If you want to take a trip back in time and truly understand what Mark Twain and others wrote about, you can travel up and down the Mississippi River on a riverboat.
High-end vacations are available on several riverboats that run out of New Orleans and other ports downriver. They provide great experiences, but you need not spend that much money or time for a glimpse of riverboat life.
The La Crosse Queen is a modern-day replica of the grand riverboats which roamed the Mississippi in the late 19th century. She is one of the few authentic Mississippi River paddlewheel riverboats still in operation in the country today. In keeping with early traditions, she was built with stern wheels which are her only means of propulsion.
The vessel has a split stern wheel and each is run by a twin diesel engine that powers hydraulic motors which turn the paddles. This is in contrast to most Mississippi River paddle wheelers in operation today which have a "free wheeling" paddlewheel at the stern of the boat for visual effect, but have traditional screw-type engines hidden for their real means of propulsion.
As the name implies, the Queen runs out of La Crosse. A variety of daily cruises, including lunch and dinner cruises, are offered on the Queen. You can find out more by going to greatriver.com.
Also running out of La Crosse is the Julia Belle Swain. This riverboat was built in 1971 in Dubuque, Iowa, and is one of only five authentic steam-powered passenger vessels still in operation on the Mississippi River system.
Her steam propulsion system with authentic vintage reciprocating engines was built in 1915 and originally installed in the ferryboat City of Baton Rouge. These engines have now logged well over one million miles. A licensed steam engineer is on-duty at all times, and is in constant communication with the pilot.
In styling and design, the Julia Belle Swain is considered the finest example of the Western Rivers stern wheel packets that operated regularly on the Upper Mississippi River over 130 years ago. It has an open main deck in keeping with traditional steamboat design. In the 1800s, this area would have been used to transport all manner of bulk cargo, from cotton to lumber, livestock to dry goods.
The second deck features an ornately appointed dining salon serving full sit-down meals and buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Again, a variety of cruises are offered.
This writer and his wife took one to Winona, Minn., a couple years ago. After a leisurely day paddling north on the river, you spend the night in Winona, and catch Julia for the return trip the next day. It truly gives you an idea of what river life must have been during the days when the relatively slow moving paddle wheelers provided the main transportation up and down the river.
You also get a great view of the nature along the river which you can only get from the water. For more on Julia Belle Swain, check out juliabelle.com.
If you do want to spend a little more, and have the time, you might want to check out the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen. The Delta Queen has a couple summer Upper Mississippi cruises that start in St. Louis and go to St. Paul. They stop in La Crosse.
The Mississippi Queen makes a couple similar runs in September. Larger than her sister, the Delta Queen, the Mississippi Queen still has a rather family-like atmosphere. She debuted in 1976 for America's Bicentennial.
The vessel is 382 feet long, 68 feet wide and has a height of 71 feet to the top of the twin telescoping stacks. There are 208 staterooms for a total of 412 passengers. The Mississippi Queen has the world's largest calliope with 44 gold plated solid-brass pipes, specially built for the Mississippi Queen.
For more information on these riverboats, go to rivers-rails.com.
If you’re a “landlubber”, but still want to learn more about the riverboats, visit The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa.
The Fred W. Woodward Riverboat Museum in the national facility is the original museum and the focal point for river history, riverboats and the home of the River of Dreams Theater. Constructed in 1902, the building was the original home of the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works which manufactured some of the largest boats and paddle wheelers in the nation.
The Boatyard is the museum’s outdoor "hands-on" area featuring large steamboat artifacts, boat building demonstrations and a themed children’s play area. Visitors can even take part in the ceremonious "launching" of boats into the Port of Dubuque Ice Harbor several times a day. For more, go to mississippirivermuseum.com.
Finally, if you don’t mind a game of chance, you can gamble on a riverboat in Marquette, Iowa, right across the river from Prairie du Chien. The Isle of Capri casino is on a docked riverboat named Miss Marquette.
If you win some money, or at least don’t lose too much, you might want to check out the charming antique stores and other shops in Prairie, Marquette and nearby McGregor, Iowa.
The Delta Queen, a frequent visitor to La Crosse and other cities up and down the Mississippi River, will be forced to shut down next year after failing to get a critical exemption from Congress.