It takes only a little imagination to visualize the Mississippi River as a vast road running through the heart of the country, and from there to imagine a paddlewheel cruise along the river as one of the great road trips.
Steamboats have been operating on the Mississippi River for most of the last two centuries. But three years ago, steamboat cruises there came to an end -- just as river cruises in Europe were booming. The struggling Delta Queen Steamboat Co. was bought by the forerunner of the Majestic America Line, which went out of business in 2008. One of its two ships, the Delta Queen, was converted into a hotel, moored along the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, while the American Queen went into the custody of the U.S. Maritime Administration.
This year, two companies are bringing river cruises back to the Mississippi River. The first is the Great American Steamboat Co., which bought the American Queen (above) and is in the process of renovating it at a shipyard in Sulphur, Louisiana. Cruises on the American Queen will begin in April. The second is American Cruise Lines, which is building a new, smaller boat, Queen of the Mississippi (at right), at a shipyard on Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, and will offer cruises starting in August.
Both will cruise the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, from New Orleans to St. Paul, and up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh. The American Queen will also cruise the Tennessee River to Chattanooga, while Queen of the Mississippi will sail from Memphis to Nashville.
Their port calls include some fascinating places: Natchez, settled by French colonists and the first capital of the Mississippi Territory; Vicksburg, site of a key Civil War battle; Memphis, with Graceland, Beale Street and BBQ; Hannibal, Mo., the boyhood home of Mark Twain; St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Pittsburgh, among others.
The American Queen was built in 1995 at a cost of $60 million. At 418 feet long and 90 feet wide, it is the biggest paddlewheel steamship ever built. The boat has 222 staterooms and a capacity of 436. Right now it is being renovated at Bollinger Shipyards (right), with most of the work being done on the steam engine and the paddlewheel, as well as cosmetic, non-structural work on the rest of the boat. It is the Great American Steamboat Co.’s only boat right now, although Christopher Kyte, the company’s president, said he is looking to acquire another ship.
Queen of the Mississippi, by contrast, will have a capacity of only 149. It is 295 feet long, 55 feet wide and will have 80 staterooms. It will be American Cruise Lines’ sixth ship, all traveling U.S. rivers and inland waterways, none with a capacity of more than 149.
Photos, from top: The American Queen; rendering of the Queen of the Mississippi; shipyard workers on the American Queen; the paddlewheel of the Queen of the Mississippi; all courtesy of the cruise lines.