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February 28, 1988|BARBARA STURM | Sturm is a free-lance writer living in Edison, N.J.

"Steamboatin' is like going to visit your grandmother,"

said Capt. Gabe Chengery of the Delta Queen, the last authentic paddle-wheel boat in America to carry overnight passengers.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 285-foot, four-deck steamboat not only travels almost the entire length of the Mississippi River at a steady 8 m.p.h., but also carries you back in time, re-creating a way of life that captured America's heart for more than 175 years.

It's all part of the Delta Queen's Southern Celebration cruises.

We started in New Orleans on a seven-day trip to Vicksburg, Miss., during what is known as the Spring Pilgrimage. To be held this year from March 12 to April 10, the Spring Pilgrimage features shore excursions from the Delta Queen to plantations, homes and gardens in St. Francisville, La., and the Mississippi towns of Natchez and Vicksburg.

There, hostesses from garden clubs dressed in hoop-skirted gowns share their knowledge of antebellum traditions and treasures.

The Delta Queen makes a grand first impression, with plush green carpet, teakwood handrails, Tiffany stained-glass windows, brass fittings and the sweeping staircase of the main salon.

In their heyday, from 1812 to 1842, more than 4,000 paddle-wheel and keelboats plied the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers (until cotton got to market faster and cheaper by railroad and eventually by tugboat barges).

Boys who dreamed of escaping the drudgery of farm life aspired to the independent life of a steamboat pilot. Called "floating palaces," steamboats offered the most magnificent life style that most people of that time had ever seen.

"We provide a safety valve to your hectic modern life styles," Capt. Chengery said as he circulated among the passengers. "Let your minds breathe and allow yourselves to be pampered. You'll feel like a frontiersman going back in time."

Although more than half of America's millionaires once lived along the river banks between New Orleans and Natchez, producing cotton, sugar cane, indigo and tobacco, none of these stately homes is visible from the river today. Its banks have been heightened by a levee system of 4-by-25-foot concrete "mattresses" to prevent flooding.

Our first visual treat was passing Baton Rouge, La., where ribbons of lights outline America's tallest city hall and a jigsaw of machinery is visible at the 11-square-mile Exxon oil refinery, the nation's largest. The smell of gasoline fumes permeated the black sky.

Because the lower Mississippi River is a series of twists and turns, zigs and zags, it took all night to arrive at our first port of call--Houmas House, a Greek Revival plantation an hour's drive from New Orleans. Highlights of the three-story plantation house include its free-floating spiral staircase, chairs stuffed with Spanish moss, petticoat and courting mirrors, fluting iron, peanut warmer and fly-catcher bowl.

Blasts of music from the 32 gold-plated whistles on the Delta Queen's calliope signaled our departure.

That afternoon we got acquainted with the boat, learning that it was built in the Isherwood Yard of Glasgow, Scotland, served as a passenger boat in San Francisco, then as a Yard Ferry Boat during World War II.

When the Green Line Steamer Co. paid $46,250 and towed it 5,260 miles through the Panama Canal to New Orleans, the drab Navy-gray paint was replaced with teak, brass and stained-glass elegance. Today the boat is fitted with 90 comfortable, air-conditioned cabins.

teamboat travel on the Mississippi River was dangerous before a government flood-control system was installed. Some boats caught fire or got snagged on driftwood or sand bars. Storms, tornadoes, ice jams and floods were a problem and collisions were frequent, especially on moonless nights. But because of high profits, new boats were quickly built.

With the help of sophisticated government dredging boats to straighten the river, the danger (some say even the romance) has gone out of piloting. Three-mile search beams, fathometers, hydraulic steering, wind indicators and 40-mile radar make the Delta Queen super-safe. But even with smoke detectors, sprinkler systems and fire-retardant paint, special acts of Congress are needed to keep the Delta Queen in service.

After the disaster of the Yarmouth Castle on Nov. 13, 1965, when that Panamanian passenger boat caught fire, burned and sank 60 miles northeast of Nassau in the Bahamas, killing 90 people, all other wooden overnight passenger boats were retired.

All Delta Queen cabins have outside views of the wide Mississippi River, which, during the spring flood tides, immerses shoreline tree trunks in its muddy water. Mark Twain's words still apply--the river is like "a chocolate tide between solid forested walls . . . a blank watery solitude . . . a majestic unchanging sameness."

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