April 2012 Marks the Return of the American River Cruise Industry
by Nori Muster
With the American Queen's return to service, historic Mississippi River cruising is reborn in America.
In New Orleans on April 13, 2012, the Great American Steamboat Company will reinstate paddlewheel steamboat travel on the Mississippi River.
A cornerstone of American history since the late 1700s, steamboats took pioneer families up river to what was then known as the wild west. Settlers depended on paddlewheel steamboats for supplies, and even entertainment. Jazz music traveled from New Orleans to Chicago on showboats and paddlewheelers of the famed Streckfus Steamers Line. Mark Twain described the American fascination with steamboats in his autobiographical book, Life on the Mississippi:
Today in America, there are an estimated 146 paddlewheel boats, but few give public cruises, and none operate in the cruise industry. However, that will change with the Steamboat American Queen, the largest paddlewheel steamboat to ever ply the Mississippi River. The vessel is 418 feet long, six decks tall, and has 222 staterooms. Winter cruises will take place on the lower Mississippi, visiting towns like New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Natchez, and Vicksburg, and up into the boat's homeport in Memphis. Summertime cruises will trace out the source of the Mississippi River, stopping in cities along the way: St. Louis, Hannibal, Dubuque, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. Following the Ohio River east, the boat will visit Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh; it will also travel on the Tennessee River and other connected waterways.
The American Queen is a classical steamboat with gingerbread and open decks. Her majestic dining hall is a replica of the grand dining room on the J.M. White Steamboat. Elegant table settings, crystal chandeliers, and private balconies will transport passengers back to the elegance of 1878, the Victorian era in American. Passengers will enjoy the cuisine of award-winning chef, restaurateur, and author, Regina Charboneau. Upon accepting the position last year, Regina set out to study the history of food along the rivers, and says her menus will tell the story of each region. Meals will feature local produce, sustainable seafood, and rare cheeses from local artisan cheese makers.
In preparation for the first cruise, company executives are traveling across the country to host luncheons for travel agents. At an October 17 event, Regina worked with the chefs of the Ritz-Carlton Phoenix to prepare a typical meal passengers might enjoy on a cruise, beginning with a salad of mixed greens, candied pecans, grape tomato, carrot, cornbread croutons, and peppercorn ranch dressing. The main course was crab cake benedict with sautéed spinach, English muffin, and old bay hollandaise sauce. This was served with Yukon gold mashed potato with peppercorn gravy, and sautéed green beans with bacon and pearl onions. The desert was a chocolate studded bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Passengers may take their meals in the main dining hall or at a casual onboard café, and will enjoy three meals a day, plus afternoon teas and moonlight late-night suppers. The kitchen crew is prepared for all special diets from kosher vegetarian to low sodium. Beer and wine are free with dinner, and snack stations will carry free snacks, soda, and water. The dining hall is also the site of nightly showboat-style entertainment, including swing, big band, and Dixieland jazz. For daytime entertainment, there are shore excursions, which are free to all passengers, and daily talks on river history by the onboard riverlorian. At the bow of the boat is a calliope, a keyboard that operates a series of steam whistles. The onboard piano player or riverlorian will lead calliope concerts and invite passengers to play, as well. Cruises vary in length from three to ten days, and are organized around themes, such as fall colors, Civil War history, Victorian Christmastime decorations, Southern culture, and steamboat races. The Fourth of July cruise will culminate in St. Louis where passengers will witness the fireworks display over Gateway Arch. The company is making it easier than ever to take a cruise. Knowing that seventy percent of the U.S. population lives within three hundred miles of one of their embarkation points, they have worked out a deal with Hertz for one-way car rentals. Every cruise comes with a free night in a luxury hotel before departure to assure convenient travel connections.
