ST. PAUL, Minn. – High atop the American Queen, Richard and Marilyn Jensen sat on deck chairs outside their stateroom, holding each other’s wrinkled hands. Beyond the railing, the bluffs of southern Minnesota, tinged with fall colors, slid by. A distant sound drifted from the big boat’s paddlewheel, which slapped at the Mississippi to propel us at a mere 10 miles per hour.
The quiet mood altered only when Richard got up to snap a photograph of the evening sky as it shifted to violet, rimmed with the same brilliant orange of the cap he wore to ward off the chill of autumn.
“We were glad when the American Queen started running again,” he told me after I stepped outside my stateroom door beside them.
The boat’s return to the Mississippi this year, after a 4-year dry spell, meant that the couple from Fort Collins, Colo., could finally complete a voyage of the river they began a decade ago. The Jensens had cruised from New Orleans to St. Louis on the Mississippi to celebrate their 50th anniversary in grand style. This long-dreamed-of trip, from St. Paul to St. Louis, marked their 60th.
“It’s just so pretty,” Marilyn cooed as she took in the view.
A weeklong trip on the American Queen is a journey that gives travelers just what they might expect: a lazy passage on a snail-paced boat decked out in Victorian splendor on America’s great river. But during my trip last month – the first departure out of St. Paul since the American Queen made her splashy re-entrance – I was struck by the unexpected: the insistent beauty of the Mississippi.
All along the Upper Mississippi, a stretch before the waterway is joined by the Ohio River, brown waters seep into marshes and meander behind wooded islands. Except for the river towns, whatever development that exists lies well beyond the riverbanks, mostly shrouded behind leaves. Bluffs tumble toward the water. Great blue herons stalk the shallows, undisturbed by the boat’s slow pace.
One day, a juvenile bald eagle soared through the sky and perched on a tall treetop just off to starboard, eyeing the boat.
Who wouldn’t? The American Queen – the largest steamboat ever built, at 418 feet long and 90 feet wide – is quite a sight to see, with her towering smokestacks, ornate decorations and the big red paddlewheel that turns round and round. Whenever we passed a town, people stopped their ballgames, pulled cars over to the side of the road and stepped out of houses to stare.
Those of us lucky enough to be aboard found there was plenty to behold inside the boat, too.
The main entrance leads up a sweeping set of stairs to a hall that separates the Ladies’ Parlor, which is frilled out with lace curtains, and the Gentlemen’s Card Room, where a taxidermied boar’s head and bear set the tone. (Though the era the rooms evoke may have segregated the sexes after dinner, these are solidly unisex. One afternoon, I spied a gentleman splayed out and snoozing on a floral-patterned sofa in the parlor. Across the hall, a woman read a novel in an armchair that was crowned with a carved wooden eagle, its wings extended so it looked as though her hair was about to be snared by talons.)
Next door is the stately Mark Twain Gallery, a dark wood-paneled room where passengers stop to read newspapers, piece together puzzles and drink cappuccino or hot chocolate (pick your poison, press the button and it comes hissing out of the machine).
There’s also the grand staircase, whose overhead painting depicts an egret soaring among angels.
Head down the stairs, and you’re in the dining room, awash in white tablecloths and chandeliers. There, the evening extravaganza was impressive not so much for the food preparation (which was fine), but also for the culinary ambition (blackened red snapper with black-eyed-pea vinaigrette) and the size of the portions.
No one goes hungry aboard the American Queen. Cookies, ice cream and snacks are available day and night from the so-called Front Porch of America, at the wide bow of the boat. The informal cafe, with wicker dining sets and rocking chairs on its veranda, also serves three buffet meals a day. That’s handy for those who were assigned the 8 p.m. rather than the widely preferred 5 p.m. dinner seating. Anyone can choose to forgo the formal dining room, or get a hearty snack to hold them over, at the Porch, where andouille sausage is a kitchen darling.
