The race is on

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 28, 2001

Passengers exit the Delta and Mississippi Queen Wednesday morning at City Front. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[06/28/01] Mary Jane Hall was never allowed to go to City Front for a firsthand look at the big steamboats that regularly passed Vicksburg when she was growing up here in the 1920s and 1930s.

But the calliope music she heard from those boats still vibrates in her memory, sustaining a fondness for river steamers that she has tried to share with her great-nephews and -nieces.

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Lured by the chance to hear “Dixie” one more time from the Mississippi or Delta Queen, Hall, now 79 and a Jackson retiree, was in town with six young relatives early Wednesday morning to see two of the passenger vessels that still ply the Mississippi and dock at City Front.

The Queens were making a stop on the 11-day Great River Race, an annual competition of speed and revelry that pits the two boats against each other in an imitation of the famous 1870 competition between the Robert E. Lee and Natchez.

Hall said she wanted her great-nephews and -nieces (all Halls) Daniel, 12, Addison, 11, and Olivia, 7, of Clinton and Lindsay, 15, and Jay, 12, of Vicksburg to take in the riverboat sights and sounds that intrigued her as a girl growing up on the grounds of Jett School, where her father, Wood Hall, was principal.

“I believe that anything that I experienced, I should share with young people,” Mary Jane Hall said. “They deserve to know about it.”

Jett was high on a bluff above the river just south of where the river bridges now cross. Calliopes, steam-powered pipe organs, were common on showboats that ferried troupes of actors from town to town.

The riverfront was a rowdy place, and Hall said her father didn’t let her go to the river to see the boats as a girl, but what she saw and heard from afar was exciting enough, she said.

“They were just fabulous,” she said. “My friends and I ran to where we could see the river anytime they came through.”

The boats compete each summer in an 11-day race from New Orleans to St. Louis. This year’s event is scheduled to end July 4 at the Gateway Arch.

Along the way, passengers compete for points in beauty contests, talent shows and games, Delta Queen manager Edwin Moore said. The Delta Queen has a slight lead over its rival so far, Moore said.

The Queens’ passengers also tour the river cities where they dock. On Wednesday, buses ferried groups between the boats and the downtown shopping district.

Hall said the boats were the same grand spectacle she knew as a child, even though she didn’t get to hear any calliope music.

“They were great to look at for the kids,” she said. “They’re really fabulous.”