Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Excursion Boat Memories

In 1957 Dixie Roto Magazine ran an article about the great times on the old excursion steamboats that use to cross Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans to Mandeville, Madisonville, and points upriver.

Here is a copy of that article, along with a couple of pictures that accompanied it. Click on the images to make them larger and more readable. 

The article that appeared in 1957


Below is the text from the Dixie Roto Magazine article:

Graveyard of the Gay Boats By Diane Farrell / Staff Photos by Phil Guarisco

THE REMAINS OF A FAMOUS FUN BOAT and other ghosts of her gay era share a common, quiet grave in the Tchefuncta river near Madisonville, La. Their grave is marked dramatically. Sticking out of the wa­ter near the tree-shaded west bank of the Tchefuncta is what is left of the boat: a leaning, wooden walking beam support, and parts of a piston, smoke stack and paddle wheel.

Below the surface can be seen the shadows of the outline of the deck. At low water a person in a boat can lean out, put one arm down in the water and touch the deck.

You would be touching the deck of the New Camelia, one of the best-known excursion boats ever to operate on Lake Pontchartrain. The route was between New Orleans and the North Shore resorts in the Madison­ville-Mandeville area.

The era of the lake pleasure boats—which stretches over more than a century—is over. The New Camelia and excursion boats like her are part of history. But they are part of a special kind of history to the people in this area.

These lake boats are not just sub­jects to study or to read about. Thousands of people in this area remember them; they remember riding, dancing, eating on them. They remember the day ex­cursion trips—the picnicking, the swimming, the re­laxing times in the North Shore resorts.

Besides the New Camelia, some of the other pleas­ure boats that operated during the 20th century were the Southland, the Pleasure Bay, the Charles Dolive, the Minnie B, the Hanover (later the Madisonville), the St. Tammany, the Margaret, the Susquehanna.

On daytime excursion trips these boats usually would leave either from Milneburg or Spanish Fort in the mornings (around 8) or such resorts as Mandeville,  Madisonville and Lewisburg. They would arrive back in New Orleans in the early evening. The time of de­parture of the boats from New Orleans was, of course, geared to the schedule of the trains which brought pas­sengers back and forth from the city.

On week ends some boats had bands aboard. The New Camelia had a large, fancy dining room; the Han­over, a large dance floor. Although the busiest season was summer, some boats operated all year round. There were, according to most accounts, never more than three pleasure boats oper­ating on the lake at the same time.

The across-the-lake pleasure trip was long a New Orleans tradition. Newspaper ads show that lake boats were carrying passengers on such trips fairly early in the 19th century. One such ad, appearing May 1, 1828, Stated: "The fast running and substantial S. B. St. John will leave the Light House every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday for the above port (Madisonville) and return to the Light House every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 p. m. This arrangement offers a certain expeditious mode of conveyance to those traveling in that direction or parties of pleasure."

The New Camelia spanned much of the Lake Pont­chartrain excursion era. She was afloat in this area for over half a century. A steamboat of 123 tons, she was launched in 1852, in Wilmington, Del., and christened the Zephyr. She prob­ably came South in 1862, as there is no mention of her made in accounts of Federal service.

After the War Between the States, she was purchased by August Bone, a New Orleans cotton merchant. He renamed her the Camelia. Under that name, she was active in Gulf coast and Lake Pontchartrain trade.

By 1879 she had been rebuilt and thereafter bore the name New Camelia. Under that name she became one of the most famous of the excursion boats. She was caught out on the lake in a hurricane in 1915 and was damaged badly, but she was still in service as late as 1917.

The end of the New Camelia came quite undramatically. Tied up in Madisonville after she became too old to do her job any longer, she just quietly sank one day in 1920.

On Sunday, Jan. 18, 1920, The Times-Picayune car­ried a long obituary on the New Camelia: " . . . The steamer was an important figure in travel, commerce and pleasure of the city. She carried cotton and mer­chandise, and in the summer her decks fluttered with the veils and parasols of excursionists . . .

"But the day came at last when the New Camelia, the 'new' now a mockery of her former glory, made her last journey up the Tchefuncta. She went with the slow gait of old age and dropped anchor for the last time among the water plants near the Madisonville loading wharf . . . She had come in from her life of gaiety and freedom to the fate that awaits many a former belle when age comes on. She began 'keeping boarders.'

"The broad decks and the staterooms of the steam­er provided an excellent solution for the housing prob­lem in Madisonville, made acute by the influx of ship­yard workers. Securely tied up to the bank, the New Camelia took on the aspect of one of the rooming houses in the more shabby city streets.

From her deck where once feet had danced to the music of banjos or sturdy sailors had withstood the sweep of high seas, flannel shirts and dishtowels flapped from a clothes­line . . . On the lower deck a few chickens clucked in a wire enclosure. But recently even this motley crew left the old boat, when word got around that she was be­coming too weak for even this dull existence. And, one day, she slipped gradually down beneath the water."

The man who remembers the glory of this sunken ship well is Walter Dandie, 77, 2219 Ursuline. Both Walter and his father, Jim Dandie, were captains aboard the New Camelia.
"I practically grew up on the New Camelia," Dandie says. "I was a deckhand, quartermaster, pilot, mate and finally captain. At various times—I'm a little hazy on the exact years—I served on many of the old lake boats. Let's see, some were the Pleasure Bay, the Nep­tune, the Cape Charles, the Hanover."

Dandie, who also has been a police officer, a restau­rant owner and a river boat captain, talks about the old days on the lake and memories come crowding in on him. He remembers little things; lake boat captains used to let the Indian women from Lacombe ride the boats free. "They would come into New Orleans to sell sassafras roots, filets and herbs," Dandie recalls.

He can remember dramatic things, like the time he was a mate aboard the Hanover and rescued a Negro deckhand who fell overboard. What happened to the lake boat era and the boats themselves?

Like most people, Dandle thinks that the decline of the excursion trade was due to a combination of things, most importantly the new' roads and bridges that were built during the 1920s and 1930s.

As for the boats, some just became obsolete like the New Camelia, others were transferred elsewhere, and at least four—the Cape Charles, the Southland, the by fire. Dandie was aboard the Pleasure Bay when she caught fire.

"I'm not sure when this was," he says, "but it was some time in the '20s. I was captain of the Pleasure Bay, and she was tied up at the wharf et Madisonville, and suddenly she caught fire. The crew cleared off, but I stayed aboard. Some big drums of gasoline had just been unloaded on the wharf and I wanted to get her away from there. I stayed aboard while a tow pulled her out about 500 yards from the wharf. There I left her. She burned to the water's edge."

Of all the lake boats, there is none that Dandie re­members better than the New Camelia. "She was a beauty and, of course, my home when I was a boy," he says.

Today the New Camelia lies rotting in the same spot where she sunk 37 years ago. Even in her grave she probably brings back few sad memories. Like Dandie, most people smile when they think back on her. They say, "Sure, I remember the New Camelia, when I was a kid . . . " And they are remembering a happy, holiday time.