paddle wheel splashed in the muddy water and music from the calliope organ whistled
merrily through the air as the Queen of the Mississippi riverboat pulled away from the St
Louis, Missouri shoreline. Four years after the last paddleboat company went
bankrupt, the Queen of the Mississippi is one of two ships reinvigorating the
iconic American image of paddle wheelers plying the Mississippi River.
nearly 475 years since Hernando de Soto became the first recorded European to
reach it, the Mississippi River has played a vital role in the creation and identity
of the United States.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean departed from
the Mississippi shore near St Louis in 1804. Between 1839 and 1853, Mark Twain grew up next to
the river in Hannibal, Missouri, and the author brought international fame to life
along the Mississippi in his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn. Blues music was born on the river’s delta in the early
1900s, and it was also fertile ground for ragtime and jazz and folk. And since
the 1700s, the Mississippi has been a highway of commerce, today carrying at least half of the grain the US exports to the world.
people from the UK go to the East Coast, West Coast or Florida,” said Paul
Stoker, a 77-year-old passenger from Cumbria, England. “This is the best way to
see a completely different part of America.”
American Cruise Lines started
sailing the newly built 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi in August. Just
a few months earlier, its renovated 436-passenger rival, the American Queen, resumed travel under new ownership. Today,
the Queen of the Mississippi makes week-long journeys along the Mississippi and
its tributaries, while the American Queen has similar cruises ranging from four
to 12 nights.
from St Louis to Memphis, Tennessee, was the middle leg of the Queen of the
Mississippi’s journey from St Paul, Minnesota, to New Orleans, Louisiana, where
the boat is based through the winter (the boat’s last cruise is 29 December and
it resumes service 9 February). Though the cruise took just seven days, the
journey covered more than 200 years in US history.
stop, in Alton, Illinois, included a tour that visited Lincoln Douglas Square -- the site of the last of Abraham Lincoln’s seven debates with
Stephen Douglas in the 1858 US Senate election. Douglas won, but the debate’s
focus on slavery drew intense national press coverage and pushed Lincoln to national
prominence and the White House just two years later.
Not far from
the square, on Third Street, a large red brick building called Enos Apartments was a key waypoint on the Underground Railroad, which led escaped southern slaves
to freedom. Local guide Eric Robinson pointed out the nearby Union Baptist Church, a prominent African-American
church that was also part of the Underground Railroad.
at local homes from Alton’s heyday in the 1830s, Robinson described the once
common “widow’s walk”, a railed rooftop platform where wives would watch for
their husbands to come home from working on the riverboats. “Steamboats were travelling
coffins,” Robinson said. “They were made of wood, with boilers that often
failed. When they did, the boats burned.” The magazine Scientific American reported in
December 1860 that 487 people had died on steamboats in the first 11 months of
have changed. With a bright red paddle wheel, black smokestacks, colourful
bunting and a classic design, the Queen of the Mississippi may look like a
steamboat from the 1800s, but under the hood it is a modern ship with twin
diesel-powered propellers that can swivel 360 degrees to provide thrust and manoeuvrability.
The pilot house has the latest navigation and communications equipment, staterooms
are spacious and many have private balconies, with all the amenities found in
star of the cruise is still the history and culture of the river, and American
Cruise Lines caters to this interest with a full program of shore excursions to
historic spots and on-board lectures and entertainment.
A tour in Cape
Girardeau, Missouri, included the Trail of Tears State Park, where many Cherokee Indians
crossed the Mississippi in their forced relocation to Oklahoma from the southeastern
US states of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama in the harsh winter
of 1838. Thousands died in the journey.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.”