American Queen Makes Historic Comeback

By Bill Dries

When the American Queen pulls into its Memphis home port Thursday morning, April 26, it will be the second time the world’s largest steamboat has stopped in the city.

The American Queen is set to begin trips along the Mississippi River from Memphis.

(Photo Courtesy of Great American Steamboat Co.)

The first time was 17 years and several lifetimes ago in the domestic overnight river cruise business.

In 1995, the then-new boat was owned by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. and Jeff Krida was president of the company. Krida, who is now president of the Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Co., has been aboard the refurbished American Queen during its journey up river this week from New Orleans where it underwent its last tests before opening for business again.

For nearly two years there have been no regular overnight cruises on the Mississippi River.

The industry collapsed twice in the last 10 years and the American Queen is leading the third comeback after being mothballed a second time in a lake near Beaumont, Texas, before Krida and the newly formed GASC found investors for what he admits has been a venture that encountered some hesitancy among potential investors.

Krida showed them inquiries from travel agents – a database of those still asking to book the cruises as they continued to take European river cruises.

“The fastest growing segment of the travel industry for mature adults in North America in the last decade has been European river cruising,” Krida said.

The investors included Pittco Management and the city of Memphis, which advanced $9 million that will be paid back with revenue from the $89 boarding fee each passenger pays. The boarding fee revenue is also paying the cost of completing Beale Street Landing, a project over budget and past its original timeline before the deal that not only made Memphis the home port of the American Queen but the home of the headquarters of the Great American Steamboat Co.

Since the American Queen’s 1995 debut, the idea of cruise travel has changed with more attention and focus on history and culture.

The American Queen crew includes what are called “riverlorians” as well as a Mark Twain impersonator. And passengers can go into the steam engine room where engineers and mechanics are on duty to answer questions about the boat.

“They are looking for a great vacation but they’d like to learn something along the way while they’re having a good time,” Krida said. “They’re hunting for authenticity. There are an awful lot of fake things out there and when they can get the real thing they want it.”

Some cruises will be themed around the Civil War with stops at battlefields and other related sites during what is the war’s 150th anniversary. Other cruises have a different historical or cultural context.

“We think of the American Queen as a time machine,” Krida said. “We’re a combination of the modern world and the 19th century all at the same time out here.”

For Memphis and the other cities where the American Queen stops, the passengers aren’t just momentarily passing through, which had been the experience in Memphis toward the end of the 20th century. Before Tom Lee Park was expanded, riverboat passengers disembarked at John B. Edgar Point and took a combination of shuttle buses and cabs perhaps to The Peabody hotel for rigmarole – a program built around riverboat entertainment traditions – and headed back to the tiny river landing. Or they would end their journey in Memphis.

Every cruise in Memphis on the American Queen comes with a deluxe hotel night the day before departure. Passengers can move the hotel night to the end of the cruise if they wish. But GASC is buying a hotel room night in Memphis for an estimated 7,000 passengers a year – “largely people who might not have made a decision to come to Memphis for vacation at all,” Krida said.

“The next day-and-a-half that they spend in Memphis that they wouldn’t without that inclusion, they are buying meals and paying admission to other attractions and they’re going home with the ability to tell the story about what a great experience they had in Memphis,” he added. “In the past, people would come in, get off the airplane, get on the boat and leave town and really not experience Memphis.”

The christening ceremony Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. is open to the public who can watch from the grass lawn that is the top of Beale Street Landing.

The parking lot is not yet open.