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|Actor Tyrone Power's steamboat trip to Natchez during icy winter - 1835|
During the brutal winter of 1835, a steamboat arrived at the Natchez landing with a full load of cargo and passengers. Among the travelers was the 40-year-old Irish stage actor Tyrone Power, the great-grandfather of the 20th century American actor of the same name.
The elder Power penned a book about his travels, which included his journal, "Impressions of America During the Years 1833, 1834 and 1835." In this work he described his visit to Natchez during the record cold winter of 1835. While here, he performed at the local theatre. A gossipy and chatty book, it is also a good history of the period and particularly of river life and of the era of the steamboat.
During a trip up the Mississippi from New Orleans, Power wrote about his accommodations: "...in my little stateroom...I have a small French bed, a table, a chair, with a sash-window that opens on to the gallery going round the boat. I find my quarters exceedingly comfortable; but the vibration, owing to the power of the engines, renders it difficult to read, and puts all writing quite out of the question."
Steamboats needed wood fuel for power, and obviously the vessels weren't large enough to store enough on board to make a journey from New Orleans to Natchez, much less St. Louis. Power observed that as his steamer chugged northward, the vessel "frequently drew alongside the forest for a supply of wood, which the proprietors keep ready prepared in piles for the use of boats, being paid for it by the cord. The consumption is of course enormous, and in any other region would remind one that a scarcity must speedily ensue; here, however, the supply appears exhaustless.
"...I commonly found the labouring woodcutters to be North-country men, or from the western part of Michigan. They informed me that they can clear fifty dollars a month for the seven months they can work in this region, and that four or five seasons are sufficient to enable a saving man to buy a farm..."
Another little known aspect of the era of the steamboats was how captains were alerted for unscheduled landings along the river when passengers wanted to board, sometimes without success: "Whilst passing Fort Adams after dark, our boat was hailed, signal fires lighted, and at length rifles fired to bring us to; but all in vain, our pilot held on his way, unheeding these pressing invitations. On my observing to him that I conceived it a little hard not to stop for passengers when apparently so near to them, he informed me that the river was in rapid rise, and a current setting on that shore that might ground the boat."
On Friday, Feb. 5, Power was awakened at 6 a.m. with news that the steamer had docked at Natchez Under-the-Hill. He debarked the boat in a cold rain "and landed ankle-deep in choice mud." Attendants followed Power with his baggage, and he and two other passengers engaged a driver on a two-horse dray. All were "dragged up the steep bluff, and so made my first entrance into Natchez..."
He spent nine days in Natchez, performed at the theatre, made the social rounds, rode horses, and shivered a lot due to an excessively cold winter: "Cold, cold; mercury below zero; every one complaining of the unusual duration of a temperature rarely encountered here." Record-breaking temperatures were recorded throughout the country in January and February 1835: -22 in Chicago and not above zero for three days; -13 in Newark, N.J., -20 in Lexington, Ky., and an astounding -25 in St. Louis.
On Friday, Feb. 13, Power prepared to leave town: "Walked down to Natchez-under-hill, to inquire about a boat to New Orleans: saw one monster come groaning down the stream, looking like a huge cotton-bale on fire. Not a portion of the vessel remained above water, that could be seen, excepting the ends of the chimneys: the hull and all else was hidden by the cotton-bags, piled on each other, tier over tier, like bricks. When the boat headed the current, in order to steer in for the wharf, she was swept down bodily; and even after swinging into the eddy, I did not think she would ever muster way enough to fetch up the few yards she required to reach a berth. After a deal of hard puffing and groaning however, she gathered headway, and slowly crept alongside the bank."
On the night of Saturday, Feb. 14, Power boarded for his return to New Orleans: "By half-past ten I was snugly stowed away, bag and baggage, on board the Carolton; and by eleven we were following the eternal current amidst a deluge of rain, and a gale of wind blowing from N.W., with a cold which, falling suddenly upon one's fibre, unstrung by three or four warm days, was positively paralyzing. I occupied a stateroom by favour; but, a couple of panes of glass being out of the window, I suffered for my exclusiveness."
Sunday, Feb. 15, 1835: "Snow falling, the first I have seen in the South; our boat constantly stopping to load cotton, so that we, at the close of the day, have made only some twenty miles: the night came on clear, and tolerably mild. By eight o'clock P.M. we had received from our several halts one thousand bales of the staple, all of which were stowed away upon our deck, galleries, &c. till daylight could no longer be expected to visit us--even the doors were blocked..."
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