Posted on Thursday, October 9, 2008 by Peter Knego
With the forthcoming return of the AMERICAN QUEEN under the banner of newly-formed Great American Steamboat Company of Memphis, Tennessee, relive one of the grand steamboat’s last sailings for prior operators, Majestic America Line, on an uncommon journey from St. Louis to St. Paul. As the boat heads into a $5 million dollar refurbishment and a new incarnation, this Sea Treks has been dusted off and refitted with larger images.
Note: Click on images to view larger versions. All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2008 unless otherwise noted.
Originally posted on Friday, October 31, 2008
The starting point of this latest Uncommon Journey was the historic Palmer House Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago. I would be joining a group of 100 lucky voyagers on a rail and river journey from Chicago to St. Louis and St. Paul as the fall colors began to turn.
The third Palmer House, designed by Holabird and Roche, was built in 1925 and is one of Chicago’s most celebrated landmark hotels. It boasts 1,639 guest rooms, is twenty five stories tall and was most recently refurbished in 2007. Some of its distinctive Gothic Deco character was lost with the incorporation of that now ubiquitous faux modern “W” Hotel look but one nice new asset is the in-house gym, which is on par with many full scale city health clubs.
Friday, October 10, 2008
I joined good friend and Uncommon Journeys’ chairman, Christopher Kyte, for a short taxi ride to Union Station and the nearby Lou Mitchells, considered by many gourmands to have one of the best breakfast menus in the country. Instead of getting my kicks from a tempting waffle or pancake dish doused in genuine maple syrup, I had a slightly more healthy smoked salmon on everything bagel with cream cheese and capers at the premiere Route 66 dining stop. This would fuel a long day, which continued at the 1925-built, Daniel Burnham-designed, Beaux-Arts style train station, where we boarded a line-up of amazing vintage rail cars for the journey to St. Louis.
The first car in the line-up, Royal Street, was built in 1950 as a Pullman stainless steel sleeper/lounge/observation round end tail car. An eight year long modification preceded its return to service in 2001. The car now boasts a spectacular raised sixteen seat observation lounge with a dining area that serves eight. There are five double bedrooms, four of which can covert into two large suites. We settled in Suite C/D where I would spend much of the morning napping as the train chugged its way along the Lincoln Service route from Chicago to St. Louis.
Southern Hospitality is an American Foundry Car built originally for the Pacific Union Railroad’s City Of Portland train in 1955. Its dome area seats 24 in addition to the 14 capacity upper lounge and buffet area accommodating an additional 10. A six year refurbishment entailed the installation of mahogany paneling and pressed tin ceilings.
The other cars on our journey included the Golden Shore from 1954, built by the Budd Company for Southern Pacific Railroad with seats for 56 and, at the tail end, the 1927-built Metis, the presidential open platform car with observation lounge, dining room and four private pullman rooms. It was last commercially operated by CN and once transported Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
I did manage to shake off the slumber on the Metis’ open platform as the train rattled and rolled through the Illinois prairie, farmland and a number of towns, including Joliet, Pontiac, Lincoln and Springfield.
The Gateway Arch came into view at about 3:20 PM as we crossed the Mississippi, finally arriving in St. Louis a few moments later. From the not terribly scenic Amtrak Station, many of us piled onto a coach for renowned guide Nini Harris’ tour of St. Louis. Our first stop was the monumental Cathedral Basilica.
The Basilica, inspired by Hagia Sophia (the former catholic church, now a mosque in Istanbul) began construction in 1907 and is still being fitted out with ornate stone cuttings and specially-commissioned tesserae mosaic tiles. More than 8,000 colors are represented by over 41,500,000 pieces.
Our tour continued through some of the beautifully-conceived parks, where Nini shared a wealth of St. Louis’ architectural, social and political history. Her passion for the subject is contagious and has certainly given me a new perspective on the city. Shortly after the tour concluded at the Hilton, I went over to the park across the street for a photo of the famous St. Louis Courthouse (where the Dred Scott case was held) and Eero Saarinen’s magnificent, surreal arch.
