The American Queen, the largest passenger steamboat ever built, has returned to service on the Mississippi River -- offering passengers regular overnight cruises on the river for the first time in four years.
Steamboats have long played a large role in history on the river where they were more than transportation. They brought vaudeville shows and music like New Orleans jazz and the Memphis blues to the American heartland and carried passengers from industrialists to workers -- with more than a few con men and women of ill repute.
But in 2008, overnight passenger service on steamboats disappeared from America’s rivers for the first time in centuries. The eponymous flagship of the renowned Delta Queen Steamboat Company was permanently moored as a hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn. Her sister ship, the Mississippi Queen, was sold for scrap in 2009.
But after the reincarnation of the newest and biggest steamboat from the original Delta Queen fleet: The American Queen, river tours are back.
Saving the American Queen
The story behind this latest renovation of American Queen would make a great book. In 2008, she was repossessed by the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) -- the government agency that originally built her for $78-million -- and laid up in Beaumont, Texas where she sat, virtually untouched, for more than three years with a $30 million price tag.
In 2010, three men with Mississippi mud in their veins made an offer to buy her for $15 million. MARAD agreed to the offer, so the men established a corporation called the Great American Steamboat Company and started looking for money.
Inside are five full decks of cozy, classic Americana-themed staterooms upgraded with flat-screen TVs and free wireless Internet access.
Old-fashioned River City Industrialism
The three men were Jeff Krida, CEO of the original Delta Queen Steamboat Company; Christopher Kyte, founder of the travel firm Uncommon Journeys and formerly the top seller of Delta Queen Steamboat Company cruises; and John Waggoner, the president and CEO of HMS Global Maritime and now the official owner of record for the American Queen.
Waggoner, Kyte and Krida said they went to “hundreds” of banks looking for a loan, only to face repeated rejections. They then approached various government entities without success until they met Mayor A. C. Wharton of Memphis, Tenn. Wharton told them, “We’re going to get you that money, but we’re not going to give it to you.”
Great American got a loan of $33 million from the city of Memphis and several of its leading businessmen. In exchange, they agreed to locate their headquarters in the city and to hire most of their workers from Memphis. The city not only helped them to buy the boat, but also launched a separate project to spruce up its own Beale Street landing.
The New American Queen
The boat was in surprisingly good condition in Beaumont -- especially on the inside, which had been sealed virtually airtight with dehumidifiers. But the exterior was another story. She was taken to an HMS Global shipyard in Louisiana for renovation.
Now finally in service, the new company is focused solely on this one grand vessel. At six decks tall, 418 feet long, 90 feet wide and with a passenger capacity of 450, she is about three times larger than the standard paddlewheel steamboat. She also has a pair of modern “Z-drive” pod propellers, one on either side of the paddle wheel.
The outside is covered in the traditional gingerbread. The fire-engine red paddlewheel at the stern and the two permanent gangways on the bow -- known as “stages” in steamboat lore -- immediately catch the eye. The two cupola-capped smokestacks, standing like a bride and groom on a wedding cake, can be folded down on hinges when the vessel needs to sail under bridges.
Inside are five full decks of cozy, classic Americana-themed staterooms upgraded with flat-screen TVs and free wireless Internet access. The expansive public areas include a movie theater, a gentlemen’s card room, a ladies’ tea room, a two-story showroom with balcony box seats, a chart room, a glassed-in “front porch” with food and coffee available all day, a swimming pool, an exercise room and dozens of nooks and crannies for people to enjoy “rollin’ on the river.”
The idea is to bring luxury-style cruising to America’s rivers. Wine and beer, shore excursions in every port of call, and a pre-cruise hotel stay are all included in the fare. These ideas come from the European river cruise lines – now the fastest-growing segment of the entire cruise industry.
Dining on American Queen
The first person the new company hired was Chef de Cuisine Regina Charboneau of Natchez, Mississippi. She specializes in southern-inspired standards like beignets, biscuits, grits, and bayou shrimp. But a classic menu needs the right presentation, so the company also signed catering specialist the Apollo Group to prepare and serve Charboneau's cuisine - the same company that manages cuisine for highly-rated Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas.
Passengers' main meals are taken in the opulent two-story dining room. The “Front Porch” offers complimentary European coffees, sandwiches, ice cream, cookies and popcorn all day long. The “River Grill” atop deck 5 aft provides hot sandwiches for lunch and alternative dining with waiter service at night – no extra charge - with reservations recommended.
Sailing on American Queen
I was on American Queen’s inaugural cruise from Memphis last week – with the included pre-cruise hotel stay. I was thrilled to see Beale Street, birthplace of the blues; Sun Records, where Elvis was discovered; and most impressive of all, Graceland – the home of Elvis Presley.
While it is sad that he was taken in his prime, the legacy of Elvis is preserved at Graceland as if he just stepped out. Almost everything appears to be just as it was in 1977 -- the cars, the go-carts, two private jets you can walk through, the gold records, the costumes… everything as Elvis left it.
Topping off the christening ceremony for me was seeing Priscilla Presley serve as godmother for the new American Queen. I won’t attempt to guess her age because she seemed just as striking as she must have been the day Elvis met her.
The Riverboat Lifestyle
Onboard, the great Harry James Orchestra swing band was inspiring. I can already see American Queen as a first-class cruise experience -- because the new owners won’t have it any other way -- but the real work has just begun.
The newly hired workers could not be more eager to please. This is an American-flagged boat and per the agreement with Mayor Wharton, most workers hail from Memphis. I doubt that many of them have ever even been on a cruise, but what they lack in experience they more than make up in spirit. “Hire for attitude and train for skill” is the mantra here, and though not all will make the final cut, they all have the opportunity to become a part of something important.
Discover the American Queen
Year-round cruises of six to 10 days go from New Orleans to Memphis, St. Louis to St. Paul, or up the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers from Louisville to Vicksburg, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. You can book a cruise on the American Queen right now by going to the web site. The line also recommends using a travel agent who can book you for the same price. If you consider the challenges that have been beaten back so far, this project is already a success. But hearing the story of how she got to where she is today makes it an even richer experience. I highly recommend the blog written by Christopher Kyte and others for more information:
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.