How's this for a metaphor for our current economic times: Trade (or at least cruise trade) on America's greatest commercial river has all but come to a halt. For perhaps the first time since the early 19th century, there are no river ships offering full-service overnight cruises on the Mississippi or its tributaries -- and no one is jumping in to fill the void.
The big blow, of course, came with the shuttering of Majestic America Line this past November. By itself, that company accounted for approximately 85% of the overnight river cruise trade on the entire Mississippi River system, which encompasses not just the Mississippi itself but also the Atchafalaya, Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Missouri, and Illinois rivers. A further blow came one month later when RiverBarge Excursions, operator of the 198-passenger barge vessel River Explorer, announced it was closing up shop due to low demand and rising costs.
Majestic America's end was particularly troubling because of its history. Though it was formed little more than two years ago, it was a successor entity to two other steamboat operators, America West Steamboat Company and the fabled Delta Queen Steamboat Company, which traced its history back to 1890 and had as its flagship the great Delta Queen, a vintage 1927 paddle-wheeler that for decades was the only wooden riverboat left on the Mississippi.
Today, the Majestic America vessels American Queen and Mississippi Queen are both laid up awaiting a buyer or anyone else willing to take over their operation, but the most likely outcome is that they'll become permanently moored hotels. That's currently the fate of Delta Queen, which in February was leased to Chattanooga, Tennessee, entrepreneur Harry Phillips, who began operating her as an historic boutique hotel. Group tours of the ship, which is moored at Chattanooga's Coolidge Park Landing, began just last week, but there's still some hope she'll be returned to overnight service: The grassroots organization Save the Delta Queen (www.save-the-delta-queen.org) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are both pushing for a Congressional exemption to new regulations that prohibit wooden construction in large overnight passenger vessels. Were such an exemption to be granted, it's still far from clear who would operate any new round of overnight itineraries, because the fact is it was pure economics that sunk Majestic America, Delta Queen's sister-vessels, and the whole RiverBarge enterprise. As of this writing, none of the other U.S. small-ship cruise lines have announced plans to operate any Mississippi River itineraries. Jerrol Golden, Director of Public Relations for Cruise West, currently the largest of America's small-ship lines, was categorical: "We are dipping our toes into a few [new markets]," she said this week, "but that's not one of them."
Lesser Options on America's Greatest River
Though true "sleep on the boat" overnight service has ceased on the Mississippi, many options still exist for day cruises, evening cruises, and even a few pseudo-overnight cruises, with accommodations at a shoreside hotel sandwiched between days on the river. Here's a rundown of a few of the better options. Due to their brevity, day cruises typically cost between $15 and $30. Overnights range from about $100 to $300.
Julia Belle Swain: Built in 1971 in Dubuque, Iowa, Julia Belle Swain is one of the few authentic steam-powered passenger vessels still in operation on the Mississippi. She offers day cruises from Riverside Park in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and also does overnight cruises to Winona, Minnesota; Lansing, Iowa; and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, with passengers spending their nights at a hotel on shore. Occasional multi-day cruises sail to more distant river cities, such as Dubuque, Iowa, or Red Wing and Wabasha, Minnesota. See: www.juliabelle.com.
Spirit of Peoria: The traditional-style boat was built in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1988 by Walker Boat Yard, and is solely propelled by its large stern paddle wheel. She offers day, overnight, and two-night cruises, with night accommodations at a shoreside lodge. Sails from Illinois and Missouri. See: www.spiritofpeoria.com.
Riverboat Twilight: Built in Jennings, Louisiana, and launched in 1987, this recreation, diesel-driven paddle-wheeler offers overnight riverboat cruise from Le Claire to Dubuque, Iowa, with evening accommodations ashore. See: www.riverboattwilight.com.
Belle of Louisville: Built in 1914 in Pittsburgh, the Belle of Louisville is a National Historic Landmark vessel that operates day sightseeing and dinner cruises along the Ohio River, from downtown Louisville, Kentucky. See: www.belleoflouisville.org.
Natchez: The steamboat Natchez is another traditional classic, also operating under old-fashioned steam power. She offers day cruises from New Orleans, boarding at the foot of Toulouse Street & the River in the French Quarter. See: www.steamboatnatchez.com.
Creole Queen: Also sailing day cruises from New Orleans, Creole Queen is a traditional-style paddle-wheeler powered by very untraditional diesel engines. She was built in 1983 in Moss Point, Mississippi. See: www.creolequeen.com.
La Crosse Queen: This small, recreation paddle-wheeler does day cruises from La Crosse, Wisconsin. See: www.lacrossequeen.com.
Celebration Belle: Billed as "the largest non-gaming excursion riverboat in the Upper Mississippi River," the Celebration Belle was built in Pensacola, Florida, in 1986, and offers day and evening cruises, principally from Moline, Illinois, and Dubuque, Iowa. See: www.celebrationbelle.com.
Mississippi Belle: This small paddle-wheel excursion boat was built and designed by Captain Nick Buffetta and his grandfather, Captain Harold Rademacher, in 2003. She sails from Brainerd, Minnesota, on the Upper Mississippi River. See: www.brainerdboat.com.
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