Rides on the American Cruise Lines cruise coach were sometimes a tad longer. The American Symphony might have to dock in an unusual place. Shore excursions could be cancelled or shortened.
But for a glorious week, my brother Joe and I cruised from Memphis to New Orleans aboard the beautiful new American Symphony riverboat. And we had a terrific time.
The low water levels on the Mississippi River necessitated some adjustments but passengers were just happy to be cruising again. Patricia from Cincinnati said she had been looking forward to her first cruise since the pandemic hit and she was not disappointed.
“It has been awesome,” Patricia says. “I know some changes had to be made but I think it’s wonderful the cruise company was able to react so quickly and create a great cruise.”
American Symphony had to dock in unusual places because of the low river.
Message from cruise line president
In fact, American Cruise Lines President and CEO Charles B. Robertson noted that “the historic low water conditions and river closures presented unique challenges that we all worked to adapt to as we sailed.”
As Charles wrote in a letter to passengers, “Each sailing scheduled was impacted by the physical limitations of the river, US Army Corps dredging activities and commercial traffic patterns. I do hope that you were able to enjoy much of the experience as our crew worked to preserve the planned shore excursions and spend time underway during the day.”
While the changes were beyond American Cruise Lines control, Charles said he knew that “any deviation is disappointing … I hope that we can fully earn your confidence and exceed your expectations.”
The cruise did exceed my expectations as well as my brother’s expectations. In fact, one of the itinerary changes introduced me to a historic home and lovely lady I had never met before.
Originally, Joe and I were scheduled to visit Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. Built in 1796, Myrtles is surrounded by centuries-old live oak trees and features a 125-foot verandah, exquisite ornamental ironwork, hand-painted stained glass, a Baccarat crystal chandelier and so much more.
But the real reason I wanted to visit Myrtles Planation was to write about the reported ghost. Myrtles is reputed to be one of the most haunted homes in America.
Surprise visit to Catalpa Plantation
However, our tour was cancelled because Excursions Director Mikalla said Myrtles had suffered a water leak. Instead, we were given a choice of visiting the Audubon Historic Site where John James Audubon lived in 1821 and was commissioned to teach illustration to the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James Pirrie of Oakley Plantation.
Or we could ride the St. Francisville loop on our cruise coach to see the town and stop at local attractions. Or we could visit Catalpa Plantation. Even though I have been cruising the Mississippi River since 1976, I had never heard of Catalpa Plantation and certainly never visited it.
What a treasure. And all because of an unexpected change in plans which American Cruise Lines dealt with so smoothly.
About a half dozen of us climbed aboard the cruise coach for the short ride to Catalpa. The plantation is located about five miles north of St. Francisville. One of the best parts about Catalpa is that the home is owned and lived in by descendants of the original family. Catalpa is shown, not as a museum, but as a home that is used and loved.
A cast-iron English greyhound bears a Civil War bullet hole.
To make the tour even more special, we were greeted by fifth generation owner Mary Thompson. A retired schoolteacher, Mary grew up in the home and shared many happy memories. Built in 1885 on one of the oldest antebellum home sites in Louisiana, the house is furnished with antique furniture and has a double-horse alley of live oaks.
Original founder William Fort came from the Carolinas to build the first Catalpa house. A successful planter, he raised both cotton and sugar and the home was known for its outstanding hospitality.
“The original house was destroyed by fire in 1898 or 1899. It was replaced soon thereafter by the present house, built on the site of the original house,” Mary says.
“Two cast-iron English greyhounds flank the front steps just as they did when the original house stood here,” Mary says, gesturing to a large hole in one of the dog’s necks. “You can still see the bullet hole that a Yankee put in the neck of the greyhound statue during the Civil War.”
Many of the furnishings were saved from the fire and are still in use today. Other beautiful furnishings were acquired from Rosedown Plantation when it sold in 1956. Sally was the daughter of Sarah Turnbull of neighboring Rosedown.
Mamie Fort Thompson was known for her hospitality.
Catalpa’s ‘Miss Mamie’ was hospitality legend
Mary says her mother, Mamie Fort Thompson, was something of a legend in her own right. “Miss Mamie” died Aug. 18, 1977, at age 93.
“She was famous for her hospitality and loved to have visitors,” Mary says. “She would serve them sherry. I’m continuing that tradition by serving sherry to you.”
As we sipped our sherry while she led us through the home, Mary would point out different antiques and share stories about where the piece came from as well as tales told by her mother. The home has no ropes to block off rooms or signs instructing visitors not sit on a piece of furniture or not to touch an antique or not to take photos of the beautiful sights.
Many of the furnishings are original to the house.
Instead, it seemed as though Mary was greeting us as though we were longtime friends or family.
One story Mary shared was about how her mother was taught manners by her grandmother.
“My mother’s grandmother, Sarah Turnbull, was the disciplinarian and thought that teaching a child good manners was very important,” Mary says.
A portrait of current owner Mary Thompson.
“She believed that it was good etiquette to leave a small amount of food on one’s plate rather than scraping the plate clean. She told her grandchildren they must always leave a little food on their plate for Mr. Manners.”
For years, Mary says, her mother believed that Mr. Manners was a poor starving man who needed her food. “She was so mad when she realized she had left all that wonderful food over the years for a man who didn’t exist.”
Flying back home
Heading back to the American Symphony, Joe said that Catalpa was one of his favorite stops on our cruise. And, to think, it would not have happened if American Cruise Lines hadn’t made a swift change to our itinerary.
Far too quickly, our cruise ended in New Orleans where Joe caught a flight back to Colorado and I headed home to Indiana. No time to visit the wonders of the “Big Easy.” Will have to save those stories for some future cruise. Now Joe and I need to plan another visit together.
As Joe said, he kept thinking he would see family more when he retired. But time seems to have a way of slipping away and many loved ones are no longer here. Best to plan times together and make them happen. A good New Year’s resolution.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
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