Paddlesteaming America's heartland

KEEPS ROLLIN': American Queen is the last overnight steamboat on Mark Twain's river.
KEEPS ROLLIN': American Queen is the last overnight steamboat on Mark Twain's river.

Hight atop the American Queen, Richard and Marilyn Jensen sat on deck chairs outside their stateroom, holding each other’s wrinkled hands. Beyond the railing, the bluffs of southern Minnesota, tinged with autumn colours, slid by. A distant sound drifted from the big boat’s paddlewheel, which slapped at the Mississippi to propel us at a mere 16 kilometres an hour.

The quiet mood altered only when Richard got up to snap a photograph of the evening sky as it shifted to violet, rimmed with the same brilliant orange of the cap he wore to ward off the chill of autumn.

‘‘We were glad when the American Queen started running again,’’ he told me after I stepped outside my stateroom door beside them.

The boat’s return to the Mississippi this year, after a four-year dry spell, meant that the couple could finally complete a voyage of the river they began a decade ago. The Jensens had cruised from New Orleans to St. Louis on the Mississippi to celebrate their 50th anniversary in grand style. This long-dreamed-of trip, from St Paul to St Louis, marked their 60th.

A weeklong trip on the American Queen is a journey that gives travellers just what they might expect: a lazy passage on a snail-paced boat decked out in Victorian splendour on America’s great river. But during my trip last month I was struck by the unexpected: the insistent beauty of the Mississippi.

All along the Upper Mississippi, a stretch before the waterway is joined by the Ohio River, brown waters seep into marshes and meander behind wooded islands. Except for the river towns, whatever development that exists lies well beyond the riverbanks, mostly shrouded behind leaves. Bluffs tumble toward the water. Great blue herons stalk the shallows, undisturbed by the boat’s slow pace.
One day, a juvenile bald eagle soared through the sky and perched on a tall treetop just off to starboard, eyeing the boat.

Who wouldn’t? The American Queen – the largest steamboat ever built, at 127 metres long and 27m wide – is quite a sight to see, with towering smokestacks, ornate decorations and the big red paddlewheel that turns round and round. Whenever we passed a town, people stopped their ballgames, pulled cars over to the side of the road and stepped out of houses to stare.

Those of us lucky enough to be aboard found there was plenty to behold inside the boat, too.
The main entrance leads up a sweeping set of stairs to a hall that separates the Ladies’ Parlour, which is frilled out with lace curtains, and the Gentlemen’s Card Room, where a taxidermied boar’s head and bear set the tone. (Although the era the rooms evoke might have segregated the sexes after dinner, these are solidly unisex.

One afternoon, I spied a gentleman splayed out and snoozing on a floral-patterned sofa in the parlour. Across the hall, a woman read a novel in an armchair that was crowned with a carved wooden eagle, its wings extended so it looked as if her hair was about to be snared by talons.) Next door is the stately Mark Twain Gallery, a dark wood-panelled room, where passengers stop to read newspapers, do puzzles and drink cappuccino or hot chocolate (pick your poison, press the button and it comes hissing out of the machine).

There’s also the grand staircase, where the overhead painting depicts an egret soaring among angels.

Head down the stairs and you’re in the dining room, awash with white tablecloths and chandeliers. There, the evening extravaganza was impressive not so much for the food preparation (which was fine), but also for the culinary ambition (blackened red snapper with black-eyed pea vinaigrette) and the size of the portions.

No one goes hungry aboard the American Queen. Cookies, icecream and snacks are available day and night from the so-called Front Porch of America, at the wide bow of the boat. The informal cafe, with wicker dining sets and rocking chairs on its veranda, also serves three buffet meals a day. That’s handy for those who were assigned the 8pm rather than the widely preferred 5pm dinner seating. Anyone can choose to forgo the formal dining room, or get a hearty snack to hold them over, at the Porch, where andouille sausage is a kitchen darling.

Days aboard the American Queen quickly assume an easygoing rhythm. Wake up in a new port, gather energy in the dining room (let me recommend biscuits and sausage gravy), then roll off the boat and on to a bus for a hop-on, hop-off tour of the town. During the only day when we spent a full eight hours in port, at Davenport, Iowa, I spent NZ$108 to see the Amana Colonies, a peaceful place where German Pietists lived communally from 1855 until the mid-1930s.

All other days, passengers had to be back aboard by 12.30pm, in time to dine again and then dash to the River Grill on Deck 5 for the calliope concert. That carnival sound, created by a tiny piano-like instrument and its steam-powered whistles one deck up (to save everyone’s eardrums), marks most departures and is enough to get anyone in the mood for a little steamboat history.

Then it’s off to the Grand Saloon, a small replica of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, that is the hub of onboard entertainment. Each afternoon, Travis Vasconcelos, an expert on the river’s long history (he’s known onboard as the ‘‘riverlorian’’), illuminates the more fascinating aspects of steamboats.

During one of Vasconcelos’ lectures, amid a few dozing passengers, I learnt that the American Queen is now ‘‘the only overnight steamboat left on Mark Twain’s river’’. The paddlewheel that propels her is 38 tons of white oak, poplar and steel shaft; her smokestacks ride 30m above the water; she burns 378 litres of fuel an hour; her body was built in 1995 but the engine dates to 1932, salvaged from a long-buried steam-powered dredger.

On my last day on the boat, I walked into the Engine Room Bar, popular for its late-night sing-alongs and portholes that look out onto the churning paddlewheel. It was empty at 10am, but offered the only public entrance to the Engine Room, where steam cylinders power gigantic arms that crank the paddlewheel. I opened a heavy metal door and descended the stairs to the boat’s belly.

There I took so many pictures and asked so many questions, I began to wonder if I would be reported to the Transportation Security Administration as a possible threat. Instead, the engineer on duty, Ricky Idlett, invited me to his side of the metal gate, which generally keeps passengers (some of whom may have imbibed at the bar) away from the controls. I clearly had not been sipping anything stronger than coffee, and we were docked, so Idlett offered to snap my picture with the engine thrusters.

I let my hand rest on one of those unassuming metal bars with a rubber handle, and to my surprise, it offered a thrill. I was struck by the power of the paddlewheeler, not just to transport people up and down the river, but into a simpler past.

Just then, I caught a gentle breeze. Because the engine room heats up, workers there prop open a side door. It looks straight out on to the rolling brown waters of the Mississippi.