Posted by: cruise2 | 15 September, 2011

The Great American Steamboat Company: Return of an Icon

by Kevin Griffin writing in

A great American icon, the all-American Mississippi riverboat made famous by Mark Twain, will be revived in 2012 by a group of entrepreneurs from Memphis and elsewhere. With the Delta Queen Steamboat Company having gone out of business in 2001 and its boats being taken over by the Delaware North Companies in 2002, a later successor, Majestic America Line, acquired the vessels in 2006 and then itself went out of business in 2008. For the past three seasons, therefore, and for the first time in 189 years according to one observer, there has been no riverboat passage offered on the Mississippi.

This spring, however, it was announced that the 419-foot 436-passenger Mississippi steamer American Queen, the largest sternwheeler ever built, is to re-enter service with a new Memphis-based firm known as the Great American Steamboat Company. With funds made available by local Memphis investors, including J R “Pitt” Hyde, and the City of Memphis itself, the newly-formed company has purchased the laid up American Queen from the US Maritime Administration for $15.5 million.

Built in 1995, American Queen has been laid up alongside the US Ready Reserve fleet in Beaumont, Texas, since 2008, after then owner Majestic America Lines defaulted on payments. On August 30, however, her latest lay-up ended when she was taken in tow by three tugs to the Bollinger Shipyard at Sulphur, Louisiana, where she arrived on September 1 for a $5 million revitalisation that will last four or five months. According to GASC executives, the Maritime Administration has been taking good care of her so the work required will not be too complicated.

The revived paddle steamer will be based at Memphis, where the City of Memphis has been instrumental in making available $9 million of federal funds so that the line could create new jobs in Memphis. The new company is expected to create 250 new jobs, of which 160 will be on board ship. The new line is headquartered at One Commerce Center and American Queen will use the new Beal Street Landing, where an $89 passenger tax will help pay for the new wharf and recoup some of city’s investment.

American Queen will offer 3-to-11-night cruises on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, with embarkations at Memphis, New Orleans, St Louis, Minneapolis/St Paul, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and fares will begin at $995, including complimentary wine and beer with dinner. Free pre-cruise hotel nights as well as a range of included excursions at every port will also be included in the cruise fares.

The executives behind the new river cruise line give the line quite some credibility. Chairman John Waggoner heads up Indiana-based HMS Global Maritime, which operates over 100 vessels for state and federal agencies and is the largest operator of US-flag vessels. President Christopher Kyte is founder and chairman of California-based Uncommon Journeys, which has been packaging rail and cruise trips since 1990, and is a big supplier to Cunard Line and Holland America Line, as well as Delta Queen in its day. Chief executive officer Jeff Krida was president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company in its heyday, having been there when it built American Queen sixteen years ago. Although he retired as president of Cruise West in 2008, his previous involvement with Delta Queen brings a seasoned professional to the team.

The revival of American Queen has also brought about a reunion of sorts under Russ Varvel, senior vice-president of sales and another former Delta Queen hand, who is bringing back a number of Delta Queen alumni to represent the line in different parts of the country. Many of the bookings are expected to come from agents who used to support Delta Queen. And Tim Rubacky, senior vice-president of sales, marketing and product development, has joined from Oceania Cruises, where he was senior director of corporate communications.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any riverboat trade, Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines had started work on a new 230-foot 140-passenger boat to be called Queen of the Mississippi at its Chesapeake Shipbuilding yard in Salisbury, Maryland. Due to enter service in August 2012 with a maiden voyage from New Orleans to Memphis, her 7-night cruises will be priced from $3,995. ACL already operates the 230-foot 120-passenger sternwheeler Queen of the West on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and a fleet of US-flag coastal cruise ships.

Of the American Queen’s one-time consorts on the Mississippi, the veteran 285-foot 176-passenger Delta Queen, built in 1926, is now a floating hotel at Chattanooga. One of her claims to fame is that her hull, engines and bottom two decks were built by the famous Scottish shipbuilders Wm Denny & Sons at Dumbarton and transported to the US for assembly.

The 382-foot 412-passenger Mississippi Queen, which entered service in 1976, has meanwhile come to the end of her career and been broken up this summer at Morgan City, Louisiana. She was known for having been designed by James Gardner, who also designed RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.

By the names of all these riverboats, one can see that despite the fact that America is a republic, there is one place left where Queens still have a place. American riverboats are Queens in their own right, maybe because, as Mark Twain said, they resemble floating wedding cakes. Twain was in his own time a licensed riverboat pilot, and indeed he took his pen name (his real name was Samuel L Clemens) from the call for two fathoms of water under the boat as measured by the lead line.

The other thing about American Queen will be the music – on a river that has variously produced Dixieland, jazz, country and rock – that will form part of the on board entertainment.


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