The Steamboat American Queen is the youngest monarch in the Greene Line dynasty of elegant passenger riverboats. The Line started in 1890, when Captain Gordon C. Greene of Cincinnati bought his first steamboat. His wife, Mary B. Greene, was the first woman pilot and the only woman to pilot steamboats on the rivers for fifty years. She raised her children on the boats and is credited with the idea to offer luxury pleasure boat cruises to supplement the Greene Line's income from the shipping trade. The family acquired the Delta Queen Steamboat in 1946 and put her into service on the Mississippi, along with twenty-six other boats they owned at the time. However, by 1958, the Green Line had fallen on hard times. Still managed by a daughter-in-law of the family, Leitha Greene, they were down to one boat, the Delta Queen, and faced certain bankruptcy. Then along came California entrepreneur Richard C. Simonton, who bought a controlling interest in the company and turned it around. Under his care, the Delta Queen passed on to Overseas National Airways, who built a sister ship, the Mississippi Queen.
Over the years, the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen changed hands several times. In 1973, Greene Line Steamers, Inc., officially changed its name to the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, Inc. In 1994, the company changed its name to American Classic Voyages and christened the American Queen in 1995. After 9/11, the company went bankrupt and the Queen-sisters stayed together, but changed hands several more times. They met a sad fate when thy fell into the hands of Majestic American Line in 2006. The company already controlled the Empress of the North, Queen of the West, and the Columbia Queen. These were passenger cruise vessels in the Northwest and Alaska. When Majestic acquired the three monarchs of the Mississippi, they held a complete monopoly in the American river cruise business.
As if to illustrate the risks of monopolies when they fail, Majestic America took down the entire U.S. river cruise business when it went into bankruptcy in 2008. The boats suffered as a result. The Mississippi Queen was manhandled, her calliope and other treasures stolen, and then she went to people intent on dismantling her for the steel. The Delta Queen, forbidden to travel overnight with more than fifty passengers for the time being, serves as a destination hotel on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. The American Queen went to the U.S. government Maritime Administration mothball fleet in Beaumont, Texas, after Majestic defaulted on the government loan. Great American Steamboat Company CEO Jeffrey D. Krida said the government took good care of the American Queen, storing her properly in humidity-controlled conditions. He said there was a little mold on the outside, which they cleaned off, but all the interior furnishings, polished woodwork, and prized antiques are in excellent condition. That accounts for the new company's swift progress in reviving steamboating in America.
In the four years the boats have been absent, steamboat lovers everywhere have felt pessimistic and sad at times. There is nothing else in the world like traveling on a paddlewheel steamer to the heartland of America. The cruise offers constantly-changing scenery, and people on small boats greet the big steamboat as it passes by their town. It is a way to get to know one's own country, and how it developed. In the golden age of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company in all its various corporate incarnations, one in four passengers was a repeat visitor. Some passengers have been cruising with the Delta Queen since the early days, and remember the Greene family who once ruled the rivers. Knowing that the crew is just like family to these passengers, the new company is seeking employees who have worked on the boats before. All of the executives were all involved with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, at one stage or another.
Although we cannot raise the dead (the Mississippi Queen) or enable outlaws (the Delta Queen would be breaking federal law if she were to enter the cruise business without a special exemption), the whole steamboat world has something to be celebrate now: the return of the youngest heir to a great American steamship legacy.
To book a cruise with The Great American Steamboat Company go to americanqueensteamboatcompany.com or consult a travel agent.
Editor's note: Nori Muster is one of the great American fans of steamboats since her childhood when her dad and his friend, Betty Blake, helped to "save the Delta Queen" by petitioning the U.S. Congress for an exemption to the Coast Guard rules that almost took her out of service for good in the early 1970s. Because of Bill Muster and Betty Blake we had three additional decades to enjoy the Delta Queen as the nations oldest authentic steamboat still working the Mississippi River.
Nori is also one of my oldest and dearest friends since High School. Her father, William Muster, was a member of the Society for American Travel Writers and one of the greatest honors he received in his lifetime was when the SATW bestowed the Marco Polo Award on him in 1988. They also named their photo contest after him for his effort in developing the show. It is now known as the Muster Photo Competition.