Steamboats & St. Francisville: A Match Made in Heaven
By Anne Butler
“Steamboat’s a’coming!” That excited cry from plantation landings and municipal wharves heralded the first sighting of one of the big, fancy floating palaces of the 19th century coming around the bend. Traversing that era’s main transportation corridor--the Mississippi River, the boats were lifelines to the world for isolated little communities, bringing news and mail, passengers, trade goods and fine furnishings, and picking up the all-important cotton crop for shipment to markets around the globe. All through the 1800s these vessels came and went, until the coming of the railroad and safer overland transportation options put them out of business.
But now, in the 21st century, that cry rings out once again in St. Francisville. Several companies operate fleets of attractive riverboats enticing passengers to cruise the Lower Mississippi River and rivers in other parts of the country as well. The little town of St. Francisville welcomes them back with open arms, and not just for the nostalgic charm. While tugs and barges handle most of the commercial shipments along the river now, the steamboats and river cruises provide an economic boost to every little port city they visit.
It’s a win-win situation. The well-travelled passengers come from all over the globe, but they all say that St. Francisville’s charming downtown is one of their very favorite stops along the river. The entire downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District, and it is also a Main Street community as well, participating in the National Trust program designed to recognize significant early downtown areas across the country. Over the years, the mix of residential and commercial structures has given St. Francisville a 24-hour presence downtown, important in keeping it alive and vital, and visitors are impressed with its cleanliness and friendliness as well as its sense of place and appreciation of history.
The local Tourist Commission greets each arriving passenger at the landing below St. Francisville’s bluff, providing a cheery welcome and a roomy canvas shopping bag with maps and discount coupons, stenciled with the town brand: “St. Francisville: We LOVE it here,” plus the admonition to fill it up! The motorcoaches that follow the boats on land offer continuous complimentary Hop On Hop Off circuits throughout the downtown area, stopping at intervals so passengers (some days as many as 300!) can jump on and off to shop and tour.
St. Francisville’s wonderful little shops say the boat customers mean the difference between surviving and thriving. With the advent of online shopping, overall retail stores across the country have suffered tremendous losses; in 2017 nearly 70,000 retail jobs disappeared and big-name department stores closed as did many malls. But surprisingly, the little independent retailers are seeing a resurgence of business. It’s the personal attention, unique inventory and proximity to other venues that have kept customers patronizing these mom-and-pop stores.
While shoppers will no doubt continue to get their cases of toilet paper from Sam’s or Costco, small downtown retailers across the country are proving the most resilient of brick-and-mortar survivors, according to one newspaper columnist who insists “Main Street shops (are) not dead yet.” Books can be ordered online, sure, but indie book stores like the one in St. Francisville can offer much more than a book, with author book signings, comfy seating for book club meetings, children’s programs, and personal recommendations. Clothing can also be ordered online, but can it be tried on for fit, can the fabric be felt and the cut observed close-up, can the buyer look in the mirror and see if it actually lives up to the online promise as shown on a six-foot 100-pound professional model?
This year there are more than 100 steamboat stops scheduled for St. Francisville. These upscale riverboats offer their passengers a cultural learning experience and a more relaxed way to travel than the enormous ocean-going cruise ships overflowing with rowdy young funseekers.
The American Queen is the largest riverboat ever built, capable of hosting 400 guests in fine accommodations with onboard amenities like topnotch entertainment and a grand dining room with 20-foot ceilings. Owned by the American Queen Steamboat Company, the vessel actually can still use steam power. A second all-suite luxury vessel called the American Duchess has joined the fleet this year, and one or the other of the AQ boats will be stopping in St. Francisville several times a week, offering not only Hop On Hop Off shore excursions but also premium tours to sites of historic interest (outlying plantations or the Louisiana State Penitentiary, unlikeliest of tourist attractions but a fascinatingly different tour). In 2012 another organization, American Cruise Lines, launched the Queen of the Mississippi and then added the America and yet another boat, newest fleet of river cruise ships and paddlewheelers on the Mississippi.
Both of these, American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines, hire local guides whose knowledge of area history and attractions enhance the experience of visitors going on the premium tours and guided shore excursions. This expands the economic impact of riverboat passenger visits beyond the downtown shops, providing additional reward for area plantations and attractions as well as local residents serving as bus guides. Additionally, the motorcoach drivers often spend the night as they follow the boats on land, providing income for local overnight accommodations, restaurants and gas stations.
St. Francisville’s Main Street manager and Tourist Commission director comments that the influx of visitors from steamboats has had an extremely positive impact on the community. Sales tax collections are up, and there is also the promise of future visits by boat passengers, who often return on their own for longer stays in an area they had time to enjoy only briefly on cruise stops. Says one docent at the local historical society museum and visitor center, “The riverboat visits mean very good sales, and they love our town, just like we do.”
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).