An early morning sun sweeps off a shroud of wispy fog as the American Queen paddles her way along the Mississippi River. In the J.M. White Dining Room, I’m savoring a big Southern breakfast while a friendly dining staff delivers coffee, tea and cheerfulness.
“It’s like a miracle,” says Ernest Thompson of Louisville. “We didn’t think we would ever see the riverboat cruising again. Once they left the river, we were afraid they would never be back.”
Many folks might agree with those sentiments. But, despite the odds, the beautiful American Queen is cruising the rivers once again. Her improbable tale started when the youngest of three sister ships was constructed in 1995. Listed at a whopping 418 feet long with a passenger capacity of about 435, the American Queen is said to be the biggest steamboat ever built. With her elaborate gingerbread trim and six decks, theAmerican Queen looks like a fancy floating wedding cake.Once owned by the Delta QueenCompany, the American Queen – along with the Delta Queen and the MississippiQueen – ruled the rivers. Devoted cruisers eagerly awaited each year’sitineraries.Then hard times hit. In 2008,the Majestic American Line, which then owned the American Queen, went belly up. The historic Delta Queen was permanently docked in Chattanooga as a floating hotel. The Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap. And the American Queen was putin the custody of the United States Maritime Administration. The luxury steamboat sat in mothballs for years. Her future seemed dark.
However, three steamboat lovers– Jeff Krida, chief executive officer 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 JohnWaggoner, president of HMS Global Maritime – decided they couldn’t allow the beautiful boat to be destroyed.
In 2011, they joined forces toform the Great American Steamboat Company and bought the paddlewheeler for $30million. After a $6.5 million facelift, the American Queen is back where she belongs – on America’s rivers.In April, the American Queenleft her new homeport of Memphis for an inaugural cruise. Priscilla Presley did the honors of formally rechristening the boat with a bottle of champagne. Sincethen, the American Queen has been drawing passengers with her charms of bygonedays.
It’s been far too long since genuine steamboats have graced the rivers of America,” said Krida. “Steamboating is back and better than ever.”Krida should know. He waspresident of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company during its heyday in the 1990s,a time when the company had the highest ratings going for service, entertainment and value.Boarding the American Queen inMemphis for an eight-day cruise to St. Louis for a magnificent July 4thcelebration, I immediately felt a sense of homecoming. After cruising many times on all three queens, I definitely missed them. There was somethingspecial about the three riverboats and to be on the Mississippi Queen again was– much as Ernest Thompson had described it – “a miracle.”One thing that won’t be changing much from the American Queen’s early days are her itineraries. During the spring and the late fall the boat mostly will be sailing on the lower part of theMississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis. During the summer, she’ll add sailings up the Ohio River as far as Pittsburgh. During the early fall,she’ll sail on the upper Mississippi as far as St. Paul, Minn.
But the Great Steamboat Company is determined to add even more. The company’s stated goal is to take the bestof its historic tradition and make it even better. How, I wondered, could they possibly do that? I soon learned how.My future postings will detail those complimentary extras, as well as giving descriptions of the American Queen’s luxurious accommodations, delicious cuisine, exciting entertainment, interesting shore stops, beautiful lounges and dining rooms, homeport of Memphis and much more. You’ll even get to meet the ship captain and chat with a performer who is so much like Mark Twain that it is eerie.
Of course, for me, the star of the paddlewheeler show has always been the river. It’s a lovely touch of pure Americana to watch the changing river and fall asleep at night to the gentlerocking of the boat. Welcome back, American Queen. May your new life be lovely and long.For more information, contact the Great Steamboat Company at (888) 749-5280, www.GreatAmericanSteamboatCompany.com
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch