After a four-year absence, the gracious American Queen
For years, a bell from my 1995 American Queen inaugural cruise has been displayed on my entertainment center. Four years ago, I was surprised and saddened when I learned that the boat was drydocked because of the previous owner’s financial problem. When I read that the newly formed American Queen Steamboat Co. had purchased the boat, spent $6 million to restore it, and planned to sail in 2012, I booked my cabin.
On our cruise from St. Louis, Mo., to St. Paul, Minn., in October, the river looked much the way it would have in Mark Twain’s day. On both sides of the river, we saw forested riverbanks stroked with burning red, orange, and yellow, sprawling wildlife refuges, charming turn-of-the-century river towns with church steeples poking through the colorful trees, and people on the banks waving as they did 100 years ago when the call rang out, “Steamboat’s a-comin’!” We were fascinated to watch the boat squeeze through the first two or three of more than two dozen locks between the cities.
My friend and I spent a couple of days in St. Louis before the cruise checking out the attractions in Forest Park and restaurants. After we checked in for the cruise at a hotel near the dock, we had a couple of hours before embarkation, so we walked a few blocks to the Gateway Arch, looked at museum exhibits, and watched a film showing how the monument was built.
After we crossed the gangplank and walked up a sweeping staircase, we opened a door and stepped back in time to the golden age of steamboats. On one side of the hall was the lace and floral Ladies Parlor and on the other, the leather and wood-paneled Gentlemen’s Card Room.
Down the hall, the impressive Mark Twain Gallery features mahogany, cherry, and maple antiques and reproductions, Tiffany lamps, and comfortable furniture where passengers can read, work on puzzles, or use the computer. Cappuccino, hot chocolate, and freshly baked cookies are always available.
Our stateroom, which opened onto the deck, was handsomely furnished with ample drawer and closet space. The bathrooms were roomier than found on most cruise ships; having two mirrors and two sinks was especially helpful for two women sharing a cabin.
Three meals a day are served in the elegant 222-seat J. M. White Dining Room (named after an 1880s steamer), which features floor-to-ceiling windows lining 17-foot-high walls and eight spectacular chandeliers, each nearly five feet across. The menus were designed by award-winning chef Regina Charboneau, who re-created many American classics using seasonal and local ingredients when possible. Complimentary wine and beer were served at dinner.
Another popular eatery, especially for breakfast and lunch, is the Front Porch of America located on the wide bow of Deck 3. The Porch serves three buffet meals every day and offers coffee, tea, soft drinks, ice cream, cookies, and popcorn 24/7. Having snacks available all day was a big plus for foodies like us. On warm days, we enjoyed sitting on the veranda’s rocking chairs and watching the river roll by.
Entertainment and Activities
After dinner every night, we headed for the dazzling two-deck Grand Saloon where we were treated to a variety of entertainment–from big band to Broadway, polka to rock ‘n’ roll. One evening, we listened to an excellent Mark Twain impersonator, one of the highlights of the trip. After the show, we listened to piano music at the Main Deck Lounge or headed for the Engine Room Bar where we listened to jazz, ragtime, and Dixieland while watching the paddlewheel turn just outside the portholes.
In addition to the nightly shows, there was no lack of daytime entertainment. River historian Jerry Hayes’ daily lectures were both entertaining and enlightening. We didn’t miss any of them. We also could visit with him in the Chart Room every afternoon and see antique piloting instruments and navigational charts.
Chef Charboneau showed us how to make pumpkin chili (it tastes better than it sounds) one afternoon and how to entertain Southern style on another day.
Other activities included wine tasting, a lecture on polkas, pumpkin carving contest, parlor magic show, bingo, a pilothouse tour, and daily movies and tea times.
At every port “steamcoaches” are available for complimentary hop-on, hop-off tours of the town. We took advantage of them at every stop to visit attractions such as the Mark Twain Boyhood Home in Hannibal, Mo., and the Chapel of St. Rose in La Crosse, Wis., with its Corinthian pillars, windows of Bavarian glass, and altars of Italian marble.
For an additional fee, Premium Tours gives you a more in-depth look at some of the attractions, such as the Amana Colonies in Iowa and Galena, Ill.
There’s no better way to see America’s heartland than from a rocker on the deck of a paddle wheeler, and the Mississippi River tableau as seen from the American Queen is indeed memorable.
Marge Peterson is a contributor from Omaha, Neb.
Jul/Aug 2013 Issue
Learn the Language of the River
Many of the phrases that flow through the American language originated on the river. Here are a few that might surprise you.
Sometimes pressure inside the steam boilers of riverboats reached a dangerous level. Safety valves relieved that pressure by letting off steam. This phrase evolved to describe the human tendency to release pent-up emotions.
In the 1880s, many males named William, Wilbur, or Willy made their way down the Ohio River to the hills of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. They became known as hillbillies.
I cotton to you came to mean “I like you” because cotton was a chief cargo of riverboats and stubbornly stuck to passengers’ clothing and hair.
Instead of holding down a job, fiddlers played along the riverbanks and wharves hoping generous passengers would toss them pennies. Fiddlin’ around was coined to describe the lazy or unproductive.
Early pioneers who traveled west of the Mississippi River were called outlanders. Their tendency toward rowdy behavior and loud clothing led to the term outlandish.
Steamboats which burned coal and wood to fire their boilers had tall, fluted smokestacks. Wealthy passengers who wanted to avoid the smells of cargo animals on the lower decks booked rooms on the top deck closest to the smokestacks. They were said to be high falutin’.
– Marge Peterson
Accommodations on the American Queen could be considered “high falutin’.” American Queen Steamboat Company photo
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