The Missisippi’s Queen no more!
Recently while doing some background research for a potential group trip that would include a wonderful nostalgic cruise on a paddlewheel riverboat I came upon the dreadful fact that those days had already ended. Without any fanfare, hoopla, nor really neither a fitting tribute to such as the magnanimous Queens had stood to be known for such a long, long time.
The Perry Street Wharf in Gretna, which had served as it mooring spot, and where she was looked after, said goodbye for her final voyage (albeit a tow) making her way with engines silent down the Mighty Mississippi river who she knew so well, to a scrap metal yard located in the Harvey Canal.
Seemingly imprisoned the Queen sat alone, stripped of her glory and awaiting destruction while docked in the Harvey Canal, off Peters Street, casting a timid and humble image as she peered back at mankind who she had served so well, through rusty old chain-link fences.
Built in the early 1970s for $27 million, the “Mississippi Queen” boasted five decks and 207 cabins. A $2.6 million renovation in 1989 added a spa pool, gingerbread trim above the Pilot House, and enough modern comforts to satisfy royalty while reserving a 19th century charm and a breathtaking view of the steam-powered stern paddlewheel.
She played big sister to the “American Queen”, which in 1995 took over the title of largest steamboat ever, while playing the successor to her beloved 1926-era sister ship the “Delta Queen”.
No eulogy or formal announcement came from its corporate owners. Instead, it was sold to a “private party” on May 7, according to Ambassador, Inc., of Newport Beach, California, and destined for the scrap yard.
In New Orleans, the Natchez survives as the only authentic steamboat, while the Belle of Louisville up North awaits its 100th birthday in 2014. But the overnight riverboat trip is no more.
One sad commentary ” said Clarke “Doc” Hawley, a lifelong pilot and captain who got his first taste of the river life when he snagged a job at age 15 playing the calliope on the steamboat later renamed the “Belle of Louisville”. Hawley, now 75, a Charleston, West Virginia native who made New Orleans his home 36 years ago, the Mississippi Queen’s extinction is yet another symbol of the lost “Great Steamboat Era, which began in 1815. Hawley chalks up the end of the romantic steamboats to a distressed economy, union-busters, and the pretty penny that it costs to build the likes of the Mississippi Queen — a vessel that doesn’t compare to the modern-day cruise ships that the captain calls “big square boxes.”, with “No pretty shape,” Hawley said. “Riverboats were like something out of a Currier & Ives print.”
“We stopped in different towns and let people explore them, these towns that no one had ever heard of,” said Hawley, who piloted the “Mississippi Queen” and a list of other steamers, beginning behind the controls of the Belle of Louisville in 1962. “It was a trip for travelers who had done everything else. It was targeted to those who liked to see America.
Long, lazy sightseeing trips along the 12,000 miles of navigable waterways in the United States’ four systems — three quarters of which are within the Mississippi River — were the height of fashionable travel for well over a century.
“Helen Hayes had made five trips,” Hawley said, recalling a line of famous actors who made steamboat excursions. “She just loved to see the river, sit on the deck with a book and get away from it all.”
Passengers would fork over cash for three-to-14-night cruises to and from New Orleans well into the 1990s. In 1989, cruise fares began at $435 a person, including four meals and use of the Jacuzzi pool, gym, sauna and movie theater.
After Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, Ambassador bought the three Queen steamers for about $47 million from the now-defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Co. But in late 2008, Ambassador put the trio up for sale and announced the end of paddle-wheeler cruises.
Unlike her sister ship The “Delta Queen” who went out in style, offering cruises as late as 2008 when Congress failed to extend a waiver that would have let the steamer keep sailing, as the 1966 Safety of Life Sea Act, which deemed wood structures unsafe for overnight passengers in response to a deadly accident which had occurred. She now sits as a stately National Historic Landmark, as she has been transformed into a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2009 where the rates for a master cabin start at $129 a night. The Youngest of the three sisters, The “American Queen” remains docked.
At least one piece of the “Mississippi Queen”, however, did manage to survive the scrap metal bone yard: being that of her massive 700-pound bell. A private party has donated the bell, complete with delivery, to the Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville, Indiana — where a replica of the Queen was painstakingly built from 1973 to 1975. The bell is the finishing touch for the museum’s planned expansion that includes a Pilot House-type gazebo, explains Yvonne Knight who is the museum’s administrator. “It will ring when we have weddings,” Knight said. How fitting that there is a Knight to watch over at least the memory of such a Queen.
I for one am deeply saddened, not to have had the opportunity to have sailed on her, but maybe when in Chattanooga (ironically my own fathers birth place and childhood home) and the very city I (as a flight attendant)had just taken off from at 8:58am on 9/11/2001, just maybe I will make my way back there (spend the night with her sister), and drink a toast to us all!!
For now, I shall add it to my bucket list of destinations to see.
End of Story – (for the time being………..)
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