Photos and story by Jim Winnerman
The first indication something is approaching is a low hiss and rumble that causes you to stop what you are doing and listen intently to see if it ceases. Instead, it slowly builds in volume, getting so loud the noise becomes an intense guttural shriek echoing across the countryside. Then the sound stops abruptly, only to repeat seconds later in several short bursts.
Even if you had never before heard it in person, something is vaguely familiar. Then it registers. A steamboat is coming around the bend!
That distinct whistle of a paddlewheel riverboat, absent for four years from the Mississippi, Ohio and the Tennessee rivers, returned to Alabama shores in 2012 as the 418-foot American Queen stopped at the ports of Decatur and Florence. The same stops are scheduled for this year in September.
Constructed in 1995 by the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the American Queen spent several years cruising mid-American rivers before being dry-docked due to financial problems in 2008. Then the Great American Steamboat Company rescued, restored and returned her to America’s inland waterways in May 2012.
Today the American Queen accommodates 436 passengers, stretches 418 feet, carries a crew of 170, and stops at 34 different ports along the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers.
Decatur Mayor Dan Kyle says his city has a long river history. “We feel like the Queen is part of our heritage when she returns,” he says. “People come out and have picnic lunches and just spend the day admiring the boat from shore. A lot of families bring their children, but there are a lot of kids out there with gray hair, too.”
From Rhodes Ferry Park in Decatur where the Queen lands (steamboats “land” instead of dock,) she appears as a floating Alabama plantation home festooned with porches framed by an abundance of gingerbread trim. There are even porch swings on an outside deck amidst an ocean of white wooden rocking chairs in an area named “the Front Porch of America.”
Although the boat is a sight to be admired from shore, passengers are anxious to explore each port. Following the boat on land are tour buses nicknamed “steam coaches” that shuttle the tourists around the towns wherever the boat stops.
Carolyn Price of Decatur was one of the local step-on guides who pointed out the sights and presented a history of the town. “There were a surprisingly small group of people from the South on board, but they were really interested in our history and were very complimentary of Decatur,” she says. “Passengers’ homes were scattered from Hawaii to the east coast.”
In Decatur the buses drove in a continuous loop around the town, stopping to drop off people to shop or see some of the town’s historic sights such as the 1833 State Bank Museum, where other guides were waiting to give tours.
At the Bank Street Antique Mall, Gloria Arthur had a sign on the sidewalk to welcome the visitors. “All the merchants wish the American Queen would come back more often,” she says. “In addition to what people purchased and took with them, I shipped six boxes of merchandise to addresses in the Midwest and on the east coast.”
Just as important for Arthur, her customers left as friends. “We had a great time. People just sat on my bench and we all talked. It was a real nice visit,” she says.
When the passengers do return onboard to their cabins, they pass through hallways and salons of gleaming mahogany, stained-glass table lamps, winding staircases, huge elaborate chandeliers, fine antiques, brass fixtures (including at least one spittoon,) and floral wallpaper and carpets. All help recreate the opulent Victorian era when “steamboatin’” was regarded as the finest way to travel.
However, hidden beneath the boat’s 1900 appearance are a myriad of modern amenities. The Grand Saloon Theater with several side balconies (modeled after Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.,) offers nightly entertainment. Private verandas also are attached to many rooms, and a small swimming pool on the top deck is perfect for hot days. A grandiose restaurant features menus comparable to most blue-water cruise ships and there are several bars. An unlimited buffet of snacks and cold drinks is available 24/7 on the observation deck.
Daily onboard activities begin about 9 in the morning and continue almost hourly until late into the night. But for many passengers the favorite pastime is sitting in a rocking chair in the front of the boat watching the river slowly appear bend by bend.
Every evening there is some type of “steamboat era” entertainment. One night it may be showtunes from Broadway featuring songs about rivers, and the next night a show by a card magician who weaves the lore of riverboat gamblers into his act.
The Juggernaut Jug Band performs onboard frequently and along with their music include a history of jug bands on riverboats, which originated about 1900. “One thing we know for certain and that we still practice today,” says bandleader Roscoe Goose, “is that the jug must be emptied before it can be played.”
Mark Twain usually makes an appearance and discusses his life and ambition to be a “steamboatman” that originated as he watched the endless parade of boats steaming past his boyhood home of Hannibal, Miss.
Food is an important part of any cruise, and the American Queen crew is particularly proud of the menus created by celebrity chef Regina Charboneau. Appetizers and entrees feature Southern cuisine and change daily. Sample selections include cornmeal encrusted gulf oysters, chicken sausage and okra gumbo, smoked tomato gazpacho, barbeque spice rubbed prime rib, and fresh salmon with a citrus honey glaze.
“It was a sight to see on the river,” Price says recalling how the boat looked. “We invited friends over from Georgia to see the Queen, and we went down to Rhodes Ferry Park to wave her off and say goodbye, and listen to the calliope play.”
Mayor Kyle says the sound of the calliope is just something that only “makes sense” when it comes from a riverboat. “The music travels up and down the river and wafts all over town,” he says.
In fact, listening to the calliope as the boat departs is a highlight for many land-bound spectators. Located aft on the top deck, the small piano-like instrument is played by a member of the Queen’s small onboard orchestra. The music is made as hot steam escapes through 38 brass whistles of various sizes oozing quick puffs of pure white steam with each note and emitting a characteristic shrill sound.
Hearing and watching as “Anchors Aweigh” and “Old Man River” was played, and simultaneously seeing the majestic boat slowly moves away from Rhodes Ferry Park, the crowd on shore was mesmerized. As the tunes drifted through the air and the huge red paddlewheel churned up the river water, few people turned away until the American Queen was out of sight.
The Mississippi Queen is scheduled to dock in Decatur on Sept. 19 and Florence on Sept. 18 and 23.
Voyages aboard the American Queen range from three to ten nights with fares starting at $995 per person.
For more information on all itineraries: GreatAmericanSteamboatCompany.com, 888-749-5280.