I rejoined the Uncommon Journeys group for a posh buffet in the Hilton’s Arch View Room as its graceful namesake hovered overhead, reflecting a spectrum of twilight colors.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
After breakfast, we went down to the riverbank to visit the AMERICAN QUEEN before regular embarkation commenced. The grand boat, which will be withdrawn from service in November with the closure of Majestic America Line, seemed a bit less spruce than she was last year when I spent five nights on board for the Uncommon Journeys July 5 cruise from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. Today, her decks are slightly faded, some carpeting is worn and patches of black paint are missing from her proud stacks.
While documenting the boat, I stopped by my assigned cabin, 459, an inside double, to drop off some of my luggage.
We had a couple hours to burn in town, returning to the now full AMERICAN QUEEN at sunset.
A waxing moon loomed over the Illinois side of the river
I attended cruise dire
ctor Steve Spracklen’s introductory show, “River of Song”, in the handsome, double deck Grand Saloon at 6:45. With late seating dining at 8:00, we enjoy the evening in reverse, with show preceding dinner.
A nice touch before dinner is pianist Phil Westbrook’s musical set in the Captain’s Bar, just aft of the dining room. Westbrook, who celebrates his 56th birthday this week, covers a wide range of favorites from jazz standards to Elton John.
Our group, which included Uncommon Journey’s tour guides Don Downs, Barbara Abegglen and Cathy Lee, was assigned a large table in the double deck J.M. White Dining Room. Our waiter, Colin, a young, intelligent and witty Richard Gere/Dylan McDermott, could not have been better. Sadly, this Baltimore-based employee and his fellow AMERICAN QUEEN staff and crew will be out of a job in just a few short weeks as the last facet of the river cruise line empire shuts down. Despite the boat’s grim future, all of the staff and crew we have encountered are friendly, helpful and hard working.
I noticed the menu had been significantly pared down since last year. Apparently, Majestic America Line is cutting corners in its final days, although the courses I chose, including a Rosemary Roasted Chicken main course, were well prepared and tasty.
A cruise on AMERICAN QUEEN is not complete without a serving of bread pudding. The recipe evolves slightly (with chocolate, cherry, banana and other flavors) each night.
After such a rich dessert, the evening included some time on deck watching the search lights, fireflies and stars and then a stop in the Engine Room Bar to hear the wonderfully bawdy Jackie Bankston perform her first set of the week as AMERICAN QUEEN rolled slowly upriver to refuel en route to Alton, Illinois.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Although my inside double cabin (named Dubuque) was quite comfortable with huge amounts of storage space, its walls were paper thin. A neighboring passenger with respiratory problems kept me up most of the night, despite my arsenal of ear plugs and pillows.
I have noticed a few things missing since last year’s AQ river cruise. Apparently, Majestic America is letting its stock of H20 toiletries dwindle out. No bath gel, no conditioner and also on the “not included” list: slippers. Interestingly, page seven of the Guest Information booklet is missing (it was the cabin room service menu) and there is no mention of room service any place on board. Since they are charging an average per diem of $400 for this voyage, MAL should provide every expected amenity, especially since the company is still pushing and selling its Windstar Cruises product. They seem to be banking on their clientele not knowing the difference but many do…
AMERICAN QUEEN was alongside Alton, Illinois’ Riverfront Park when I went down to the J.M. White for breakfast shortly before the 9:00 AM cutoff. I enjoyed a nice cheddar, onion and tomato omelet with a side of salmon and capers before heading ashore for some shots of the AQ. The adjacent town was devoid of activity on this Sunday morning, so I made a pretty hasty return to the boat.
Alton was founded in 1818, was frequently visited by Abraham Lincoln and even served as the se
tting for the final Lincoln-Douglas debate. It is also where Senator Trumbull authored the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the U.S. The ungainly, steamboat-inspired, pastel painted Argosy Casino now dominates its waterfront.
At 1:00 PM, AMERICAN QUEEN sounded her whistle, hydraulically lowered her stacks, withdrew her bow ramp and lines and thrust upstream into the Mississippi. Out on deck, it was warm and slightly humid but the skies were still clear.
