Culture + Style

The Last Authentic Steamboat is Cruising the Mississippi in New Orleans

Ride a New Orleans steamboat back in time. The steam engines on the Natchez date back to 1925, making it the only truly steam-operated sternwheeler on the Mississippi. (Photo: Joshua Brasted)

Steven Matthew Nicoulin has been cruising the Mississippi River just about all of his 31 years. A licensed captain aboard the Steamboat Natchez in his native New Orleans, Nicoulin learned his love of the river first hand from his father, Stephen Paul Nicoulin, the historic vessel’s Master Captain.

“I remember first steering the boat on my sixth birthday,” said the captain. “My dad worked a lot, so we’d go on the boat to spend time with him. They played “Happy Birthday” on the calliope and I got to sit in the captain’s chair and take the wheel. Of course my dad was right there with me. I’d always brag about him to my friends and when we’d pass by the boat, he’d blow the whistle at us.”

Here’s his take on why taking a cruise on the river should top every visitor’s bucket list.

Why is cruising on the Natchez a cool way to see New Orleans?

The Natchez is special because it’s the only true steamboat on the entire Mississippi – you feel like you’ve traveled back in time to the days when that’s how people really got around. And the Natchez has been an iconic part of the New Orleans riverfront since she was christened in April 1975. Other boats say they’re paddle-wheelers, but we’re the only one that’s really steam-powered. If Mark Twain were alive today, he’d be very much at home on this vessel. Then, there are the amazing city views especially at night – you can get an almost perfect view of St. Louis Cathedral when we pass by.

What usually surprises passengers when they’re onboard?

People love it that they can see the steam engines, which are 50 years older than the boat and were built in 1925.We are one of the few boats that allow passengers into the engine room.

And I think seeing the dramatic curve of the river from the boat….You really understand why we are called the Crescent City.

What’s your favorite time of day to cruise?

I love the dinner trip in the summertime. You still have a good bit of sunlight let so you can see where you’re going. Then you get the sunset, with the jazz band playing outside and listening to the music going up the river – it’s magical.

Why is the Natchez special?

The design is so unique. Although she’s all steel, that’s the only difference between her and the kind of boats that sailed the river back in the 1800s. There probably will never be another boat constructed just like her. She’s fast, too. She can fly, up to 17 miles an hour, and that’s pushing her pretty good.

Do you get many locals onboard?

We do get our share of regulars. Locals get a discount when they show their drivers’ license. Everybody loves to be on the river, it’s just something a lot of people are drawn to. You just see the city in a whole different light.

What’s the deal with the calliope?

That’s an old steamboat tradition – somebody would play the calliope to draw customers to the riverfront.Ours is on top of the boat towards the back, and it’s played before every cruise. When the “Saints Go Marching In” is the most popular number. People have a real love/hate relationship with it. Some people who live in the Quarter get pretty tired of it.

What’s the strangest thing you ever saw on the river?

I’ve seen people floating by on platforms they made out of driftwood a couple of times.Then there’s the time we rescued a dog. He’d swam clear across the river from Algiers and was heading back and wasn’t going to make it.We send a rescue boat out and saved him.His name was Sammy, and his owner renamed him Steamboat Sammy in our honor. That was cool.

What’s the most challenging thing about being a captain?

The river itself. It’s constantly changing because of wind and weather, and then there are the other boats to navigate. It’s a busy river. They don’t call it the Mighty Mississippi for nothing.

What do you really love about your job?

I like the company a lot. We’ve all been here a long time and it feels like family. And I enjoy working with my dad. He’s still teaching me things. He missed a lot of my childhood working to keep a roof over our heads, something I understand more now that I’m older. But this time gives us a chance to catch up. And, I love the chance to work on a real steam boat, it feels like I get to work on a toy. I love to show her off. She’s the only steamboat on the Mississippi River and that’s special.

How about when you’re on land – where are a few of your favorite spots?

For music, I like to go down to Frenchmen Street to the Spotted Cat for some local jazz music. And there ‘s a little spot in Jax Brewery called Jazz Sushi that’s really delicious and fresh. But if you didn’t know it was there, you might just miss it.