Rollin’ on the river
The hour is 11:30 on this Saturday night aboard the American Queen, somewhere south of Natchez, Miss. The dance floor in the Grand Saloon is deserted, and a lone man sits in the 24-hour Front Porch lounge, reading a paperback novel. The evening’s holdouts, perhaps 30 people who, like most of the passengers, appear to be 55 or older, are in the Engine Room Bar.
Jackie Bankston, who plays the piano, and Bob Schad, who plays guitar, are singing the ’70s Kenny Rogers song “Lucille,” which has roused these last-to-bed passengers into a sing-along. Only one couple is dancing, laughing and jabbing their index fingers accusingly at each other during the chorus, “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille ...” while most of the crowd sings along with Jackie.
Behind them, visible through six large portholes, a red paddlewheel turns, kicking up a constant spray of muddy water from the Mississippi River.
The American Queen, the largest passenger steamboat ever built, has returned to service on the Mississippi River, propelled by a vintage 1932 steam engine and a true paddlewheel. Taken out of service in 2008 when the federal government foreclosed on the ship and steam boating appeared to be dead, the American Queen is the first passenger steamboat to make regular overnight cruises on the river in 4 years.
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