In the Front Porch, I was sorry but not surprised to see the espresso/cappuccino machine with the same “out of order” sign it had upon embarkation three days ago. One employee eventually confided it has been broken for a month. Despite MAL’s inattentiveness, the staff and crew could not be more charming or helpful.
I joined Christopher in the J.M. White (where there is now only unsalted butter) for a turkey sandwich and some chicken rice soup (their new “Light Lunch” menu appears to be another corner cut), then headed to the Grand Saloon for Discovery Guide (the new name for Riverlorian) Clara Christensen’s lecture about the 1,530 mile long Mississippi.
The rest of the afternoon was devoted to watching the scenery from various vantages and then working out in the small but adequately equipped gym (where another rather permanent-looking “out of order” sign is taped to one of the two treadmills) before joining my companions for dinner.
I had the grouper for the main course and chocolate bread pudding for dessert, returning to the Dubuque (cabin) at 11:00 PM to catch up on the blog and try to get some early sleep.
Monday, October 13, 2008
After another long night punctuated by my neighbor’s hacking and wheezing, I gladly accepted a downgrade to a cozy single inside cabin, 468 (appropriately named Cave In Rock after the Illinois thieves’ den of old lore), which I would switch to after we departed scenic Hannibal, Missouri. Unfortunately, it is directly across from the self service laundry and the housekeeping ice machine, so I’ve kept the earplugs and pillows handy.
At 8:00, I joined Christopher for some freshly brewed Starbucks in his cabin (we brought our own this time) and breakfast in the J.M. White before we went ashore. Gloomy skies portended rain as I wandered the quaint river town, boyhood home to author Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain.
Although perhaps best known as the setting for “Tom Sawyer”, Hannibal’s earliest known residents were the Mound Builders, who wer
e later displaced by the Sac and Fox Indians before European settlers discovered salt in the region in the 1790s. In 1811, the New Madrid Quake had a huge impact on the land around Hannibal and even changed the course of the river. Early industry developed around livestock and copper mining with a river ferry to Illinois begun in 1831, followed by the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad in 1859. Hannibal became a gateway city for prospectors heading west to California for the Gold Rush in 1859. The town grew from 30 residents in 1836 to its present population of 17,757.
I climbed up Cardiff Hill to the lighthouse for its view of the river bend, then wandered Becky’s (as in Becky Thatcher) Butterfly Garden before returning via the Tom Sawyer home and a walk alongside the AMERICAN QUEEN before the first raindrops fell.
Back on board, I posted some photos to the blogspot from the occasionally wifi-friendly Chart Room as several freight trains howled along the tracks adjacent to the boat. With a misty rain coating her decks, the AQ headed away from Hannibal at noon as a small throng of locals waved us off.
Raven haired Professora Rosalinda de Leon, now sporting “Sarah specs” and her familiar, gregarious smile (see earlier AQ and DELTA QUEEN blogs), was at the Calliope with a rousing steam-phonic salute to the Mississippi. Rosalinda is an amazing pianist and a member of Bobby Durham’s talented American Queen Quartet.
Peering out at the gloom from the Front Porch, I had a turkey sandwich and some chicken soup as AMERICAN QUEEN rolled her way up the Mississippi. Either the lack of sleep or the turkey made me drowsy, so I enjoyed a short nap in my own personal Cave In Rock, waking in time to attend guest speaker/forester Phil Hoefer’s lecture on “how trees work and why they change colors”. Since the iced tea machine in the Porch was not functioning, I made myself a cup of hot Darjeeling and then poured it over some ice before going down to the Grand Saloon.
My workout was a bit labored, so I took it easy, hoping to stave off an encroaching cold. There was nothing but sugar in the Porch to eat, so I joined Christopher in the Engine Room Bar for a couple baskets of fresh popcorn to fill the late afternoon void. The TV screen was broadcasting live coverage of the fires ravaging Los Angeles while the stock market had just lost another 500 points.
At 6:45, I joined Christopher in the Grand Saloon for the show, “The Music Goes Round and Round”. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to switch to the more popular, sunset-deprived early seating dinner at 5:15, I was still having trouble adjusting to the show-before-dinner routine.
