Steam Engines and the Tornado

by John Delach



The following is an excerpt from my journal: “Up River: Steamin on the Big Muddy.” If you are interested in reading the complete journal please contact me at:



Having made my way to the engine room bar to enjoy a Jameson’s on the rocks I decided to let it breathe while I made a visit the engine room. Mark, the Chief Engineer was sitting at his desk when I arrived. A young man in his thirties, he was eager to talk about his charges, twin horizontal steam engines that power the paddle wheel. He explained that they came off of an Army Corp of Engineers dredge built in 1932. The engines were re-built and dropped into the hull of the American Queen during construction.


I observe the two huge pistons leading from the engines to the wheel assembly, their forward and retreating motions forcing the paddle wheel to turn repeatedly at just the same rotation pushing the boat up the river. Simple and reliable.


His engine room was spotless filled with panels of electronic gauges and lights. I asked, “Do you control the steam engines from here and how do you receive orders from the pilot house?”


He pointed to a board of lights and explained what engine settings each light meant. “If they want a change in setting, a strobe light goes on and an alarm sounds. Then I acknowledge the command by pressing the return button before I change the settings.”

”How do you change the settings?”


He pointed to four wrought-iron levers that dropped from the overhead, “Using those.”


“Wow,” I thought, “this young man is a real engineer who controls the massive paddle wheel the same way locomotive engineers once controlled the driver wheels on their steam engines. What a job!”


He did point out that the automatic pitch propellers and thrusters were controlled directly in the pilot house but, in my mind that changed nothing. “Was it difficult learning how to manipulate those handles?”


“A bit, if I don’t move them smoothly it can cause serious vibrations to occur.”


I am clearly impressed as I take my leave to return to my waiting Irish.


The Tornado: St Francisville, LA


Each cabin is equipped with HD television that received all of the networks and most news stations. For some reason that was never explained to me; the ABC, CBS and NBC broadcasts originated from their New York stations including local news.


Having returned from my morning coffee run, I entered the cabin to hear Al Roker’s voice of doom warning that severe weather including tornados was approaching central Louisiana. Less than an hour later the sky turned black as ominous low-flying clouds descended on the boat. Lightning lit the sky with boomers echoing a squall’s approach. Satellite TV went out as the storm zeroed in. Simultaneously, my IPhone flashed a tornado alert for the next half-hour warning me to seek shelter immediately.


I was dressed and ready to go but Mary Ann had just finished her shower and was absolutely unprepared and unwilling to leave the cabin without putting on makeup and blowing her hair. I kissed her goodbye, “Let me remember you just as you are.”


She replied, “Don’t forget to bring me cereal and milk.” (It appears some people don’t show proper respect for Armageddon!)


I was seated in the dining room on the main deck with five other people already engaged in lively conversation also seemingly oblivious to our doom. I chose to “shut up, eat up and get up.” The boat’s entertainment m/c now acting in the guise of safety director warned us over the P/A to remain inside in the same light, sing-song voice he used for various activities. He didn’t quite project an air of confident, competent command especially when he ended his announcement with “…and have a super day.” (Accent on the SUP.) Personally I’d have preferred a voice like George C. Scott playing Patton or Charlton Heston as Moses to reassure me.


Mary Ann rang my cell phone to tell me not to return to the cabin. “The rain is coming down sideways and the deck is flooded.”


I agreed to wait until it slackened as our cabin didn’t have access to a central internal corridor and only opened to the outside deck. Later, when we called Helen and Don to let them know what they missed, Helen laughed, “You should have banged on the adjoining door to the inside cabin and announced, ‘Make yourself decent, we’re coming through.”


Mister happy followed–up with another announcement that the fleet of hop-on, hop-off buses was out of action blocked by a fallen tree across the two lane road leading to and from the landing. “A tree is down from the storm and the town has to get someone to clear it.” Fortunately they did, the rain stopped for a while. The worst was over. Mary Ann asked, “Did you really think we were in danger?”


“No, I really didn’t fear for our safety. But I was concerned that the boat could have been damaged by a tornado and our cruise ended just like that. I saw us put on buses for Baton Rouge and being sent home with a $1,000 voucher for a future cruise.”


When Mary Ann spoke to Michael she noted, “It was amazing, even with all of that wind, the boat didn’t rock one bit,” forcing me to explain that was because it was resting on the mud bottom which is what they do to stabilize the boat when using a landing.