels in the vicinity, speed, direction, etc. He went over all the knobs and dials, including the gold-plated ships horn (which was cool, actually), and the controls for lowering the smoke stacks, the pilot house, and the radar tower for going under bridges, etc. The tour lasted about 30 minutes.

Marion had left the ship already, for downtown Vicksburg, and we caught up with her on Washington Street. If you eliminated “modern” automobiles and trucks, you would find yourself stuck in a time warp! While the ladies shopped – and there weren’t that many stores in the old town, Barry and I went into a … sort of industrial clothing store. The business had been there 88 years, and the current owner was 84 and part of the original family. They seemed to specialize in specialty jeans, overalls, etc., and inventoried up to size 80 — and actually selling to size 72 pants, and 8X shirts. Whoa, I don’t want to meet those dudes. The guy watching the store while we were there was 74 years old, and going strong. McAllister. Quite a character. Barry got around to asking him about race relations in the area. No worries – no issues. All is well.

We walked back to the ship and caught an early lunch, as our excursion was scheduled for noon. Nothing special about lunch. We met in the theater for a presentation on the Vicsburg Battleground, including a video. All participants were inducted into one of 3 Confederate Regiments and assigned a leader. We were taught the Confederate Army shout, and were put into the frame of mind of being a Confederate Army soldier. Interesting. We were Regiment #1 (aka, bus 1), and as we were leaving the Boat, we were handed a card with the bio of an actual Civil War character. The fate of that particular individual would not be known to us until we got back to the Boat. I was a lawyer by trade, and Colonel in the Confederate States Army.

Our guide was older and passionate about Vicksburg’s role in the Civil War, convinced that it was more strategic to the outcome of the war than Gettysburg. OK, I’m not here to argue! We toured the battleground/US Park Service treasure for a good couple of hours, learning facts and figures and personalities from both the Union and Confederate sides. We also learned the physical lay of the land and the challenges that both sides face. The Confederates won 2 initial battles, but didn’t survive the 47 day siege – ending in the Confederates surrendering to Grant.

We returned to the boat, to learn that all four of our characters had survived the war. Yay! Many thousands did not, and we learned that the Confederate deaths were not even honored in any way after the war. Sad, really.

A quick change later, and we had a cocktail party with the Captain and his crew. That was nice. Not too big; lots of alcohol and appetizers from 4:30 to after 5:00, and then down to dinner. We learned a lot about the captain and his crew in a very short amount of time.

Dinner was good. We keep trying the Southern fare that is presented on this trip, and it’s been pretty good, thus far.

After dinner, we went to the theater to watch the house singers/dancers and cover band. Good show, but come 9:00, I think we were all ready for bed. Party animals, aren’t we?


2016-11-29 Tuesday – Greenville, and our BB King Day

After sleeping fairly well, we got up, showered, and dressed. There was an announcement that we would be delayed upward of an hour due to barges ahead that were run aground. We were only supposed to be in town from noon to 5pm anyway. The mighty Mississippi hit a historic low in 2012, and the feeling by the pros is that a new record may be set in another couple weeks. I hope not.  And, oddly enough, there are high waters in the northern Mississippi River, but that doesn’t obviously translate down south. The result – and I don’t claim to understand the logic – is heavier than normal barge traffic.

Alison and I were up early – big surprise, and had breakfast on our own. We were   randomly assigned to table 70! After breakfast, we took the opportunity to explore a bit more of the “boat”.

Our first “River Laurean” session was scheduled for 8:30. It was good, and we learned a lot about the Mississippi River and its history. Our speaker has been on the river for roughly 30 years – not a a captain, but this was very good.

The river is typically 25 to 100 feet deep, but only guaranteed to 9 feet! It travels an average of 3-4 miles per hour, but is only running about 2 miles per hour now, due to the low water levels. Sand bars very dynamic. The river is NOT tidal, at any point; however, it can normally change up to 30-40 FEET during the course of the year. He demonstrated that with pictures from Baton Rouge with the Kidd and the Paper Clip dock. Wow!

Down river bound vessels have the right of way, and the Pilots basically agree on which side they will pass on.

It’s a BOAT because it’s in fresh water and boats can be loaded on a ship. Good luck with this one!

We have been “landing” most of the time, which is essentially a controlled grounding – and they tie up to whatever is available – like trees. When the boat is tied to a tree, it’s called “choking the stump.” We will not be docking, in a traditional sense, much this trip.

Travel on the river is actually measured in land miles NOT nautical miles. The ocean opening is actually 95 miles south of New Orleans – and Memphis is almost 900 miles up river. If you Google the distance from Memphis to New Orleans, is about 394 miles, or half the miles than going by river.

