Steamboats Round the Bend

| April 3, 2009

Well-known American steamboat devotee Nori Muster tells us where to find a paddle wheel river cruise despite the temporary loss of Delta Queen and all similar vessels.

The Delta Queen Steamboat, formerly of the Majestic America Line, is now moored as a boutique hotel at downtown Chattanooga's Coolidge Park Landing. Her sister Majestic paddlewheelers, the American Queen, Mississippi Queen, Empress of the North, and Queen of the West, are also out of service while a financial holding company determines their fate. It may seem like an American tragedy, as though it is now impossible to get out on the water to watch a paddlewheel kick up its wake.

The waterfront in Old Town Sacramento is frozen in time. Shown here are the Delta King Hotel, the Spirit of Sacramento, and Island Girl.

Traversing the waterways on a paddlewheeler is an American experience that dates back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when paddlewheelers were as common as busses. They proliferated in such abundance that nobody thought to list all their names. Now we look back on that era with nostalgia, because the paddlewheel boat helped early Americans conquer the rivers and travel upstream to settle in new, unexplored territory. Once there, the pioneers depended on paddlewheelers to bring them life's necessities and export their crops and products. In those days, the technology was primitive and the rivers dangerous. A waterlogged tree under the surface could rise up and stab a boat at its heart, causing it to explode and sink.

This is the Spirit of Sacramento as seen from the stern of the Delta King Hotel.

When steam trains took over, steamboats began to disappear. Many were captured and destroyed in the Civil War. Almost all were gone by the end of World War II. Now, the precious few that remain are pampered and restored, listed as national treasures, and organizations have formed to preserve steamboat history. The technology improved in the twentieth century, so the paddlewheel boats we have today are completely safe. Although several of our most famous paddlewheelers are out of service for now, you can still find operating paddlewheel boats around the bend in nearly every state of the Union.

The large cities along the Mississippi River system are hotbeds of paddlewheeler opportunity: Memphis has two sternwheelers, an excursion boat, and a showboat; Cincinnati (and neighboring Newport, Kentucky) have the Belle of Cincinnati, River Queen, and Mark Twain; more boats flourish in Louisville, Marietta, and New Orleans. Northern cities have their steamboats too. Fairbanks has its three Riverboat Discovery paddlewheelers; Baltimore has the Black-Eyed Susan; Detroit has its Princess; and Manhattan has the Paddlewheel Queen. Dubuque, Iowa, on the upper Mississippi, is another center of paddlewheeler activity, and home to the Mississippi River National Museum.

Oregon has a long history of paddlewheel steamboats. In the State Capitol, Salem, you can step back in time for a cruise on the Willamette Queen. The boat departs from the Riverfront Park in Downtown Salem for excursions on the Willamette River. Captain Richard Chesbrough, master and owner, has hosted everything from high school classes to state legislators. After retirement, he bought the boat to start a second career. It's a split-wheel paddlewheel boat, which means the stern wheel is in two sections, which can be controlled from the pilot house to steer the boat. The Queen was built in Newport, Oregon, in 1990. Newport, a small city on the Oregon Coast, is home port of the Newport Belle, a fully operational sternwheeler that serves as a bed and breakfast.

Continue Article >> "Steamboats Round the Bend (Cont.) (Part 2)

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