My meal consisted of a soup that was akin to warm apple sauce, an apple walnut salad, and the Majestic Chicken, which was excellent. We skipped dessert and went to the Engine Room Bar for Jackie Bankston’s 50s and 60s night show. Between her sweet and soulful numbers (including Sam Cooke, The Temptations and the Drifters) the lady can spin some pretty salacious stories, beginning with (eyebrow arched), “You know wuuuhhh?”, to which her initiated audience snaps right back, “Wuuuhhhhhhh?”
McComb, Mississippi-based Jackie is an integral part of the AMERICAN QUEEN experience and manages to perform to a full house in the Engine Room Bar twice daily. With a degree in music theory from the University of Mississippi, she performed overseas until joining American Classic Voyages in 1998 and has seen the operation of the boat transition through the Delaware North and Majestic America management
. She will finish up on November 15 and await further word from her management about her next contract. NCL, RCI and even Ambassadors-owned Windstar’s WIND SURF are among the possibilities. Her two CDs can be ordered by clicking here
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
My kind of day, lazily spent, scenery drifting past, as AMERICAN QUEEN meandered northward. Time at the laptop sizing images and scribbling notes for this report, a cookie or two and some ice cream in the Front Porch, the popular “All American Lunch” buffet in the dining room (catfish, chicken, ribs, corn on the cob, cole slaw, potato salad, beans, soup), a nap, and, as the sun finally broke through in the late afternoon, a panorama of crimson, cadmium and canary reflected in the silty waters.
With a full moon hovering off the mauve Mississippi, we entered Lock #14. A large tow approached from the north, drifting into a position that made it impossible for us to exit the lock. Soon, another tug came alongside, hitched its chain of barges to the first tow, and pushed the entire assembly out of our way. Many of us wondered what type of language was exchanged between the masters and pilots involved in this protracted maneuver.
Still out of sorts, I skipped my early evening workout again, caught up on the California fire (so far so good in Moorpark) and stock (down 900 points) news, then joined my Uncommon comrades for dinner at eight, retreating to my little Cave for an early night.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Even with my duvet squished into the crack between door and carpet, eustachian tubes jammed with a fresh pair of foam ear plugs and head buried under a mound of down, I could still hear the occasional but startling ice machine being scooped and the rather constant chatter and clanking of washer and dryer doors from the laundry.
When I emerged from the Cave and finally made my way outside, it was cold and rainy. AMERICAN QUEEN was tied up at Dubuque, Iowa.
We were a couple hours ahead of our scheduled arrival at noon but since we were not at the proper berth (which was occupied by two day cruise excursion boats, CELEBRATION BELLE and TWILIGHT — both due to depart at 11:00), no one could disembark.
“Light” lunch with Christopher in the J.M. White, consisted of a rather “vacant” chef salad (mainly almond slivers and dry greens with a few bleu cheese crumbles) and chicken soup. Again, despite the meager food offerings, the wait staff could not have been more accommodating and charming. Today’s server was the wonderful Cody Shaw from Portland, Oregon, a loyal employee who has served Delaware North and MAL in a number of roles, including bar tender and housekeeper aboard QUEEN OF THE WEST, EMPRESS OF THE NORTH, and AMERICAN QUEEN for the past three years. He will return to Oregon and look for work all over again when the boat ties up on November 15.
Uncommon Journeys hired two private coaches to take its guests to the charming town of Galena, some eight miles inland on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. Strangely, MAL does not offer excursions to this lovely and historic little enclave (named after a lead sulfide) which was founded around the local lead mining industry. Galena’s first permanent home was built when Illinois was admitted to the Union in 1818.
Of its hundreds of restored early 19th century homes, 85% are on the National Register Of Historic Places. By the 1860s, the population soared to 60,000 but now hovers around 3,450. The town has a wonderfully well preserved and friendly Main Street with shops and restaurants and a number of homes that are open for tours. We found a nice cafe with free wifi and then walked around the town as the rain diminished and the sun finally began to break through.