No locks and damns on the Southern Mississippi, which begins at the Ohio River, its largest tributary, by far, but it’s a different story up North with the Mississippi and its tributaries.

“Tow Boat” 40-60 barges in the spring – strapped together as a single unit. They used to “tow” like done on other rivers, but the Mississippi is too big, and they learned that pushing was better.

Coal and gravel uncovered and rocks from the north. “Don’t grow rocks in the south”

“Wing Damns” keeps the river on course. – river control

Chemical and petroleum.

Grain, contretemps, rolled metals

15 barges equal xxx trailers [INSERT CHART FROM CHART ROOM]

Steamboats were critical to commerce from roughly 1830 to civil war, after which trains and ultimately roadways and bridges took over. Interest has been restored over the past 10-20 years more from tourism, and it seems that they are learning how to do it right.

The American Queen is 418 feet long, and stands 87 feet tall, with lowerable stacks, a lowerable pilot house, radar and communications tower, and flags. It is currently the largest steamship – by far, and houses an 84 year old steam engine, although the ship itself is only 21 years old. The bond draws only 8-1/2 feet, which is basically the same as barges. Ocean vessels on the lower river have a 45 foot channel to accommodate them, but the rest of the river guarantees only a 9 food channel. There is an anchor on board, but it’s not used. The boat holds up to 60,000 gallons of #2 diesel fuel, and 110,000 of fresh water.

That was quite a session!

Alison and Marion had already signed us up for our excursions, months ago, but we attended the excursion orientation session to hear what they had to say, and learn a bit more about what we were going to see throughout the week.

Next up, at 10:30am was Mr Sam Thompson – a friend of Elvis and his chief body guard. He grew up in Memphis, worked for the Sheriffs department, and possibly most important, his sister, Linda, was Elvis’s girlfriend – and a previous Miss Tennessee. This was his fifth “Elvis” cruse for American Steamship, as ambassador for Elvis Presley Enterprise.

Sam and Elvis met in 1972. He was Dany Thomas’s assigned body guard while Danny was heavily involved with St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

Elvis was almost nocturnal – and slept all day to 3-4pm, before waking for a show, or partying or whatever. Sam was at the house the day Elvis died. He was actually there to take Lisa Marie, then only 9, to California to her mother —– and things changed

He left us with story after story.

We were to have landed in Greenville, Mississippi at noon, and we had a full afternoon excursion involving BB King. We also had severe storms in the forecast.

The captain delivered an announcement that we would be arriving an hour late because a barge was grounded in the river and the Coast Guard, yes, the Coast Guard on the river, was actively trying to free it and because the river was low, there wasn’t a lot of room to go around. We took a hard left into a tributary for Greenville, and then learned that the back end of a barge was hanging out into the channel, and had to have a tug push it into shore so we could pass. Finally, we landed and climbed the levy that was expanded several feet higher after the 1927 flood. Wow.

B.B. KIng museum

We finally got to the museum – in the rain. Pictures and videos were not permitted, but we had a great time!

“He’s done it with kindness. He’s done it with grace. He’s done it with class. And that goes further than the licks he can play, or the notes he can sing. ”

We were greeted by an adult brother/sister singers who were wonderful. Great museum. The museum was a LOT bigger on the inside than it appeared from the outside, and it was packed with good material. We were supposed to have gone to a local club owned by BB King for some food and more music, but due to the weather, they brought everything to the museum. Music and food brought to us instead of going to the club due to the severe weather. We tried fried catfish, fried chicken, French fries and fried hush puppies and lemonade. and some good music from a four piece band.

Our Greenville guide was, like all of them passionate about Greenville, but there is NO WAY I would consider living there. Nicest lady, but as she was explaining things to us, all I could hear in my mind was the guy in Forest Gump explaining all the ways to prepare and eat shrimp!

The wild weather struck, as we were driving back in the bus – severe thunderstorms heavy rain and tornado warning. We learned that ours was the only excursion that made it out. All other excursions and hop-on/hop-off plans were grounded to severe hail that occurred.

One quote I took away from today’s excursion: “If you can eat it we can deep fry it.”

The bus got back to the ship about 5, and we got ready for our “formal” dinner. This apparently means different things to different people, but I thought we looked pretty good. Half joke, and half curiosity, I had shrimp, spring mix and a stuffed pepper with quinoa, lentils, etc. and lots of wine for dinner.

The later show starts at 7:45pm, and this was part II, Elvis, the later years. It was another good show by Andy and his band.

After the show, we stopped outside, on-deck outside out cabin. It was still thundering and lightening. It was still raining, but not terribly hard. And FOG, so much that I couldn’t tell if we were moving forward, backward or standing still – literally. So we decided to leave it to the Captain and his crew to get us back out to the Mississippi and on to our next stop.