roaming the Riverfront at shreveport-bossier city
Attention, kids: It’s vacation time, and the riverfronts of Shreveport and Bossier City are a great place to take your folks –– lots of supervised activities for them, plus plenty of attractions you’ll enjoy seeing together. Always considered a fun stopover on the way to somewhere else, this big scenic river district now packs enough adventure and entertainment to qualify as a primary destination in its own right.
After performing its duty as the Oklahoma-Texas border, Red River rolls into Louisiana at the northwest corner and rushes southeast through Shreveport-Bossier on its way to an important meeting with the Atchafalaya and Mississippi. Halfway through town the river is joined by Cross Bayou, the asset that destined the spot to become an important steamboat port.
Founder Henry Miller Shreve realized that Cross Bayou’s link via Caddo Lake to much of northeast Texas (most notably to the old steamboat town of Jefferson) would double the commercial potential of a port city at the river-bayou junction. All he had to do was re-invent Fulton’s steamboat (reconfigured engines and shallower hulls for shallow waterways) and invent a floating sawmill called a snag boat to clear the famous 180-mile prehistoric logjam that was blocking the Red above Natchitoches. He did it. The steamboats came.
If the big bronze statue of Capt. Shreve on today’s riverfront were to come to life, ol’ Henry would believe the place was still a steamboat port, thanks to the five big casino paddle-wheelers moored just up- and downriver from his lofty vantage. Those handsome vessels, however, will never “ply the stream,” doomed, rather, to stand forever as the punch line of former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ funniest joke: that casino-boats in Louisiana would be required to cruise.
Sam’s Town casino stands at the very mouth of Cross Bayou, and the hotel’s second-floor observation terrace provides a bird’s-eye view of the dark-silted bayou water that creates a line of stark contrast with the Red’s rusty hue (a miniature re-enactment of the Missouri’s famous duotone merge with the Mississippi).
While the incredible new shopping-dining-entertainment extravaganza called the Louisiana Boardwalk occupies Bossier’s entire downtown riverfront, Shreveport’s side presents many individual attractions, some that are
many decades old. You might say there are three tiers of activity on the west bank, demarked not only by elevation but also by street names: Spring Street, Commerce Street and Fant Parkway.
At 629 Spring you’ll find the Convention and Tourist Bureau’s info center. This is a wise first stop for “insider” insights on the delights of both riverfronts, as well as for guidance to such around-town attractions as the State Fairgrounds, State Exhibit Museum, Norton and Meadows art galleries, WaterTown USA water park, 8th Air Force Museum at Barksdale Air Force Base and Louisiana Downs racetrack.
At 525 Spring stands the Spring Street Museum, an 1865 iron-filigreed building, originally a bank and now a state-operated museum of 19th-century Shreveport life, and the Multicultural Center of the South will open soon at the corner of Spring and Milam.
The middle tier of activity lies along Commerce Street, where a row of vintage storefronts leads to Cane-Bennett Bluff, site of a trading post that even predated Capt. Shreve’s arrival, and to Festival Plaza, site of the May 27-30 Mudbug Madness festival and other big annual events.
The third tier, Fant Parkway and the riverbank, is centered by Riverview Park, with its amphitheater for concerts,
its giant cascading fountain and another big water feature where youngsters can attempt to dodge (or not) little geysers being shot skyward by 105 water jets.
Adjacent to Riverview Park, watch the fine film on Red River that plays continuously in the J. Bennett Johnston Regional Visitor Center. That 8,000-square-foot exhibit space was erected by the Corps of Engineers to familiarize the public with the creation and operation of five lock-and-dams built along Red River below Shreveport (completed in 1994) to control flooding and facilitate commercial and individual navigation.
The center “also undertakes,” says Director Diane Cappo, “the mission of presenting the archaeology, prehistory and history of the river region with our state-of-the-art displays.” She and her “husband and volunteer assistant,” Russell, also present water safety and ecological programs around the region through their work with the local Aquatic and Wildlife Education Foundation, with many such presentations sponsored by the Corps and conducted at such Corps properties as Bayou Bodcau Dam and Reservoir Park.
