American Duchess Cruise: Riverlorian Steve Spracklen shares amazing river tales

“I loved that profession (riverboat pilot) far better than any I’ve followed since … I hoped to follow the river the rest of my days and die at the wheel when my mission was ended.”

Mark Twain

ABOARD THE AMERICAN DUCHESS – Growing up in Joplin, Steve Spracklen thought he’d like to be a musician. He also was a great fan of a fellow Missourian named Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as legendary writer Mark Twain.

“I bought every book I could find written by Mark Twain,” Steve says. “I always thought it would be fun to be out on the river.”

Not surprisingly, Steve grew up to fulfill both of those ambitions. He became a riverboat musician.

“In 1979, I started playing music on the Mississippi Queen, then on the Delta Queen,” he says. From Dixieland to ragtime to barrelhouse blues, Steve played it all.

He also pumped out plumes of steam and raucous music on the Mississippi Queen’s 44-whistle steam calliope, the largest on the Mississippi River system. If the wind was right, the melodious calliope could be heard for five miles.

Rolling on the river

American Duchess Riverlorian Steve Spracklen shares riverboat history.

Steve was “discovered” by the riverboat company while playing ragtime piano at the Red Slipper Club in Denver. “Someone saw me and recommended me for the Mississippi Queen,” he says. “I was 28 years old when I started on the Mississippi Queen and I’m still here … I guess it’s true that the river gets in your blood.”

Over the years, Steve has also served as cruise director for the steamboat company and is now Riverlorian on my cruise aboard the American Duchess.

“I left the river for a while in 2013. I wasn’t tired of it, just thought it was time to go. Then I got a call from the entertainment director asking if I wanted to come back for the new American Duchess last year,” he says. “I thought about it for about two seconds and came aboard.”

As Riverlorian – a historian specializing in the nation’s rivers and riverboats – Steve gives informal question-and-answer sessions and afternoon River Chats in the boat’s Show Lounge theater. The Chats are well attended and informative.

He talks about the music of the rivers, the history, the people and the boats who have traveled America’s river roads. He also shares photos on a large screen in the theater.

How a sternwheeler ended up in a cornfield

One of the true stories concerns the famous sternwheeler Virginia, built in 1895 by Capt. J. Frank Ellison for the upper Ohio River. Although her beauty was outstanding, the Virginia is most known for running aground when the depth of the Ohio River fell too quickly in 1910. The steamboat wound up in a West Virginia cornfield about a half mile from the river.

American Duchess Riverlorian Steve Spracklen shares riverboat history.

“It became a big tourist attraction,” Steve says, showing an image of the steamboat sitting high and dry in the cornfield while tourists gather around. Eventually as summer went on, the farmer decided to charge rent to the Virginia’s owner.

Instead, Capt. Frank hired a house-moving company to get the Virginia back in the river. After much maneuvering, the boat was hauled to the river bank where it got mired in the sandy edge. There the Virginia sat.

Then the rains came. The river rose. And the boat refloated itself.

Tugboat sinks and pops back up

In another frightening tale, Steve showed a series of graphic photos taken on April 19, 1979, when the towboat Cahaba came down the flooded Tombigbee River in western Alabama and encountered Rooster Bridge.

The American Duchess Show Lounge is large and comfortable with great visibility from seats. Blue seats in the back have folding tables that can be used for drinks and snacks.

With the river so high, the Cahaba was much too big to go under the bridge. And the flood waters were moving too rapidly for the towboat to stop.

Amazing photos show the Cahaba being dragged underwater under the bridge by the fast-moving current. An amateur photographer caught the action as the Cahaba went under – only to pop up on the other side of the bridge, right itself, its engine still running and limp on.

To hear even more fascinating river lore and legends, book a cruise on the American Duchess and make sure you’re in the audience for a presentation by Riverlorian Steve Spracklen. He never fails to enlighten and entertain – whether it is at a speaker’s podium or at a keyboard.

11 thoughts on “American Duchess Cruise: Riverlorian Steve Spracklen shares amazing river tales”

  1. I worked with Steve when he was a cruise director. I was first a Fall Foliage Naturalist and ended up as the Riverlorian. Those were great days. As you said Steve is a fantastic musician and I really enjoyed his ragtime and knowledge of the river. I hope our paths cross sometime when we pass each other and I am working on the river.

  2. I first met Steve back in the early 70’s when he would come up to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to play in the old “Izba Peanut Bar” in the MacDonald Hotel. We were definite regulars when he was in town. That is where I developed my love of ragtime music. Even after he quit coming up to Edmonton we remained in touch & years later I was fortunate enough to do a 7 day cruise on the Mississippi Queen when he was playing. Love his talent but love his friendly outgoing personality even more!!

  3. Steve’s humor, knowledge and talent add to an amazing experience aboard the paddlewheel steamboats of the Mississippi River.

  4. He is probably one of the first live musicians I ever heard. Back in the early 70’s he played at Shot Gun Sam’s. My baby sister would always request “Yes Sir That’s My Baby”. The joy his music brought to our family was delightful.

  5. Nice to read your story Stephen. We last saw you in St Louis when you played Washington University. Ann (Korns) Gunn and Mike Gunn, Really enjoyed reading your story.. We live in Tucson ( nearly 7 years now) Every now and then we go to You Tube and watch you play Maple Leaf Rag.. Keep it up.

  6. Hi Steve….Ed Reid jr here from St Germain Wisconsin…. remember the days back in the 70’s in Wisconsin? We still talk about your music. Great memories.

  7. I also met Steve and Bob Dartch at the Izba bar in Edmonton way back in the day. I was quite young and well endowed. So Bob dedicated a song to me. Big Chested Woman. It got a lot of laughs. I enjoyed a friendship with them for several years but lost touch after they stopped coming. I think of them often and loved that they introduced me to the wonderful music called Ragtime. Miss you guys?

  8. I met you on the Mississippi Queen on an Apr6-16 1982 cruise with me and my mom. Her big treat was at 530pm coming to hear you and Fred Doop on
    Piano play the Rachmaninoff and have her Manhattan drink.
    Thanks for those great memories
    Nancy Schroeder

  9. Steve, I always enjoyed your ragtime show on the MQ. And I’ll always treasure and miss the people I met onboard. Best wishes. Stewart Cox


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