Here comes the Queen Giant steamboat returning to city in spring

Published 11:45 am Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A queen is coming back to Vicksburg — and she’ll be spending the night.

After more than three years, the American Queen riverboat again will dock at City Front when its new owner, the Great American Steamboat Company, resumes Mississippi River cruises in April.

“Vicksburg is an important part of our entire program, and we will be there often,” Jeffrey Krida, Great American’s chief executive officer, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

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Krida, familiar with river towns because he is a former president of the company that used to operate the American, Delta and Mississippi queens, said Vicksburg is worth more visiting time than was previously allowed passengers who arrived in the mornings and left in the evenings.

Sometimes it will be an overnight destination for cruises the company plans to originate or terminate here, he said.

“We have missed the visits from the riverboats, and we are very eager to receive them in Vicksburg again,” said Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re very excited about it.”

Great American Steamboat completed the deal Monday to acquire the American Queen from the U.S. Maritime Administration, an office of the Department of Transportation, for $15.5 million. The purchase was the result of a partnership between the company, the City of Memphis — where Great American Steamboat will be headquartered — and the federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities Program. Financing advanced by the City of Memphis is to be repaid via passenger boarding fees.

American Queen cruises will follow their same historical routes, Krida said — the entire Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minn.; the Ohio River from St. Louis to Pittsburgh; and the Cumberland River in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“About 35 or 40 percent of the time, the American Queen will stop in various Mississippi ports,” Krida said, including Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez.

In years past, passengers disembarked at City Front and were given the opportunity to walk through shops along downtown Washington Street, visit the Vicksburg National Military Park, the Old Court House Museum or other sites — but all in one day.

Now, Great American, Krida said, will purchase blocks of hotel rooms in Vicksburg for its passengers on overnight stays.

The American Queen, built in 1994, is 418 feet long and about 89 feet high. It’s fitted with 222 staterooms capable of housing 436 passengers, and features a calliope with 37 gold-plated brass pipes, according to the website.

In 2010, two cruise lines announced plans to offer river excursions with stops in Vicksburg. Seattle-based Cruise West said the 207-foot Spirit of America had been re-outfitted and cruises would begin in March of this year, but the company ceased operations Sept. 18., 2010, and excursions were canceled. The Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines continues on pace to launch its Queen of the Mississippi excursions, beginning in August 2012 with cruises between New Orleans and Memphis that will include stops in Vicksburg and Natchez, according to its website.

The American Queen last docked in Vicksburg Nov. 3, 2008, when it accompanied the smaller Delta Queen on its last trip down the Mississippi. Those two and the Mississippi Queen were then operated by the Majestic Cruise Line, a subsidiary of Ambassadors International.

When the company went out of business in 2009, the maritime administration held the mortgage on the American Queen, took possession of the boat and mothballed it in Beaumont, Texas.

Great American Steamship plans to spend about $5 million to renovate the boat, announced the Riverfront Development Corp. of Memphis, which manages the Beale Street Landing development where the American Queen will be based.

Krida said details on schedules and costs will be available Sept. 15.

The Delta Queen, an authentic sternwheel riverboat built in the 1920s,was sold in 2009 to a Chattanooga company for use as a floating hotel.

The Mississippi Queen had been moored since 2007 at the Perry Street Wharf in Getna, La., before being sold for scrap to a private company in 2010. Krida said its fixtures have been dismantled and the boat cut apart.