The steam engines were built for the Steamer CLAIRTON, once part of the U.S. Steel Corporation’s towing fleet on the Kanawha River in West Virginia. She pushed steel and coal until the modernization of diesel engines made even the most powerful steam machinery obsolete. The CLAIRTON was purchased by the New Orleans Steamboat Company in 1974 and towed to Louisiana, where her four engines (2,000 hp total) and steering gear were transferred to the Steamboat NATCHEZ. (photo from University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)
Bill Dow, Pioneer of Riverfront Development
Bill Dow, whose family owned the Lake George Steamboat Company, came down from New York to attend a dry docking seminar in Mobile, AL. Afterward, instead of flying home, he was pulled to visit New Orleans, a city he’d never visited. Bill walked out to the Mississippi River and saw the dilapidated Toulouse Street wharf, a disappointment considering the early days of this port city. Bill found the nearest payphone and called his father Wilbur E. Dow, Jr. , who was worried sick about his whereabouts, and said, “Dad, we need to put a steamboat here!” The Dows were truly the pioneers of riverfront development in New Orleans. (image was taken after renovation)
Construction of the NATCHEZ
The Steamboat NATCHEZ was built at Bergeron Shipyard in Braithwaite, Louisiana about 20 miles downriver from New Orleans. One journalist who visited the shipyard during construction wrote, “The most striking and instantly visible attraction of the NATCHEZ is her beauty. Rolled steel has been fitted to give the hull and decks more sheer and camber than that of the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE. Passengers will actually feel this graceful design under their feet as they walk about.”
New Orleans Has A New Lady
On April 12, 1975 a crowd of 1,100 guests celebrated the christening of the Steamboat NATCHEZ. Bill Dow’s dream of bringing a steam powered passenger vessel to New Orleans came to fruition as the 12 year old daughter of the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi smashed a bottle of champagne against her hull. Ned Reed, the Director of the Port of New Orleans Board of Commissioners, commented that, “We’re getting back a bit of the nostalgia we’ve been missing on the river.”
(June 1975 issue of S&D Reflector, Published by Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen)
Captain Hawley Comes From the BELLE OF LOUISVILLLE
Captain Doc Hawley came downriver from the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE and brought deckhands Steve Nicolin and Villier with him to join the crew of the NATCHEZ. Robbie Mitchell also joined the crew that year in food & beverage. Capts. Nicolin, Villier and Mitchell are still with the boat today and Capt. Hawley, now retired, still plays the calliope. (Image includes seven BELLE OF LOUISVILLE graduates.)
Steamboat Race NATCHEZ v. DELTA QUEEN
In April the NATCHEZ competed in her first steamboat race against the Delta Queen as a fund raising event to benefit restoration of St. Louis Cathedral. A marble plaque in the Cathedral lists the NATCHEZ as a patron. She easily won the race and earned her Antlers, a traditional trophy of steamboat races since the 1850s. The NATCHEZ has since raced the AMERICAN QUEEN, MISSISSIPPI QUEEN, PRESIDENT, BELLE OF LOUISVILLE and the diesel powered BELLE OF CINCINNATI and CREOLE QUEEN …and has never given up her antlers. As the saying goes, “No one matches the NATCHEZ!”
President Ford Campaigns Aboard the NATCHEZ
U.S. President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty enjoyed a weekend river jaunt aboard the Steamboat NATCHEZ, stopping at three cities to campaign for reelection. Their campaign tour ended with a public address in Jackson Square.
Dining Room Renovation
When the NATCHEZ was built, the U.S. Coast Guard mandated that the main dining room be divided into three rooms separated by firewalls. Each parlor was appointed with different décor. The boat was renovated in 1978 and the walls were removed, allowing for one long, elegant cabin.
New Orleans Hosts the World’s Fair
The riverfront infrastructure and new hotels that were built for the 1984 World’s Fair paved the way for a boom in tourism and future investment. During the opening of the 5,400 seat amphitheater, the NATCHEZ arrived with guest of honor Bob Hope, whose 81st birthday was part of the celebration.
Republican National Convention Welcome Rally
New Orleans hosted the Republican National Convention. The opening event was held in Spanish Plaza along the riverfront and the GOP candidate George H.W. Bush arrived at the welcome rally aboard the Steamboat NATCHEZ, along with his son, future US President George W. Bush.
Riverboat Traditions Pass From Father To Son
Following in his father’s footsteps, Juan Mendivil, Jr. came to work aboard the Steamboat NATCHEZ, continuing the riverboat traditions that are passed from father to son. Today Juan Sr. is a Chief Engineer and Juan Jr. is a Fireman. Scotty Vieages, Jr., who joined the crew in 1995, is also a Fireman whose father is a Chief Engineer. Master Captain Steve Nicoulin, Sr.’s son came to work for the company in 2003 and Steve Jr. is now a pilot and captain himself.
The Dukes of Dixieland Become House Band
The six piece Grammy nominated Dukes of Dixieland, began playing on board the NATCHEZ .The Dukes continue to entertain as the house band for all dinner jazz cruises and private charters. When the steamboat goes into annual layup, the Dukes share New Orleans music by performing with symphonies and at festivals around the world.
Band members: Dickie Taylor (leader & drums), Kevin Clark (trumpet), Ben Smith (trombone), Tim Laughlin (clarinet), Everett Link (bass), Tom McDermott (piano)
Gordon Stevens, President & CEO
Gordon Stevens became President and CEO of New Orleans Steamboat Company. He joined the company in 1976 as Controller and became General Manager in 1978.
Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?
As the region focused on recovery from Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 29, 2005), tourism dropped and the company downsized significantly. As part of The Great River Relief Tour, the NATCHEZ embarked on a “tramping trip,” stopping at cities along the Mississippi River for passenger excursions. This was an important statement to company employees, the riverboat community and the country that the Steamboat NATCHEZ and New Orleans were resilient and would thrive again.
Tall Stacks in the Queen City
Still reeling in the aftermath of Katrina, The NATCHEZ steamed upriver to Cincinnati, the Queen City, to partake in the Tall Stacks Riverboat Festival. As a first time participant and one of three steam powered vessels offering excursions, she truly was the belle of the ball. In a 5 day period, she sold out almost every cruise she offered and carried a total of 12,834 passengers! (Official Tall Stacks 2006 Poster. Artwork used with permission of Michael Blaser.)
A Winning Season – For the Saints and New Orleans Tourism
In spite of the recovery of all tourist areas, New Orleans continued to suffer from a negative public image. The New Orleans Steamboat Company experienced the five most difficult years in company history. In a Saints season that began with 11 undefeated games and ended with New Orleans winning its first Super Bowl, the nation rallied behind an undeniably recovered New Orleans. The page had been turned.
40 Years on the Mighty Mississippi
In 2015, as the Steamboat NATCHEZ celebrates her 40th Anniversary, the New Orleans Steamboat Company is thriving. The Steamboat NATCHEZ carried 332,000 passengers in 2014 and its sister company Gray Line New Orleans carried an additional 106,000. Together they employ 207 employees. For the last three years the NATCHEZ has received TripAdvisor’s “Certificate of Excellence.” CEO Gordon Stevens says, “We believe that, with the finest crew on the River, excellent food and beverage service and a great sales and support staff, the Steamboat NATCHEZ is poised for 40 more wonderful years recreating part of our American Heritage – the Steamboat Era!”