Days aboard the American Queen quickly assume an easygoing rhythm. Wake up in a new port, gather energy for the day in the dining room (let me recommend biscuits and sausage gravy), then roll off the boat and onto a bus for a hop-on, hop-off tour of the town. In Dubuque, Iowa, I saw a memorable Grant Wood painting at the art museum and a Methodist Church nearly wrapped in Tiffany glass windows. Passengers can also opt — and pay for — “premium tours.” During the only day in which we spent a full eight hours in port, at Davenport, Iowa, I spent $89 to see the Amana Colonies, a peaceful place where German Pietists lived communally from 1855 until the mid-1930s.
All other days, passengers had to be back aboard by 12:30 p.m., in time to dine again and then dash to the River Grill on Deck 5 for the calliope concert. That carnival sound, created by a tiny piano-like instrument and its steam-powered whistles one deck up (to save everyone’s eardrums), marks most departures and is enough to get anyone in the mood for a little steamboat history.
Then it’s off to the Grand Saloon, a small replica of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., that is the hub of onboard entertainment. Each afternoon, Travis Vasconcelos, an expert on the river’s long history (he’s known onboard as the “riverlorian”), illuminates the more fascinating aspects of steamboats.
He moved around the space, jumping from stage right (which we were to envision as the Mississippi) to stage left (which supposedly represented California), as he told the tale of the American Queen and her sister boat, the Delta Queen.
“My time slot is after lunch, so I’d best keep the conversation lively,” he told me one day in the Chart Room, where he can often be found, explaining how to read river charts, doling out binoculars and answering questions.
During one of Vasconcelos’ lectures, amid a few dozing passengers, I learned that the American Queen is now “the only overnight steamboat left on Mark Twain’s river.” The paddlewheel that propels her is 38 tons of white oak, poplar and steel shaft; her smokestacks ride 99 feet above the water; she burns 100 gallons of fuel per hour; her body was built in 1995 but the steamboat engine dates to 1932, salvaged from a long-buried steam-powered dredger.
All those impressive numbers make a listener happy that the newly formed Great American Steamboat Co. rescued the boat last fall and poured $6 million into wiping away the cobwebs.
The boat had been dry-docked since 2008 by the U.S. Maritime Administration, a reluctant recipient after two previous owners became insolvent in turn, unable to pay the government loan that helped build the vessel. The Delta Queen Steamboat Co., which originally launched the American Queen (and christened her with a giant bottle of tabasco), also had two smaller boats once upon a time: The Delta Queen is now a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Mississippi Queen befell a much worse fate – sold for scrap.
Each evening, passengers poured into the Grand Saloon for a pre- or post-dinner show. I joined them the night a Mark Twain impersonator was on the bill. But his performance, management regretted to report, was rescheduled for undisclosed reasons (a nice representation of the rascally side of Twain).
Instead of tales of life on the Mississippi, I listened to soul and gospel music from a quartet in sequined choir robes. It was far flashier than anything a Twain impersonator could conjure up.
After a costume change, the group – whose members sang with verve and were backed by a band impressive for its size and talent – moved through a few decades’ worth of hits, culminating in a rousing performance of the Chicken Dance Song. Suddenly, my view was blocked by bobbing heads and cocked elbows.
On my last day on the boat, I walked into the Engine Room Bar, popular for its late-night sing-alongs and portholes that look out onto the churning paddlewheel. It was empty at 10 a.m., but offered the only public entrance to the Engine Room, where steam cylinders power gigantic arms that crank the paddlewheel. I opened a heavy metal door and descended the stairs to the boat’s belly. There I took so many pictures and asked so many questions, I began to wonder if I would be reported to the Transportation Security Administration as a possible threat. Instead, the engineer on duty, Ricky Idlett, invited me to his side of the metal gate, which generally keeps passengers (some of whom may have imbibed at the bar) away from the controls. I clearly had not been sipping anything stronger than coffee, and we were docked, so Idlett offered to snap my picture with the engine thrusters.
I let my hand rest on one of those unassuming metal bars with a rubber handle, and to my surprise, it offered a thrill. I was struck by the power of the paddlewheeler, not just to transport people up and down the river, but into a simpler past.
Just then, I caught a gentle breeze. Because the engine room heats up, workers there prop open a side door. It looks straight out onto the rolling brown waters of the Mississippi.