The coaches returned us in time to reboard the AQ just prior to her 5:00 PM departure. Too bad there was no time to wander around Dubuque as the marina area seemed to have a number of preserved steamboats and a nice maritime museum.
As AMERICAN QUEEN sailed away from the sunset, I enjoyed a nice time on the chilly decks until evening set in.
In lieu of the diminishing dinner offerings, we dined en suite on chef salads purchased in Galena (doused in some balsamic and oil provided by the friendly staff in the dining room) and watched the third presidential debate.
The Engine Room Bar and Jackie Bankston beckoned, then we finished off a nice evening with a walk around the still wet and frigid AMERICAN QUEEN’s decks. Unable to sleep, despite my exhaustion, I took advantage of the proximal laundry and did a round of clothes, scribbling away at this blog into the early morning hours.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
A brilliant, sunny day found AMERICAN QUEEN already tied up to her riverfront park berth in LaCrosse, Wisconsin some two hours early when I emerged from the Cave at 11:00 AM.
Energized by our stash of Starbucks, freshly brewed in Christopher’s cabin, we headed ashore for lunch in the friendly Fayze’s bakery and restaurant.
On this same day, QE2 would be making her final visit to New York before sailing off to a rather dubious future in Dubai as a hackneyed, gutted attraction at the Palm Jumeirah. Meanwhile, several journalists were encircling the AMERICAN QUEEN, preparing articles about the famous steamboat’s final call at the historic town, which was founded in 1851, has a population of 51,818 and is home to a large campus of the University Of Wisconsin.
After some wifi access at the nearby Radisson, we hopped on the scenic trolley for a mere $3.00 each and enjoyed a ride through the quaint town, which was benefitting from the prior day’s rain under a radiant canopy of fall colors. There was even some time to wander the riverfront park and watch as a gathering of friendly locals in Victorian garb came to bid farewell to the AQ.
Ironically, today, I read that Majestic America’s chairman, Joe Ueberroth, will be receiving some 2.96 million dollars in compensation for presiding over the demise of Majestic America Line. Meanwhile, company’s stocks hover at an all time low and some truly wonderful and devoted employees are terminated with no compensation come 15 November. Additionally, the era of American overnight river cruising will also come to an end. Modern day American in a microcosm?
The river was at its most spectacular as we departed LaCrosse, en route to our final stop, Red Wing, Minnesota. The banks were eye-poppingly brilliant until the sun finally set down upon them. A freight train howled past on the Wisconsin side, along the old Burlington-Northern route, whose catchy slogan, “Nature Smiles For 400 Miles” never rang more true.
I brought my notepad to dinner, hoping to learn more about the 23 members of AMERICAN QUEEN’s dining room crew, who did their utmost to make some rather mediocre and diminished captain’s farewell dinner courses seem a bit less grim. My fried green tomato appetizer was barely distinguishable from the heavily crusted grouper main course.
Our waiter, Wilfer Salas, hails from Miami. After 23 years with Carnival (MARDI GRAS, CARNIVALE, FESTIVALE, CELEBRATION, JUBILEE, FANTASY, ECSTASY, SENSATION, DESTINY and VALOR), he gave up his seniority with the Miami-based company to join Majestic America last November as Majestic offered better health benefits. Now, he will have to start again from scratch.
Julius, our helpful assistant waiter, is from New Orleans and will be looking for work just in time for the holidays.
The indomitable, problem-solving, and savvy Atlanta-based Christopher Williams, one of three AMERICAN QUEEN dining captains, joined the boat two years ago. He will head back home in November and return to the restaurant business in another capacity, although he holds out hope for another operator to eventually return the boat to service.
24 year old waiter Shannon Currie is from Chicago and has learned the ropes very quickly from his first, shortlived gig on the EMPRESS OF THE NORTH this past August and quick transfer to the AMERICAN QUEEN. He will seek new employment and most likely complete his education at Robert Morris College after completing his stint with the AQ.
Sweet waitress Dorothea from South Carolina will head back home to help support her daughter in another capacity, be it in a restaurant or, if need be, in car sales.
