Steaming back into the Mississippi's past

The American Queen churning along the Mississippi in the 1990s. The steamboat has since undergone $6 million in renovations.
The American Queen churning along the Mississippi in the 1990s. The steamboat has since undergone $6 million in renovations. (Great American Steamboat Co.)

The refurbished paddle wheeler American Queen offers history, music, and four-course meals.

Posted: October 14, 2012

HENDERSON, Ky. - The churning red paddle wheel propels the pearl-white steamboat along the wide Mississippi River like a slow-moving time machine, through a slice of Americana that harks back to Mark Twain and the history, culture, and commerce of the 19th century.

Inside the six-level steamboat, passengers enjoy tea time in the ladies' parlor, rousing musical shows in the Grand Saloon, lessons on river history, and four-course meals in an antebellum-style dining room.

With the relaunching of a vessel called the American Queen, steamboat travel has returned to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers for the first time since 2008. The boat, the largest of its kind in the world, was christened during the spring in Memphis as it left for a seven-day cruise. The 418-foot-long boat, which carries 436 passengers, stopped in Henderson, Ky., then sailed to Louisville for a steamboat race marking the Kentucky Derby before a final stop in Cincinnati. Other cruises go as far as Pittsburgh and St. Paul, Minn.; some routes include stops in New Orleans and St. Louis.

"I find myself inspired by the quiet, still majesty of a river of this size, and I appreciate the insight that they've given us for the contribution that these rivers have made to America," said Jim Ahrenholz, 69, an experienced cruise traveler from Illinois who took the trip with his wife, Cathy.

The American Queen and its sister boats the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen carried passengers up and down the Mississippi for decades, continuing a tradition that began in the early 19th century, when steamboats replaced keelboats as the main source of transportation and commerce on the river.

Towns sprouted along the route as the early boats carried cargo including cotton, tobacco, and sugar from Louisiana to Minnesota and back. The ballad "Ol' Man River" from the 1927 musical Showboat lamented the backbreaking hardships of black dockworkers. Before the Civil War, the heavy cargo lifting was often done by slaves.

The river was also the site of several Civil War battles, with Confederate and Union ironclad ships battling for control of the strategically vital artery. Author Mark Twain, who was born Samuel Clemens and grew up on the river in Hannibal, Mo., took his pen name, Mark Twain, from a term used aboard steamboats in measuring the river's depth.

Riverboats even turned up in late-20th-century pop music, with singer Tina Turner famously belting out "Rollin' on the river" as she sang "Proud Mary" in tribute to a "riverboat queen."

But long-distance, city-to-city riverboat travel along the Mississippi stopped four years ago, when the company that owned the American Queen ceased operations. The boat was later bought for $15.5 million by the Great American Steamboat Company and underwent a $6 million refurbishment. The company is banking on the expectation that passengers from around the world will be drawn to these nostalgic trips.

Officials in large port cities such as New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis, along with smaller stops like Natchez and Vicksburg in Mississippi, are hopeful that the boat will bring tourists to sightsee and spend money during port calls or before they board. This is not a trip for cruisers on a budget. Depending on the trip length and type of cabin, rates range from $995 a person to more than $8,000 for the most luxurious accommodations, though the price covers meals, snacks, coffee, soda, beer and wine with dinner, some shore excursions in larger ports, and one night at a land hotel.

At those prices, even passengers enjoying the 19th-century decor and timeless, scenic views of homes, farms, and small towns along the riverbank won't mind suspending their disbelief for modern amenities. The boat has an exercise room, swimming pool, comfortable beds, and flat-screen TVs in every room, with small touches such as shower gel in private bathrooms.

The American Queen's decor includes deep burgundy carpets, regal staircases, and ornate chandeliers. Some staterooms have love seats with curved armrests or stained-glass windows with heavy curtains. In the Grand Saloon, the dark wooden dance floor, theater-style balconies, and large stage host games such as bingo during the day and nightly shows featuring big-band music or a Mark Twain look-alike spinning tales of life on the Mississippi.

The main dining room has high ceilings, circular stained-glass windows, chandeliers, and gold drapes. The Mark Twain Gallery has mahogany-colored cabinets, antique-style couches and chairs, and intricately designed lamps. A Chart Room is manned by a "Riverlorian" who can answer questions about the Mississippi River and Southern history.

Food on the Memphis-to-Henderson leg was good to excellent, with chef Regina Charboneau offering a menu heavy on fresh Southern fare. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style; 24-hour snack service is available in a section of the boat called the Front Porch of America, complete with rocking chairs and bench swings. Highlights were a New Orleans-style jazz brunch with shrimp, grits, and crab cake Eggs Benedict; a three-course dinner featuring duck breast with orange-currant sauce and dessert beignets; and excellent beef brisket po'boys served at an outdoor bar-restaurant called the River Grill.

Three bars stay open late into the night. The Engine Room Bar has dark wood chairs, portholes with a view of the paddle wheel, and a piano-banjo duo. A piano player also sings in the Captain's Bar.

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