- Associated Press - Thursday, May 3, 2012

HENDERSON, Ky. — 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 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 April 27 in Memphis as it left for a seven-day cruise. The 418-foot-long boat, which carries 436 passengers, stopped in Henderson, Ky., Monday, then sailed on to Louisville along the Ohio River for a steamboat race marking the Kentucky Derby before a final stop in Cincinnati. Future cruises will go all the way to Pittsburgh and 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, built in 1995, and its sister ships, the Delta Queen, built in 1927, and Mississippi Queen, 1976, are part of a tradition of carrying passengers up and down the Mississippi that began in the early 19th century, when steamboats replaced keelboats as the main source of transportation and commerce on the river.

Passengers lunch on deck as the American Queen plies the Mississippi River in northwestern Tennessee. (Associated Press)
Passengers lunch on deck as the American Queen plies the Mississippi River ... more >

Towns sprouted along the route as the early boats carried cargo such as 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 also was the site of several Civil War battles, with Confederate and Union ironclad ships battling for control of the strategically vital artery. Author Mark Twain, who was born Samuel Clemens, took his pen name from a term used on the river to measure water depth. Twain, who grew up in the river town of Hannibal, Mo., 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, with singer Tina Turner famously belting out “Rollin’ on the river” as she sang “Proud Mary” in 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 later was bought for $15.5 million by the Great American Steamboat Co. and underwent a $6 million refurbishment. The company is banking on the expectation that passengers from around the world will be drawn to these nostalgic trips.

Large port cities such as New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis, along with smaller stops like Natchez and Vicksburg in Mississippi, also are hopeful that the boat will bring tourists to sightsee, shop and spend money during port calls or before they board.

This is not a trip for cruisers on a budget, however. 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, though the price covers meals, snacks, coffee, soda, 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 decor 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, swimming pool, comfortable beds and flat-screen TVs in every room, with small touches like shower gel in private bathrooms.

The trip that began in Memphis was the American Queen’s third revenue-producing voyage since it went back in service in April, though it was its first cruise following a formal christening by the boat’s godmother, Priscilla Presley.

American Queen’s decor 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 games such as 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.

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