Remembering the Delta Queen (with Photo Gallery)
By John R. Allison, Writer/Photographer/Producer at HottyToddy.com
The year was 1991. I had heard about a seven-day journey aboard the historic Delta Queen steamboat from Memphis to New Orleans. The journey was organized by Bill Ferris and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Special guests included performers my father Mose Allison and B. B. King and speakers Shelby Foote and Alex Haley among others.
A week before embarking I received a call in New York from Bill Ferris telling me I could join them on this adventure if I didn’t mind sharing a room with Huger Foote, Shelby’s son. There was no way I could turn this offer down, and I gleefully accepted the invitation.
When I arrived in Memphis, readying myself at the time of embarkation, I noticed a buddy of mine from New York standing near. I was surprised to see him here. As it turns out, this buddy of mine was Shelby Foote’s son Huger. We had previously shared good times together in the Big Apple only knowing that we both shared Mississippi roots. Our fathers just never came up in conversation.
Our journey began in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel with the marching of the ducks and concluded a week later in New Orleans in the French Quarter. The days in between became blurred, there were so many remarkable scheduled activities. I do believe that I was the last to go to bed each night and the first to rise each morning.
I began most mornings with an early breakfast—just Shelby Foote and I sitting at a table next to a window where we could see the dense morning fog rising off the river in all its grandeur, the shore passing by as we shared conversation and remarkable breakfast delights.
One evening I sat at a table in the Texas Lounge with my mother and B. B. King. We sat casually and told stories late into the night while we steamed ahead sipping cocktails. I had B. B. sign his name on postcards that I mailed to myself; “Look, I got a postcard from B. B. King!”
Rollickin’ on the River
The performances and lectures each night were held in the Orleans Room, which seated 80 to 100 people comfortably, in the belly of the Delta Queen. Alex Haley mesmerized the audience with his Southern storytelling, bathing you with his polished, satin, deep and smooth speaking tones, discussing his family history and his great, great grandfather Chicken George. B. B. dazzled us with his electric blues guitar while belting out a lyric in a way that only he could do. Mose tore up the keyboard and shined through, singing songs born from Southern wit. How lucky I felt to be present there soaking it all in.
I was standing beside Shelby Foote when we steamed into Vicksburg. What a treat to see Shelby’s bold and steadfast enthusiasm and listen to his scholarly words being shouted from the bow to the stern of the Delta Queen. Shelby was describing in detail the events and maneuvers of the embattled troops in 1863. If the hair on your neck did not stand up then, it never would. We embarked there at Vicksburg and spent the good part of a day in awe, following Shelby from one place to another as he told us stories as though he lived through the siege himself.
Evenings after delectable gourmet dinners were spent relaxing comfortably, rocking away on the deck among small groups of guests, laughing, drinking, telling stories and getting to know each other. A cool breeze, the smell of the river and the sound of the churning, turning paddle wheel are ever present. Each day was topped off with a dazzling sunset and the harmonies of the bellowing calliope. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
A documentary film titled Return to the River captured this historic journey down the river. It was written by Oxford’s own Lawrence Wells. Wells is the husband of the late Dean Faulkner Wells — William Faulkner’s niece — and together they ran the Yoknapatawpha Press, which is based in Oxford, Mississippi.
Today, the world renowned Delta Queen is moored as a boutique hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee.