We have more on the Great American Steamboat Company and its plan for opening a home port in Memphis in Thursday’s edition which hits the website at 4 this afternoon.
This isn’t the city’s first try at getting not only a stop but a port for overnight and multi night riverboat cruises on the riverfront.
In the 1980s, then-Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett pursued the same goal for Mud Island at a time when the city was beginning to build its tourism industry.
Memphis was a stop but not a port. And a stumbling block was the lack of a docking facility. The cruise boats often used the old John B. Edgar Point on Riverside Drive. When the point vanished in the expansion of Tom Lee Park in the late 1980s, the boats would sometimes tie up to the trees near the bank in Tom Lee Park.
The cruises had a set schedule in Memphis that included events at The Peabody hotel and stops at various attractions and time for eating out at restaurants in town. So, it’s easy to see that there will probably be an economic impact beyond the immediate steamboat business.
The business plan is to keep the American Queen constantly traveling on the Mississippi River with six weeks in the winter off season on the Memphis riverfront.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. put it bluntly when he told the council Tuesday, “This is a hotel. The only difference is it floats.”
In the case of The American Queen, it is a hotel with 222 state rooms and 436 guests when it is full. And in its prime, the boat was quite a site to behold. I know because I went aboard when it came to Memphis in the mid 1990s.
John Waggoner, the president and CEO of GASC, puts the date of the Memphis visit in 1997 and I’ll have to trust his memory over mine on that point. The boat was built in 1995.
What I remember most about the American Queen was all of the wood veneer on a steel frame interior and how ornate it was, especially the theater, which had a balcony. Reporters got a tour of a boat that seemed to skew the perspective of everything else around it. That’s how large it is.
The theme was to recall the golden age of passenger travel on the river with some modern conveniences. At that time, it didn’t include wi-fi or any of the other digital accessories that we now associate with convenience.
It also had a nod to the adult past in a penny machine that showed turn of the century optical viewing cards of nude women from the period. Quite a surprise after you had just gotten your press packet and were being pitched the dimensions of the state rooms.
The boat has been out of service for several years and is now in Beaumont, Texas – property of the U.S. Maritime Administration. Refurbishing it would come at a cost of $9 million and assuming the work gets anywhere near the look of the queen in its prime, it will be quite an attraction. It will also be the only overnight riverboat cruise on the river.
In the last three to four years there have been repeated attempts to revive an industry that first struggled and then shut down completely.