Heart of Louisiana: Steamboat Natchez

Debbie Fagnano has been playing her sunny day songs and entertaining people on the New Orleans Riverfront for more than 20 years. The choir director and church organist from Belle Chase performs three 15-minute concerts a day on an instrument that has only one volume - very loud - and it's never quite in tune.

"On rainy days I'll play rainy day songs and on sunny days I'll play sunny songs," she says.

The whistles are fed by 16 pounds of steam and they sit atop the Mississippi River's only steamboat, The Natchez. The French Quarter based tour boat is one of only two steam-powered paddle wheelers still operating in the entire country.

"There's big whistles and little whistles. The bigger ones take longer to heat up than the smaller ones. Climate affects it. If it gets really out of tune the captain or the engineer will come up here with a wrench and we'll whack it a few times," said Fagnano.

Donald Houghton started working as a deckhand on the Natchez 28 years ago. Now he's one of the captains.

You just have a paddle wheel and three rudders. And in New Orleans you have a lot of current, a lot of wind and a lot of traffic. So it gets challenging," Houghton said

The Natchez is a relatively new boat built out of steel in 1975 to meet Coast Guard regulations. But the boat has a strong link to the past.

The oldest parts on the paddle wheeler are the twin steam engines. They came from a 1920's workboat owned by United Steel that ran up and down the Ohio River.

For the first time in their 85 year history, the massive steam piston engines have gotten a complete overhaul.

"The machinists are scratching their head, old time ingenuity is different from modern day ingenuity, and they're trying to figure out how to get the piston off the shaft and different things that the older generation put on there. But it's pretty challenging at times to figure it out," says Captain Steve Nicoulin.

Compared to today's modern diesel engines, the old steam pistons are quiet and turn at a much lower speed as they move the 26 ton paddle wheel.

"The engines on the Natchez, at the maximum rps is 21 revolutions, so they're very slow turning. They move very slowly and they last forever and ever," said Nicoulin.

They're keeping a tradition alive on the Mississippi River; a river that was once ruled by steamboats still has a daily reminder of its past.

The New Orleans based steamboat is the 9th vessel to carry the name "Natchez". It's modeled after some of the old wooden stern wheelers that used to travel the Mississippi River. For more information, go to http://www.steamboatnatchez.com/