Uber Maitre’d, Sabrina Osborne, joined the now laid up COLUMBIA QUEEN in her hometown of Portland, Oregon in 2000 when it was being run by Delta Queen Steamboat Company. In addition to tending to passengers’ seating and various other duties, she oversees and trains the dining staff and has served on DELTA QUEEN and (now laid up and gutted) MISSISSIPPI QUEEN but likes the AMERICAN QUEEN the best of all. She’ll head back to Portland and may return to her former job of dental assistant.
Adorable assistant purser Danielle Reese, whose first ship was NCLA’s PRIDE OF AMERICA, has managed to find some humor in the hubris. She’s been with the AMERICAN QUEEN for 1.5 years and plans to return to her newly-purchased home in Cleveland to “watch some cable TV” come November.
My Pittsburgh-based cabin stewardess, Jasleen Jaspel, put aside her college education four months ago when she received the opportunity to work on the AMERICAN QUEEN. If she cannot find a similar job on another boat, or, perhaps, a yacht, she will head back to school.
152 members of the hardest working, most friendly riverboat team I’ve had the pleasure of sailing with. My sincerest best wishes to them all!
I put down the pen and headed to Jackie’s show in the Engine Room Bar, then walked around in the chilly moonlight.
Finally, at 4:00 AM, I managed to get some sleep until the washing machines began churning.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Our scenic river cruising ended anti-climactically this morning when the AMERICAN QUEEN tied up at Red Wing, Minnesota. She was originally scheduled to sail all the way to St. Paul with an arrival early tomorrow but the itinerary was revised due to possible obstructions caused by this year’s floods.
Red Wing has a population of approximately 16,000 and was one of 12 towns nationwide featured on the National Trust For Historic Preservation’s 2008 “Distinctive Destinations” list. The town was founded in the 1850s by settlers who came to farm the fertile wheat plains nearby. It is now best known for tanning (the leather kind) and shoe making.
A favorite weekend haunt for tourists from the Twin Cities, Red Wing is serviced by a quaint Amtrak Station. We wandered ashore in the late morning for lunch at a cafe in town, then walked across the cantilever bridge to the Wisconsin side of the river for a few photos of the AQ from the marina.
When we returned in the early afternoon, I spent some time in the Mark Twain Gallery, trying to update the blogspot via relatively reluctant wifi waves, so ended up going to a nearby cafe to complete the task.
We opted to dine ashore on that last night, returning to the AMERICAN QUEEN to pack and attend la Bankston’s final performance of the cruise. Without the rumbling and kaleidoscopic reflections from the paddlewheel enhancing the mood, Jackie more than made up for it with her exuberance, wit, and soaring vocals. Fittingly and fantastically, she closed the night with Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days”.
I walked around the chilly, empty upper decks as patches of frost clung to the rails and windows.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Up at 7:00, I joined Christopher for an abrupt breakfast in the J.M. White. Outside, a thick fog had hidden the fall foliage from view. After a final batch of scrambled eggs, a glass of juice, and a plate of melon slices, it was time to say good bye to the boat’s stellar staff.
Who knows what the future holds for this lovely, intriguing cast of characters and the grand, still young AMERICAN QUEEN, but there is a glint or two of hope that some good news may be on the horizon, after all.
Uncommon Journeys/Train Holidays had two coaches waiting alongside, so I scrambled to the back of the one headed for St. Paul. En route to the Embassy Suites Hotel, we enjoyed a half
day tour through the Minnesota farmland, magnificent Minneapolis and spectacular St. Paul. This was my very first time in the cosmopolitan Twin Cities and I was quite smitten with its sprawling, autumn-hued parklands, sparkling lakes, dynamic architecture, and deep blue skies.
A farewell dinner was held at the famed Lexington’s that night for the Uncommon Journeys/Train Holiday group. Another round of good byes, then it was back to the hotel for a short sleep before boarding the scenic Empire Builder train to Chicago and the unavoidable flight home.
Special thanks: Barbara Abegglen, Martin Cox, Don Downs, Christopher Kyte, Cathy Lee