Riverboat Futurism, à la Nouvelle-Orléans?

In the course of doing some worldbuilding for my latest novel “Children of the Storm” (which is now up to 88,000 words, by far my longest work of fiction), it hit me that passenger riverboat traffic in the Mississippi River and tributaries would explode compared to real life; I already touched on it while conceptualizing the backstory for my prequel novel to the one I’m working on now, “Orphans of Opry Tower”.

To wit, in this alternate-historical science-fictional 21st century setting, Nashville is described as being frequently visited by large “jazz boats”, which are primarily based in New Orleans, i.e. the South’s other Music City. These boats are recreational in nature, providing food, drink, live music, and even gambling to their passengers, as they take their sweet time traversing the river routes.

For example, the jazz boat that carries one character, nicknamed June Bug, from New Orleans to Nashville would be traversing the Mississippi River upstream from New Orleans to the point of the confluence with the Ohio River, then briefly upstream along the Ohio and then Tennessee Rivers in western Kentucky, before proceeding a longer distance along the Cumberland River to Music City.

The strange Rebirth of Riverine America?

The entire “Great Loop” route and the connecting waterways would no doubt become very popular in that timeline, because the population have become wealthy with no need to work jobs anymore, leading to plenty of money to spend and plenty of time to vacation. As a result passenger traffic on these riverways explodes upwards to heights not seen since the 19th century…and then greatly surpasses it by the time we get deep into the 21st century.

These recreational boats proceed slow enough that, like their seagoing cruise-ship counterparts, stopovers are desired, filled with real history and heritage, along with all the usual amenities for tourists. Where better to locate such stops and their accommodations than at the real historic towns that sprung up along these rivers…and subsequently declined, both in real life and in this timeline, lying in wait virtually empty for something, anything, to come along and be an economic engine of revitalization?

With the population across the region emptying out in search of more beautiful terrain and more clement weather, it’s entirely possible that the hotspots of growth would be the very spines of the river valleys that in real life have suffered the greatest declines!

The major cities like Baton Rouge and Memphis are just too big to hold up under the strain of depopulation, given that there’s so little reason for people to live in those places specifically anymore (given the irrelevance of jobs pulling people in), but there likely would be enough counter-flow toward the river valleys to buoy the fortunes of the smaller towns, especially those with historic heritage, that weren’t major employment centers originally.

Natchez, Mississippi would come out a big winner of this development; indeed, it’s implied in my story “Children of the Storm” that the place has become a major hub of arts, culture, and tourism, rekindling its ties to New Orleans and Louisiana, which in this timeline is still overwhelmingly French-speaking.

La Reconquête de la Nouvelle-France?

And it’s this that might be the most intriguing part of this setting’s river town trend: given their expertise in managing and nurturing a hub of arts, culture, and tourism in a river context in New Orleans, as well as the unique draw of French America, it’s entirely possible that people from New Orleans in particular and South Louisiana in general might have a large role to play in the revitalization of Natchez, perhaps becoming the dominant culture in the area as they move in with their jazz boats from downstream.

After this proves successful, might the model be replicated by renewal efforts further upriver? A lot further upriver? After all, the most popular route for the jazz boats may well be New Orleans to Nashville, and this implies a massive amount of river traffic that passes through Natchez would also pass through waterways as far north as the southernmost tip of Illinois: namely the town of Cairo, which in real life is almost a ghost town now but at its peak was a city of 15,000 people.

Cairo is at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, both very important navigable waterways, and it’s often thought to be puzzling why it’s not a major city: the reason is that it’s a low-lying swampy area that’s prone to flooding. Nearby St. Louis and Memphis are both on bluffs high above the river, which don’t flood, and they’re not mosquito-infested swamps, so they presented much better townsites. Nevertheless, Cairo was a compelling enough location for logistics that people did go to the effort of settling the place in the 19th century, hence why it ever got much industry or population.

In this setting I’m writing in it would no doubt decline…only to be revitalized as a center of historic tourism for the teeming hordes of riverboat passengers traversing the New Orleans to Nashville route (along with routes further upstream along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers). The buildings would be restored to mint condition, the urban prairie would be infilled with little shops and hotels in the same style, all under the supervision of French people from Louisiana (or Mississippi, as the case may be): the Rust Belt’s answer to the French Quarter, as uncanny as that prospect might seem.

The rebirth of New France wouldn’t stop there. Entirely new sites would no doubt be developed as towns at suitable locations along the waterways. Moving upstream from Cairo along the Nashville route, the jazz boats would pass by Paducah, which no doubt would do well for itself, at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. And this is where it starts to get a bit more interesting.

Where does New France end and Music City begin?

The boats would move upstream for a brief stretch of the Tennessee River, before the Cumberland River branches off. This is the mouth of the region now known as “Land Between the Lakes” but was originally known as “Between the Rivers”, the reason being that the lakes are artificial, the product of dams the federal government constructed in the 20th century, with the long stretch of countryside in between them evicted of its inhabitants and turned into a recreation area. None of that is going to be happening in this timeline, so “Between the Rivers” it will remain.

Always a slightly remote and quite sparsely populated area, what in real life is the bounds of the recreation area might gain considerably more popularity in this timeline as a place to live, being rather hilly and wooded and a great place to watch the boats go by on the river…with another major river right nearby if you get bored of the one you live along. 😀  The large area along the riverbanks means that even in acreages a significant population could inhabit the place.

