The first hint that the gingerbread-festooned steamboat American Queen will soon be steaming up the Mississippi River is when the bright red paddlewheel begins to churn the muddy water. Even though the boat remains lashed to shore alongside the port of Grafton, Illinois, we are told the wooden paddles need to be soaked before departure, because dry paddles break.
Soon, the low moan of the American Queen’s steam whistle slowly builds to an ear-piercing blare, followed by the captain’s loudspeaker announcement: “All aboard that’s comin’ aboard. All ashore that’s goin’ ashore!”
Crew members scurry to unleash the thick ropes holding the boat firmly to the moorings. Other crewmen methodically tug ropes through pulleys to lift the gangway from the landing and swing it onto the boat, where it is lowered and remains protruding from the bow.
White billows of steam hiss and escape from the brass pipes of the calliope, and the melody of “Rollin’ on the River” wafts over the village, signaling the start of a calliope concert of river-themed songs.
The commotion is noticed on shore, and passing cars toot, or stop. People rush out of their homes and down to the riverbank. Families having picnics next to the boat stand up and come closer. Everyone is waving, including the 410 passengers on the American Queen, as she gently moves away from shore, her twin gangways pointing toward the route north.
The 588-mile, seven-day voyage up the Mississippi to Red Wing, Minnesota, is underway. It is a uniquely American river cruise I had long hoped to experience.
Hannibal, Missouri, is the first port, where the “Hannibal Ambassadors” earnestly greet each passenger, telling us how happy they are we are in town. It is a scene repeated in each of five ports of call, and a sincere demonstration of what middle-American hospitality can be in “storybook” small towns in the American heartland.
In Clinton, Iowa, the welcoming committee shakes the hand of every arriving passenger, and they are there again to wish us “safe travels” on departure. In Dubuque, Iowa, a piano player greets us on shore, enthusiastically playing ragtime tunes. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Red Wing, Minnesota, we are welcomed by townspeople strolling through beautiful riverfront parks dressed in 1880 costumes in keeping with the era of steamboat travel. They are there so we can take memorable photos with them and the Queen in the background.
Waiting in each port is the fleet of “river coaches” that follow the boat, providing guided and narrated “hop-on, hop-off” tours to several points of interest. Shore excursions include the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, which contains the permanent exhibit of 20 original Norman Rockwell paintings taken from episodes in the book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Directly across the river from Clinton, Iowa in Fulton, Illinois, volunteers in traditional Dutch clothing explain how the 90-foot windmill from the Netherlands ended up on a Mississippi levee, and then serve us home-made Danish pastries.
The Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque transports six passengers up the side of a hill for a panoramic view 189 feet above town. It was initially installed in 1882 so a wealthy banker could get home quickly for lunch. Today, it is described as the “world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway.”
In La Crosse, we tour the 1858 home of lumber baron Gideon Hixon, with 90 percent of the original furnishings. In the Pottery Museum of Red Wing, we learn why the chemicals in the soil are perfect for making pottery. Over 6,000 unique pieces of stoneware are displayed, produced from 1877 until 1967.
Each evening there is entertainment in the ship’s ornate theater, which is a replica of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The evening we leave Hannibal, actor Lewis Hankins portrays Mark Twain. While he sits in a high-backed leather chair with a bottle of whiskey on a table next to him, passengers are transfixed as the literary icon tells his life story.
He says as a writer, he quickly realized the use of the “right word” versus “almost the right word” is as different as “a bolt of lightning and a lighting bug.”
“I never saw the benefit of exercise,” he continues after a prolonged pause. “It just made me tired.”
Other nights we are treated to a variety of song and dance performances, including an evening where every song is about a river.
An unexpected treat is just sitting on the upper deck of the American Queen in a rocking chair, doing nothing but watching the panorama of the Mississippi slowly revealed around every bend. The vantage point in the middle of the Mississippi is a perspective few people have the opportunity to experience for almost 600 miles.
I expect the river to narrow as we head north toward the source, but it does not. However, the flow seems slower, and as we venture north, the tow boats pushing 15 immense barges that had been a frequent sight almost disappear and are replaced by small fishing boats. (Fishermen rarely wave.) Above Dubuque, small pleasure boats begin to appear. (Pleasure boaters always wave.)
At one point, the river widens briefly to a mile and a half. We discover a beach club and sand beach directly on the Mississippi at La Crosse. Farther along are hundreds of houseboats and yachts docked in the marinas at Red Wing, an hour south of Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Bobby Durham is the on-board “Riverlorian,” a gentleman who has spent 22 years on the Mississippi. Each day he makes an hour-long presentation on the history, legends and lore of the river and steamboats. When we land, he gives tours of the pilot house and is available in the Chart Room to answer questions.
I have many. Why did we sometimes maneuver left of the oncoming barge instead of always staying to the right? (Since we were heading up river, it is the captain of the downstream boat who dictates which side we should take.) Why were we stopped mid-river? (The lock and dam out of sight, but ahead, was full.) What were those flocks of white birds with long beaks that looked like pelicans? (They were pelicans.)
Other questions are answered by observation. How would we get past the bridges crossing only a few feet above the water? (The center section swivels sideways as we approach the first, and as we near the second, the center section lifts as if controlled by a magician.) Was that a bald eagle flying past? (Binoculars prove it was, becoming more frequent the farther north we sail.)
Food became a problem. First, there were too many choices, and it was all excellent. Second, none of the nightly appetizers, entrées or desserts were repeated over the seven-day journey. That meant it was necessary to sometimes order two entrees, or two appetizers, or three desserts.
Our waiter told us, “The more you eat, the more value you get for your money.” The Riverlorian mentioned river air was known to “make clothes shrink,” and not to worry. One evening an entertainer said we “got on as passengers, but would be off-loaded as ‘cargo.’”
When the cruise is over, I can vouch that all the “cargo” is happy, heavier and smiling.
For more information, go to americanqueensteamboatcompany.com.