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|A ride on the Thompson Dean|
The Thompson Dean was one of the biggest steamboats to operate on the Mississippi River during the last half of the 19th century.
Constructed in 1872, she was the length of a football field, weighed almost 2,000 tons and cost $7.5 million to build (in today's dollars). In the period before the Civil War, the two largest steamboats in operation weighed 1,000 tons each. Most were in the 500 to 700-ton category.
Leonard V. Huber ("The Mississippi Leviathans," Louisiana Historical Association Journal, Summer 1981), writes that in "the fifty years that had elapsed since the first steamboat laboriously chuffed down the Mississippi (in early 1800s), the builders on the Ohio, where most steamboats were built, had evolved a new architectural form transforming the great, ugly and bulky paddleboxes, the towering chimneys, and the sprawling superstructure into a graceful vessel which seemed to rest on the water rather than loom awkwardly above it. With little or no precedents to guide them, the steamboat builders and enginemakers had through experience and observations evolved a practical, graceful type of vessel which fulfilled its purpose as a swift carrier of freight and passengers."
Huber says during the post-Civil War period, steamboat design and construction reached its engineering and artistic peak. On the super-sized steamers, the cabin -- the tunnel separating the staterooms on either side -- was the social center of the ship. There, the passengers dined, attended grand balls and socialized. The cabin featured fine carpet and draperies, imported chandeliers, huge mirrors and a grand piano.
The Thompson Dean had all of these luxuries while also featuring a brass band, a string band and a quartet. The brass band often played during the day outdoors on the top deck where on Sundays in particular, crowds would line the levees at little towns along the way to dance and sing to the music.
MEMPHIS TO NATCHEZ
The Thompson Dean, which always stopped at Natchez, was built in 1872 and during the summer operated from Cincinnati on the Ohio River down to New Orleans on the Mississippi. During the winter months, the vessel operated in the South only -- making a run from Memphis south to New Orleans and back every two weeks.
New Orleans was the home to more than three dozen steamboat lines following the Civil War. Steamboat business had come to a complete halt during the war, although the decade of the 1850s had been the most lucrative ever for steamboat operators.
However, after the war, with the railroads transporting more and more of the nation's passengers and goods, steamboat companies sought to build bigger and faster boats to revive the industry. In New Orleans, you could book passage on steamers of all sizes destined to for locations everywhere along the Mississippi and her tributaries.
The captain of the Thompson Dean, William B. Miller, described that steamer's route and stops in a letter to his children. Every other Wednesday night, the Thompson Dean pulled out of the Memphis dock en route to New Orleans with 50 or 60 passengers and 1500 bales of cotton.
Along the way, she made stops at landings to pick up more cotton and other items. By the time the Thompson Dean reached Vicksburg she was loaded with 5,000 bales of cotton and 10,000 sacks of cotton seed, which, the captain wrote, "is twelve tiers high on our guards. If our passengers want to get a peep of daylight they have to go on the hurricane deck or in the pilothouse. Our guards are dragging the water and our mates and our 100 men on deck are worn out with four days constant work, day and night.
"At Vicksburg, 400 miles from Memphis, we take on 2,000 bushels of coal and swing out into the stream at 10 p.m. and stretch off to Natchez (107 miles) without a landing. We are there at daylight on Monday morning, and the flowers begin to come on board, sent by friendly hands of those who are connected with us in a business way."
NATCHEZ TO NEW ORLEANS
In a short time, Miller wrote, they reach a "different country" in the St. Francisville area, making stops at Bayou Sara and later at Baton Rouge.
"The cotton plantations have disappeared," Miller wrote, "and far as we can see is sugar cane, looking very much as cornfields do in summer...The steam from the sugar mills is seen in all directions. Liveoak, and orange, and china trees dot the landscape, and there are elegant mansions" from Convent to New Orleans "so close to one another as to make an almost continuous village, and over all the fleecy clouds and the bright sunshine of a continuous summer..."
"Sometime during Tuesday afternoon the church steeples of New Orleans come into view and we are over an hour making the circuit of the crescent on which the city is built. We pass Carrollton Gardens and the coal fleets and make our way for miles among the shipping, steamers and ships from all parts of the world. About 4 p.m. we move into our dock at the foot of Canal Street where a thousand or two" workmen, including French, Italians, Spanish, African-Americans and Mexicans "speaking almost every language under the sun, await our arrival. After the last line is secured I leave the deck with a feeling of relief that another trip is ended."
"New Orleans," Capt. Miller continued, "is a queer old city, unlike any other in this country; it has a foreign look throughout, and the mansions and the customs of its people differ from those of the North. I suppose the climate does it; we are more influenced by our climatic surroundings than we realize sometimes. Here we put out our cargo and receive on board hundreds of hogsheads and barrels of sugar and molasses, boxes and barrels of oranges and cocoanuts, bunches of bananas, etc., and on Thursday evening we drop out into the stream and commence our upward journey."
"Going up" the Thompson Dean made "the same landings we made coming down but our stops are shorter, merely putting off small lots of plantation supplies that were ordered as we went down. Our brass band plays at the principal points during the day and in the evenings our very excellent string band amuses the passengers in the cabin" and the African-American quartet sings "Silver Threads Among the Gold" in "a way that always brings down the house. So we go, and amid it all, I have little time to play, or letter writing or anything else but attending to the thousands of demands upon my time that are necessary to keep the machine moving. Tuesday morning we reach Memphis and then begin precisely the same programme over again."
NATCHEZ & ROBERT E. LEE
Two contemporaries of the Thompson Dean were the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee. In 1870, the Robert E. Lee beat the Natchez in a 1,154-mile race from St. Louis to New Orleans that lasted just a few hours short of four days, a record. The event drew attention worldwide.
According to Huber, both vessels were the same length as the Thompson Dean -- 300 feet -- but each weighed 500 tons less, about 1,500 tons total.
"Both boats," Huber wrote, "were in the cotton trade and both operated successfully for about ten years before they were dismantled. It is said that the Natchez went through the water like a swan. She had a half-round groove in her stem-band and when she was under way a jet of water spurted like a fountain from her bow.
"Her stacks were painted red and a cotton bale suspended between them. Her whistle, mounted inside one of the chimneys, was said to have sounded like a huge bumblebee. The Natchez made 401 roundtrips between Vicksburg and New Orleans during her career."
By the 1880s, these two boats as well as the Thompson Dean and others were destined for the graveyard. At that time, Huber wrote, "steamboatmen realized that the day of the leviathans was fast drawing to a close," due mostly to the railroads.
Huber wrote that by the 1890s "more and more boats went to the bank, never to return, and with few exceptions these giants of the river disappeared..."
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