Anyway, the confluence of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in Kentucky, which one might think would be a place of at least minor importance, is overlooked by a small town called Grand Rivers. And by small, I mean small: the place since its founding has never had more than a few hundred inhabitants. In the 1890s there was an effort to develop it into a steel center based on local iron deposits and the easy access to the river system, but like all efforts to develop the region (the recreation area included) it landed like a damp squib.

Might that be different in this timeline? After all, once the French get through with revitalizing Cairo, Grand Rivers might present an intriguing prospect for a stopover, and unlike Cairo virtually a blank slate for development. My mind wanders to a development almost like what we see in some of the New Urbanist towns in Florida that were master-planned, though no doubt the aesthetic character and function of the place would be different: most likely a supersized version of what we see in today’s Grand Rivers (the place is already a minor draw for regional tourism), but under much heavier French Louisiana influence.

Indeed, the whole lower Cumberland is rather lightly populated, presenting almost a blank slate, with only small towns like Kuttawa and Dover to break up the woodsy hills along the banks. Moving upriver, the next major population center is Clarksville; indeed, if you moved along this route it’s actually the biggest place you’d have seen since Memphis. At least it is today.

In real life the only reason the place is much of anything is because of Fort Campbell, the famous home of the 101st Airborne Division…a product of World War II, which in this timeline is not a thing, so it’s entirely possible the area never grows nearly as much. Nevertheless, even the historic downtown core that predates World War II, when the town was quite the river port for the local tobacco industry, is sizeable enough, and might serve as a nice little stop on the jazz boat tour.

It may well be here that the French influence ends, even in its greatly extended form upriver, for in this setting Clarksville is ideally positioned to become an outpost of Nashville’s country music industry. The place already had a substantial population which never declined much at any point in its history, and is only 40 miles from Music City, linked to the home of the Grand Ole Opry by freeway and rapid transit.

The charming downtown core offers a pleasant change of pace from Nashville while not being too different or too far away, perhaps not becoming this timeline’s version of Franklin but undoubtedly attracting enough love and care to retain vitality through the 20th and 21st centuries: there just isn’t an opening for French people from New Orleans to sail up to the ruins in their jazz boats and remake the town in their own image.

There will be inroads made: unlike in real life there may well be, say, quite a few restaurants serving beignets and café au lait by the river in Clarksville, but the place will decidedly be in the English-, not French-American sphere of influence.

Honestly, the French might not be the only players even in their strongholds further downriver; Grand Rivers, after all, is only 100 miles from Music City, within easy commuting distance given this timeline’s technology, considerably closer to Nashville than it is to Natchez. The French from New Orleans might be much more motivated to build out the place, but the possibility that it’s built out into an Anglo country hub rather than a French jazz hub can’t be ruled out.

It seems likely anyway that the two influences would mix considerably once you get downstream of Clarksville, perhaps with the vibe only becoming dominantly French at Cairo: after all, Between the Rivers has always looked up to Nashville as being The City, and Nashville people have long ventured out there for tourism and recreation with some frequency (i.e. it’s been in Nashville’s extended sphere of influence), whereas Cairo and locations further downstream have traditionally been considered much more remote.

Jazzin’ round and round the Great Loop…

As for upstream? The jazz boat tours from New Orleans would no doubt traverse as much of the watershed as they can, extending to the head of navigation of the Mississippi River itself at Saint Paul (yes, the one in Minnesota; navigable waters do extend that far inland), the Ohio River up as far as Pittsburgh, with routes of secondary consideration being the Tennessee River up to Knoxville and the Missouri River up to Omaha. Chicago too would be another possibility via the Illinois River, in which case the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River beckon as destinations, connecting to North America’s ultimate French-speaking hub: Montréal.

US Army Corp of Engineers map of inland waterways

Quite a few more routes present themselves along the Great Loop, and in the winding waterways in between that form smaller loops (I imagine from Nashville taking the Tennessee-Tombigee route to Mobile would be popular, rather than doubling back along the Mississippi). The possibilities are manifold, but I think what I’ve outlined here is likely about the limit of plantation-style estates and little French Quarters extending out like a tendril from South Louisiana, its heavily French identity and language habits already fairly aggressive as far as alternate histories that start out in 1900 go, let alone the extended version courtesy of the jazz boats.


It is fascinating, though. So much so that I’m tempted to outline a whole ‘nother story that has this futuristic riverine nook of French America front and center as the setting: what becomes of Mark Twain’s world in the age of space opera? That’s a question that might be worth a lot more thought…

One Reply to “Riverboat Futurism, à la Nouvelle-Orléans?”

  1. This topic even touches on some of my own ancestry: my great-grandfather (not the Italian one, but rather from a different branch of the family tree) was a river pilot on the Mississippi and made New Orleans his home. Born in 1901, he may well have still existed in this timeline (it only diverges in 1900), and he died late enough in the 20th century that in this universe he might have observed and even participated in the earliest part of this river cruise trend.

    Admittedly he piloted cargo rather than people, but who’s to say he couldn’t have switched? Or, perhaps more likely, his descendants; my first cousin, who’s also his great-grandchild, became a commercial airline pilot, and I’ve long wanted to get into sailing, so the possibility his great-grandchildren might be in the industry outlined in this post isn’t far-fetched at all.

    My alternate-universe counterpart here might actually be found today on a riverboat dock in Natchez or Cairo, coming off the gangway back to the familiar beignets and coffee of terra firma, talking up a storm with a tourist I’d just met in my native language: French. Makes you think, doesn’t it…

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