Return of paddle-wheeler offers a glimpse of Twain's era on the Mississippi

Passengers on the American Queen took in the view from rocking chairs as the vessel moved up the Mississippi River last week in Memphis. The American Queen is the largest steamboat in the world, with a capacity of 436 passengers.
Passengers on the American Queen took in the view from rocking chairs as the vessel moved up the Mississippi River last week in Memphis. The American Queen is the largest steamboat in the world, with a capacity of 436 passengers. AP

HENDERSON — 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 last month in Memphis as it left for a seven-day cruise. The 418-foot boat, which carries 436 passengers, stopped in Henderson on Monday and sailed to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby Festival's steamboat race on Ohio River before a final stop in Cincinnati. Future cruises will go to Pittsburgh and to 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 on 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 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 often was done by slaves.

The river was the site of several Civil War battles, as Confederate and Union ironclad ships battled for control of the strategically vital artery. Twain, born Samuel Clemens, took his pen name from a term used on the river to measure water depth. He grew up in a river town, Hannibal, Mo., and is best known for his classic novels Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But he also wrote a memoir of his years as a steamboat pilot called Life on the Mississippi.

Riverboats even turned up in late 20th-century pop music, including Creedence Clearwater Revival's song Proud Mary, a 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 bought for $15.5 million by Great American Steamboat Co. and underwent a $6 million renovation. The company is banking on the expectation that passengers from around the world will be drawn to the nostalgic trips.

The port cities of New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis, along with smaller stops including Natchez and Vicksburg in Mississippi, are hopeful that the boat will bring tourists to sightsee and shop 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; the price covers meals, snacks, drinks including 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 décor 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, a swimming pool, and comfortable beds and flat-screen TVs in every room.

The trip that began in Memphis was the American Queen's third revenue-producing voyage since it went back in service in April, but it was its first cruise after a formal christening by the boat's godmother, Priscilla Presley. The ex-wife of Elvis Presley, who lived in Memphis, launched the voyage with the traditional smashing of a champagne bottle. On board were a mix of media, investors and regular travelers.

American Queen's décor includes deep burgundy carpets, regal staircases and ornate chandeliers. Some staterooms have love seats with curved armrests or stained-glass windows covered by heavy curtains. In the Grand Saloon, the dark wooden dance floor, theater-style balconies and large stage host 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 Natchez-born chef Regina Charboneau offering a menu heavy on fresh Southern fare. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style, and 24-hour snack service is available. 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. The Engine Room Bar has portholes with a view of the paddlewheel, and a piano-banjo duo. A piano player sings in the Captain's Bar.

Cruise leaders acknowledge that some kinks remain to be worked out. There have been isolated plumbing problems; inexperienced staffers unable to give good directions to sections of the boat; and an hourlong wait for a mediocre burger at the River Grill. In the dining room, staff struggled at times with special orders. But housekeepers efficiently attended to rooms twice a day while staying out of the way, and they filled special requests for ice and toothpaste.

Company president Christopher Kyte said a management team of experienced cruise workers was being brought in to help train the green staff. "We have a massive plan to take care of all that little stuff," chief executive Jeff Krida said.

A marketing blitz to advertise trips to travel agents and the public begins Monday.

Chandler Murphy, 23, a nursing student from Orange County, Calif., took the Memphis-to-Cincinnati trip with her grandmother. An experienced traveler, Murphy said the trip was entertaining, and she enjoyed learning the history of the river.

"It was very different from everything I've grown up with, but I just love learning about new cultures," she said. "It takes you back to a different era."