Next door to the Corps stands the Sci-Port/IMAX complex, featuring the only domed IMAX theater in the U.S., and an interactive laser planetarium. The 92,000-square-foot Sci-Port, named by Parents Magazine as one of the nation’s Top 10 science centers, is jampacked with more than 290 (mostly hands-on) science and space exhibits, but the highlight for us Louisiana folks is the Red River Gallery. The Red carries more silt than any other U.S. river, according to Capt. Sandy Jackson of the tour boat Spirit of the Red, and kids (i.e., my age and younger) can spend hours reshaping the river in the big tabletop sandbox, whose water source begins immediately and vividly demonstrating the phenomena of bank erosion and channel changing. And despite the nearby kid-size replica of Capt. Shreve’s Archimedes II, a full-size cotton bale, oil-drilling equipment and a swell working model of a lock-and-dam, there’s still plenty of room for specimens of the region’s rocks, fossils, fish, snakes, amphibians and reptiles.
Cross the street to the seemingly endless jogging path (shared by bicyclers and skateboarders) beside the river, and there you’ll also find the gated boarding ramp of the Spirit of the Red. If you’ve called (318) 564-3560 for reservations (or if you’re lucky), Capt. Jackson will float you right into another world, a wilderness world, without leaving the city.
After a quick cruise downstream to see casino boats, century-old rail bridges and a permanent whirlpool, you’ll head back up the Red and thence up historic Cross Bayou. Just past an impressive series of ancient bridges –– sporting odd designs like the super-rare “waddle-A” and undersides covered with mud-daubbed swallows’ nests –– the tour boat will pass the site of Shreveport’s famed Confederate shipyards.
As Capt. Jackson is still speaking of warships (and even Confederate submarines), he’s likely to spy fisherman Robert Dupont and crew loading out the day’s catch for restaurants and markets around the cities. By this point on the bayou, neither you nor the mallards and herons are aware or concerned about the city that lurks beyond the trees and undergrowth of the riverbanks. Heading back downstream, younger passengers don a captain’s cap or pirate hat as they take turns manning the wheel of Spirit of the Red, and you’re soon safely deposited back at Capt. Sandy’s boarding plank with still more sights to see.
Strolling upriver along Fant Parkway, be warned that the great old multimedia tribute to local sports stars, the Sports Museum of Champions (think Terry Bradshaw, think Hal Sutton), has relocated from the riverfront to the dazzling new Shreveport Convention Center a few blocks away at 400 Caddo St. Your next stop, therefore, is an old favorite, the Barnwell Art and Garden Center, at riverside across from Capt. Shreve’s statue.
As always, interesting oils and watercolors enliven the Barnwell gallery and the broad brick pathway still spirals downward to the center of the domed botanical garden of tropical trees and plants. What’s new is that the Barnwell gift shop is now devoted exclusively to the works of the Louisiana Crafts Guild and local artisans, and the shade trees have grown larger above the outdoors herb garden, fragrance garden and river-view benches.
The quickest and easiest pedestrian and auto route for back-and-forthing between the attractions of the east and west banks is the historic U.S. 80 bridge, which itself becomes an attraction each evening when neon lights transform the old structure to a sort of modern-art rainbow.
The Louisiana Boardwalk is nothing less than a miniature city, subdivided into properties (shops, restaurants and entertainment venues) that are clustered in city blocks, complete with broad pedestrian streets and streetcar lines. Not only is this by far the largest and most dramatically laid-out commercial complex in the state, but it also has, in the past year, actually surpassed Shreveport-Bossier’s casinos as the region’s greatest tourist draw.
There’s free-and-easy parking, and it’s a short walk or trolley ride to any of the Boardwalk’s 60 familiar-named shopping and dining opportunities (see louisianaboardwalk.com). Several of the restaurants, such as Salt Grass Steakhouse, feature covered and open-air terrace dining overlooking the river, and at the end of the river walk, next to the new Marriott Courtyard hotel, is a unique carousel where you can even ride a crawfish!
FUN AND GAMES
Neither have the river’s five casinos and their respective hotels –– Sam’s Town, DiamondJacks, the Horseshoe, Eldorado and Boomtown –– neglected the need to provide entertainment for their younger clientele. You’ll find big swimming pools and pool decks, of course, but there are also snazzy game rooms scattered about and, in the guestrooms, endless opportunities for room service and even first-run movies.
Just down the road is the popular Heritage Center, the centerpiece of which is the old Caspiana manor, moved some decades ago from downriver Caspiana Plantation. With each passing year have come more authentic plantation outbuildings, moved to this very special corner of the campus to re-create an authentic Red River plantation environment of the early 19th century. Guides and occasional craftspeople, costumed in appropriate garb, lend themselves to the atmosphere of actual time travel, back to an era that bloomed and died right along with the steamboat era created by the founder and namesake of this old town.