ShowsBefore You GoBulletin BoardContactAboutSearch
Show and Features |
Culture Watch | Question of the Week | Letters of the Week |
Traveler's Aid | Library | Host's View

Makin' Music on the Mighty Mississippi

Visitors to New Orleans can re-live a bygone era of life along the Mississippi River aboard a steam-paddle-wheeler, the S.S.Natchez. Often at its helm is Clark Hawley, one of the living legends of the mighty Miss. Hawley, whom everybody calls "Doc", is among the last of the steamboat captains left on the river, and he's also one of the few musicians who still plays the old-fashioned calliope. This year, Captain "Doc" Hawley marks his 50th anniversary of working on the mighty Miss. Lex Gillespie has this profile.

Makin' Music on the Mighty Mississippi
by Lex Gillespie

Real Audio Listen with RealAudio          help Need audio help?

A paddlewheel churns up murky water as it propels the steamboat Natchez along the Mississippi River south of New Orleans, passing old factories, rusty barges, and Civil War battlefields.

The Natchez is an old-fashioned, steam-driven paddle wheeler. On its top deck, beneath tall smokestacks and waving flags, sits its calliope. This shiny instrument from a bygone era resembles a pipe organ with 32 brass whistles.


At the calliope's keyboard is "Doc" Hawley, who is also the captain of the S.S. Natchez. Hawley is an affable figure dressed in a crisp navy blue uniform and white cap. Since the Natchez's steam engine powers its calliope, clouds of mist shoot up from its whistles as Hawley plays.

Hawley: "There has been a calliope on the river since about 1861. If the Mississippi River has such a thing as a voice, it would be the calliope. It's the voice of the river. And a boat isn't a boat unless it has a calliope on it."

Doc Hawley, who is in his sixties, got his start on the river by playing a calliope when he was only fifteen. One afternoon in 1950, a steamboat named the Avalon docked at his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia. Its calliope player had quit a week before, so Hawley, a pianist, mustered the courage to ask for an audition.

Hawley: "So I went out and thumped out a few songs, and by George, he offered me a job. It was great experience for me because that boat barnstormed with the weather like a circus. In the heat of the summer it would go up to St. Paul, Minnesota. During the cool of the fall it would come down to New Orleans. Omaha, Nebraska to Pittsburgh, and this boat called the Avalon would go on eight different rivers in 17 states."


During their heyday, from 1811 until the early 1900s, thousands of steam paddle wheelers ferried passengers and cargo along the Mississippi. Many carried a calliope, which takes its name from the Greek muse of epic poetry. This loud instrument was popularized in circuses by showman P.T. Barnum. And its songs once heralded the arrival steamboats at towns up and down the Mississippi.

Hawley: "And here was a steamboat with a New Orleans jazz band on there, flags flying, the popcorn popping, the boat outlined in light bulbs. It was just like a floating circus coming into town...Every trip is different. And of course, when you carry almost half a million people a year, you get to know a lot about human nature...And I enjoy this work and the more I do it, the more I enjoy it."

Today, only a handful of steamboats still navigate the swift currents of the mighty Miss. For a modest fee, visitors to the Crescent City can hear the nostalgic sounds of the calliope on daily cruises aboard the steamboat Natchez, which leaves from the city dock near the French Quarter.

In New Orleans, I'm Lex Gillespie for the Savvy Traveler.


Savvy Resources for Steamboating and the Mighty Mississippi:

American Public Media
American Public Media Home | Search | How to Listen
©2004 American Public Media |
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy