Revisiting the dull season

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 8, 2001

In the last years of the great steam packets, the Southland spent roughly half of the year between cotton seasons. Although there was other freight for steamboats to carry – often very large loads – captains frequently looked to passengers for increased revenues during the off season.

For trips such as these, the railroads’ advantages paled beside the leisure, comfort and luxury offered aboard steamboats of the post Civil War era. Staterooms were roomier, more private and more comfortable than most of those on earlier boats. Elaborate furnishings were complemented by hot and cold water, excellent food and drink and service as superb as that in the finest hotels. Low rates didn’t hurt, either.

For $12, a passenger could travel from Natchez to New Orleans for the 1884 Exposition, stay aboard the boat in a stateroom while there and return to Natchez.

Six years later, Anchor Line boats offered passage from Natchez to the St. Louis Exposition and back for $25. The summer rate – including meals and a stateroom berth – on Anchor Line boats between Natchez and New Orleans was $8 for a round-trip ticket in 1896. Some say that the meals alone were probably worth the fare.

In the early summer of 1888, the Guiding Star was said to have cleared about $10,000 in the spring excursion season. Anchor Line boats enjoyed larger number of tourists than they had in many years in the 1890s. A trip on the Mississippi thus had become &uot;a standard one in the itineraries of American tourists,&uot; according to a travel writer of the time.

The summer months were known as the &uot;dull season.&uot; Many of the big boats simply withdrew from the river, or, to use an old riverman’s term, they &uot;choked a stump.&uot; Others entered local excursion enterprises for a few months.

In small towns such as Natchez, where local boats continued their short regular runs without benefit of cotton-carrying revenues, townspeople were urged by newspaper editors and others to patronize the boats so that the captains would not have to pull out of the river trade.

Support your boats, they said, &uot;lest you be deprived of the great convenience&uot; of having them. The captains put their minds to work, too, and organized special moonlight excursions, removing cabin furnishings to create a dance floor on board. Food, drink and a string band provided summer magic on the river and helped the boat to stay afloat financially.

The local boats made special trips for fishing parties, Fourth of July celebrations, weddings, baptisms and baseball games in neighboring towns. Sometimes weddings and receptions were held aboard a steamboat. The spacious main cabin of the Guiding Star accommodated 500 people for one wedding reception.

When Wilson Rumble married Mary Haralson in 1888, the steamboat T.P. Leathers took Natchez wedding guests to Bayou Sara for the event, waited through the ceremony and then took on board the bride, groom and many friends, all of whom traveled on to New Orleans.

Steamboat crews tirelessly cultivated the locals. Chefs baked cakes for charity events; young townspeople were invited aboard for a party when the captain’s daughter accompanied him on a trip; the remains of a person who died away from home were returned home for burial, courtesy of the captain. These and other little acts of friendship and hospitality endeared steamboatmen to the town and lent excitement to the otherwise dull summer season.