Some notes on a busy two days at the riverfront that ended Friday evening when the American Queen left on its first cruise from the Memphis home port. You can read our story on how the world’s largest steamboat and Beale Street Landing got together in the new issue of our weekly, The Memphis News.
The American Queen is now bound for Cincinnati. It will return to Beale Street Landing on May 15 and leave that same day for its first trip south on the river to New Orleans. The boat will be on cruises in the New Orleans-Natchez-Vicksburg area from May 22 to June 21 when it leaves the area to come back to Memphis.
The American Queen returns to Memphis on June 28, leaving that same day for St. Louis.
Friday afternoon, the boat was christened by its godmother, Priscilla Presley — the carefully wrapped bottle smashed on a metal part of the front deck. The Great American Steamboat Company has some substantial ties to Elvis Presley Enterprises. Those on the boats will be going to Graceland as part of the cruise package. There will also be an Elvis themed cruise on the American Queen in December. Presley noted the onlookers along Riverside Drive and admitted that perhaps she had been guilty of overlooking the riverfront during her frequent trips to the city over several decades. “Why didn’t we ever take this opportunity,” she wondered aloud as she reflected on the turnout and the reaction. “Tourism is a big part of growing this city.”
Priscilla Presley and the American Queen weren’t the only things the curious came to see on the riverfront. For many this was their first time to see what the Beale Street Landing site looks like. Until this week when the docking platform was moved into place, sightseers tended to see the metal spiral in the river and wonder what that was all about.
Riverfront Development Commission president Benny Lendermon described it today as “the answer to the age old challenge of how Memphis deals with its riverfront and a 57 foot fluctuation in the water level in a year.”
Lendermon declared the dock formally open Friday although other parts of the landing won’t be ready until July including the restaurant and gift shops as well as a place to buy tickets for the daily excursion boats now docked at the cobblestones.
The boat’s theater looks like a miniature version of Ford’s Theater in Washington. It is big enough to hold the over 400 passengers on board when the boat is at capacity. And there are four cruise shows there including one that is nothing but Memphis music.
The riverlorians who talk with passengers about the history and culture along the river routes they take on a given cruise were a feature of the American Queen when it was launched in 1995 by the old Delta Queen Steamboat Co. They knew the story of the Sultana, the Civil War era boat that exploded north of Memphis in 1865 killing more people than any other maritime disaster including the Titanic. But they were still working on the story of Tom Lee and his heroic 1925 rescue of more than 30 people in a boat that capsized south of Memphis on the Mississippi River. Their work space with wi-fi, numerous books on river culture and maps and charts is one of the best public spaces on the boat.
I struck up a conversation Thursday at the Calliope Bar with one of the workers who began asking about the future of The Pyramid. I started to give the whole nine yards talk about how we got to this point when she interrupted and said she knew that part – she lives here. And later, I encountered other Memphians who have found jobs in these difficult times with GASC. Walking a few steps behind Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. Friday, Wharton encountered numerous Memphians who were part of the crew preparing the boat who said hello before getting back to the busy preparations for leaving Memphis.
John Waggoner, the chairman of GASC, talked at some length about the difficulty he had trying to get banks to loan the company $30 million to restore overnight river cruises on the Mississippi after a two year absence following a collapse of the industry. It was difficult until the group got to Memphis and found local investors through Pittco Management. Asked if GASC would be adding any more vessels to its fleet, Waggoner didn’t rule it out but said it won’t happen immediately. He noted that other companies in the business had failed because they had expanded too soon and he didn’t want to risk that.
GASC has two partners who are the link to international travelers and specifically the market for European river cruises that the American Queen hopes to tap. GASC CEO Jeff Krida expects the cruises will do very well particularly with Germans because of demand for not only cruises in America but for blues music as well.
As the christening ceremony, Judy Whitney Davis of Houmas House, Louisiana sang “Old Man River.” And she sang it well. Still, I couldn’t help having a couple of thoughts. First, I miss James Hyter and the institution he created at all of those Sunset Symphonies. Second, the song itself and its origins are, I think, a reminder of how complex and potentially volatile our culture and our history are. Some may see that as dangerous. I’ll agree to that and add that it is proof of how vital and relevant what happened here remains on so many fronts in so many eras. Tourists don’t shut off that part of their identity or curiosity when they go on vacation and we shouldn’t shy away from giving them the whole story and whole discussion. These aren’t party boats where you don’t see land for long stretches of time. On the decks, I saw more books and Kindles in use than I expected. Up the hill on Beale Street and beyond is the story these visitors are looking for. The river is part of it. So are we.