New Orleans: The “J.M. White” Mistress of the Mississippi Leaving the Crescent City in 1887


The days of the sumptuous “floating palaces” began to wane after the Civil War, although these steamboats continued to parade up and down the Mississippi for another decade or more. Some nineteenth-century observers thought they represented a kind of river going fantasy—too much filigree. There was none of more luxurious than the J.M. White, which was considered the most opulent of all the Queens.

This spectacular side-wheel cotton boat was named for a very popular skipper, Captain J.M. White, of Cloverport, Kentucky. she was built at the Howard yard in Jeffersonville, Indiana, in 1878 for the account of Captain John Tobin , and like most steamboats in those days, she was constructed without plans or specifications.

The total cost of the “River Rolls-Royce” was $300,000, of which $50,000 was spent on the machinery. Her smokestacks stretched seventy-three feet into the air. Her paddle wheels were forty-four feet in diameter—as high as a grain elevator. On the giant wheelhouse, the name was embossed upon a lacquer back.

The White was finished at Paducah, Kentucky, and on June 26, 1878, she started south on her maiden voyage with an incomplete vessel in tow. The fortunate passengers slept in staterooms boasting custom, inlaid doors with brass doorknobs and specially designed, overstuffed, “rococo” furniture. The saloon, 260 feet long, 19 feet wide, and 16 feet high, boasted a handwoven European carpet, and overhead hung twelve ornate chandeliers.

Throughout the boat there were gleaming mirrors and gilded pillars, cornices and arches, oil paintings and handsome tapestries. The dining room served only the finest food, including elaborate French entrees, and afterward drinking dancing and gambling were available.

Designed to carry ten thousand bales of cotton, the White never came up to deadweight for various reasons: some said that her cargo and route structure were affected by changing economic conditions and epidemics of yellow fever. The glamorous J.M. White burned at St . Maurice Plantation, Pointe Coupee Parish, on December 13, 1886, with a loss of several lives. but while she was afloat, she was indeed, the “Mistress of the Mississippi”.

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