When the 111-year-old Delta Queen Steamboat Company went into liquidation in 2001, it threatened to spell the end for one of the world’s most classic – and long-running – cruise styles.
For several additional years under differing owners, the three traditional river steamboats struggled along without getting the much-needed TLC they needed, and their audience seemingly died out with them.
Mark Twain’s much-loved waterway was in danger of becoming a riverboat-less world, no longer able to supply the timeless charm of slow journeys through the heart of America. But, not only is there news of a revival for one of the Delta Queen boats, there are now TWO companies setting out to address the issue in 2012.
First, American Cruise Lines announced they are building the Mississippi’s first all-new riverboat in more than 16 years, with the construction of the 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, which will be ready for its debut in August.
And then the new Great American Steamboat Co rolls on to the scene with the acquisition of the American Queen, one of the classic ex-Delta Queen vessels, and the largest steamboat ever built (in 1994).
The 400-passenger American Queen was acquired by parent company Hornblower Marine Services for $15.5million after being laid up following the collapse of Majestic America Line in 2008, which seemingly marked the end of the old Delta Queen fleet.
Not so, it seems. And the superb six-deck recreation will be back in action from next April, offering 3 to 11-night voyages from Memphis along the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, and taking in the likes of historic Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, Hannibal (home town of Mark Twain), Natchez and Chattanooga, as well as all the big cities en route.
It promises to mark a major rebirth for mighty Ol’ Man River, and give river-cruising a big shot in the arm as well. For, while there are already some excellent river-cruise choices in the USA – notably on the Snake and Columbia rivers in Washington and Oregon, and the Hudson and St Lawrence in the east – it is the Mississippi that is at the heart of things.
It was through here that the first French colonists explored in the 17th century, followed by the British in the 1700s. It marked the continental divide between Britain and Spain until, following the War of Independence, America acquired all the land to the west in the famous Louisiana Purchase, and fabled explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark used the Mississippi for their expeditions, too.
The river went on to be pivotal in the Civil War, and the steamboat era (as richly detailed by Twain) was firmly established as it provided the key to huge movements of people and goods. Even in the 20th century, the Misi-zibi (an Ojibwe Indian word simply meaning ‘Big River’) has continued to be a major trade route – and a big cruise destination, not just for New Orleans at the mouth of the river but for hundreds of miles further north.
Now it looks like this will once again be a terrific cruise choice in 2012 – and beyond. Especially as both new operations look like offering a contrasting experience.
The GREAT AMERICAN STEAMBOAT CO has yet to announce its full itineraries for the refurbished 418ft stern-wheeler but has signed a major agreement to use the Beale Street Landing in the port of Memphis as its home base.
Company CEO Jeff Krida, formerly of the Delta Queen line, said the revived steamboat line would create 589 jobs and an estimated $89.5m a year economic impact. American Queen, currently in Beaumont, Texas, will be moved to a dry dock in Morgan City, Louisiana, for about $5million in repairs, mostly mechanical as it has been out of service for three years.
Docking facilities at Beale Street Landing are expected to be completed by year’s end, in plenty of time for the Queen’s start-up next spring. A park component of the landing will be built next year.
City officials credited the ‘Strong Cities, Strong Communities’ partnership with the federal government as instrumental in expediting the steamboat’s sale. The White House Domestic Policy Council actually chose Memphis as one of the communities to benefit from closer working relationships with federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation.
Krida explained that about 20 per cent of the Queen’s travels will be out of Memphis, with the remainder spread among ports of call in a 13-state service area. The boat will winter in New Orleans and visit the likes of Minnesota during the summer.
The Queen herself will continue to offer the friendly history, heritage and tradition that were her trademarks in the past, with a Riverlorian on every voyage, lavish showboat-style entertainment and Big Band, Swing, Dixieland Jazz and other music from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, as well as an in-depth enrichment programme.
There will be a variety of dining options, with the opulent JM White Dining Room offering full breakfast, lunch and dinner service, along with speciality buffets and even a New Orleans Jazz Brunch. Guests will also be able to dine at The Front Porch of America, the Calliope Grill or order from the speciality Po’ Boy menu.