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“I didn’t know this story at all and it’s heartbreaking. I was in tears,” said Mary Martha Sherts, a passenger from Fairfield, Connecticut. She added that the stops in small, unknown towns that she likely would have never visited otherwise were a chief draw for the cruise.

“We do visit a lot of small towns -- Cape Girardeau, Paducah [Kentucky] and Columbus, [Kentucky], which has a population of 166 people. And they are in decline,” said Jim Williams, the on-board historian who held regular talks covering the history of steamboats, river ecology, culture and modern maritime practice. He added that such towns offer a glimpse of US history that cannot be found elsewhere.

Williams also noted that the return of riverboats to the Mississippi does more than offer a unique travel experience – tourist visits can also help the small river towns that have lost population and jobs.

On the Ohio River, near the confluence with the Mississippi, Paducah is embracing its new visitors with a group of ambassadors that welcome passengers as they pass through the main gate in the town’s flood wall.

Fowler Black, of the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau, said before 2008 the town used to get some 60 boat visits each year, averaging more than 200 passengers coming ashore each time. That helped redevelop a town that had been decaying for decades. Today, antique shops, restaurants and other attractions fill storefronts next to spaces that Black described as “empty, but full of possibility”.

Paducah is also home to the National Quilt Museum, with its impressive collection of textile art. One intricate quilt featured characters from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, while another paid homage to the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with an image of the two explorers and their Native American guide Sacagawea, as well as a map of the western rivers and a canoe in the rapids.

But the history is not only on shore. The 101 passengers on board the Queen of the Mississippi that week collectively had at least 7,000 years of rich life experience. One passenger was a doctor for NASA’s Mercury program, which put the first Americans in space. Another spent his early years in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as his father worked on the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb.

“They all have an interesting history,” 82-year-old Betty Benson said of her fellow passengers. “It’s an older crowd because they’ve seen the world -- and they are saving our own country for last.”

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