After a four-year absence, there are now two paddle wheelers plying the muddy Mississippi River, taking visitors on a long, slow journey through US history.

Its red 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.

In the 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.

“Most 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.

The cruise 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.

The first 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.

In looking 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 that year.

But times 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 fine hotels.

But the 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.

“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.”