At their peak in the 19th century, more than 11,000 steamboats plied the rivers of America, playing an indispensable role in building a great nation.
The riverboat lifestyle fascinated Mark Twain, who wrote about the drifting gamblers and showmen and women who brought excitement to the cities and small towns along the shore.
Over the years, getting a taste of that bygone age had became harder for travelers, as one steamboat operators went out of business.
But this week, travelers can book a cruise that will sample that lifestyle once again, with the revival of the American Queen.
Two of the last passenger-carrying paddlewheel steamers -- the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen -- stopped operating within the last few years. Their original owner, the now defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Company, built the world’s largest paddlewheel steamboat in 1995 – the American Queen.
Accommodating 436 passengers in 222 staterooms, she is 418 feet long and six decks (90 feet) tall. I sailed on her in 2004, and I know she is extraordinary.
American Queen has belonged to five different cruise fleets, but she is now the only ship in a brand new cruise line -- The Great American Steamboat Company, formed by a group of seasoned cruise executives from various backgrounds who found a single purpose. Without this new company, this beautiful steamboat could have quietly disappeared.
She will return to overnight passenger service in April 2012, with bookings set to open this week. Cruises will be three to 10 days.
Seasonal itineraries will depart from New Orleans during the winter, move from the Mighty Mississippi to the Ohio River during the summer, and see the Upper Mississippi between St. Louis and St. Paul for the autumn colors.
The company's founders believe enough people share their steamboat enthusiasm to justify the $40 million investment, helped in part with a $9 million private loan arranged by the city of Memphis.
The city is also spending $10 million to revamp its Beale Street steamboat landing on the Mississippi River.
To be successful, however, cruises must provide good value for the customer – so let’s see what they offer.
According to Tim Rubacky, the new company's senior vice president of sales and marketing: “European river cruising has boomed in the last decade, so we plan to offer the European style."
Cruises start at $995 per person. This includes all shore tours, complimentary soda, wine and beer with dinner, and a pre- or post-cruise hotel stay, according to Rubacky.
“The dress code will be country club casual for the entire cruise, with no formal nights,” said Rubacky.
The cuisine will be American comfort food, “with a definite Creole influence from the new chef, Regina Charboneau," said Rubacky.
The chef is from Natchez, Louisiana, but is also an accomplished San Francisco restaurateur and the author of two cookbooks.
"This will be the first riverboat with alternative dining spots – but at no extra charge," he said.
The Queen's already popular Front Porch and Top Grill lounges will also offer new, more elaborate cuisine designed by Charboneau . The Front Porch will add New Orleans-style Po’ Boy sandwiches and other dishes. The Top Grill will offer elegant dining. Full afternoon tea service will also be available.
Because the American Queen is much bigger than the average steamboat, she is more like a cruise ship.
The impressive showroom, modeled on the historic Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C., will present Showboat-style revues, “but the whole boat will be alive with music all the time,” said Rubacky.
“Riverboats played an incredible role in the birth of all-American music like blues and jazz. There will also be enrichment lecturers and a 'riverlorian' onboard to discuss the influence and history of each region as we go.”
“The baby boomers want to see the America they inherited now. River voyages are rife with history -- plantations, great battle sites, the opening of the American west, and the unique French influence of the lower river.”
Crew members will be American.
“We are having no problem finding qualified workers," said Rubacky. “Most of the former Delta Queen employees have already contacted us, plus our parent company, HMS Global Maritime, is already one the largest employers of maritime workers in the U.S."
After the American Queen was taken over in 2008 by MARAD -- a federal maritime agency that held a lien on the vessel -- she was kept in isolation in Beaumont, Texas.
Rubacky said the vessel's interior is "pristine - virtually untouched. There are even brand-new mattresses and linens in all the staterooms. We just added flat-screen televisions.”
The boat's exterior and mechanical areas are a different story. In addition to her steam-powered paddlewheel, American Queen also has diesel generator-powered propellers.
The boat is getting a “full life-cycle overhaul from bow to stern and keel to stacks,” Rubacky said, which includes removing the paddlewheel intact for new paint and grease, painting the hull, and inspecting the air conditioning, electrical and plumbing systems. This is being done at the Bolinger Shipyard in Louisiana owned by HMS Global Maritime.
By the way, a second riverboat is also planning to begin regular, year-round cruising on the Mississippi.
The “Queen of the Mississippi” is another diesel-propeller assisted, paddlewheel steamer, smaller but a bit faster, that will enter service in August of 2012. Bookings for the American Queen will begin around September 20th with information available at the web site. The company encourages all guests to book through a travel agent and will make recommendations upon request.
Paul Motter is the co-founder and editor of CruiseMates.com cruise travel guide.
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.