Image: The steam powered sternwheeler American Queen
Bill Haber  /  AP, file
The steam-powered sternwheeler American Queen at a dock in New Orleans in 2007. The American Queen will resume passenger service on the Mississippi River next spring.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/11/2011 1:52:52 PM ET 2011-08-11T17:52:52

Mark Twain, long considered one of America’s greatest writers, was most at home on the greatest American river.

Born Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), he stayed for years in many places, but the Mississippi River was where he truly lived. His pseudonym even comes from his days as a river pilot; it’s a term that means the waters are a safe depth to navigate.

“With any great author, their best work will always center around the place they were most at home,” says Cindy Lovell, director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Mo. “And with Mark Twain that place will always be the Mississippi River.”

Fans of the author might be pleased to learn that river cruising in America is poised to undergo a new renaissance. The newly formed Great American Steamboat Co. announced Monday that the American Queen, known as the largest steamboat in the world but docked since 2008, will resume passenger service on the Mississippi River as early as next spring. And American Cruise Lines is expanding its operations with the Queen of the Mississippi, the first new paddlewheeler built for the river in more than 15 years. Its maiden voyage, set for Aug. 11, 2012, is already sold out.

Both vessels will travel the Mississippi River and its tributaries, routes formerly covered by the Delta Queen, which ended its passenger steamboat service in 2008.

The Mighty Miss: Rediscovering America's river

Until then, travelers seeking an authentic riverboat experience might want to consider jetting to Chattanooga, Tenn., and the Tennessee River, where the now-tethered Delta Queen is serving as a floating hotel.

Tied to the land
“People enjoy the history of the boat,” says hotel spokesperson Julie Dodson. “It’s very relaxing and unique. We’ve been here since 2009 and it’s been great. But ideally, we’d love to keep her here part of the month and take her out on the river. It’s where she’s meant to be.”

Yes, no matter how novel and splendid the accommodations, there is something unnatural about boats built for rolling on the river being leashed to land.

That’s why the stakes — and potential rewards for both passengers and owners — are so high for the American Queen and the Queen of the Mississippi.

Riding the river
“We anticipate the Queen of the Mississippi will be the jewel of the crown,” says Charles Robertson, president of American Cruise Lines, which runs 25 excursion ships around the country. “Mark Twain’s part of our American DNA. Anything that hearkens to Twain and the river needs to be done right. That’s what we’re doing with the Queen.

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“Each room will have a private balcony. It will be very modern and very quiet. There won’t be gambling and there won’t be 3,000 strangers,” Robertson said of the new 140-passenger sternwheeler. “It’ll be the difference between going to a country club and a disco. This will be a whole different cruise experience.”

Unlike behemoth ocean liners, which are increasingly becoming more like floating cities that entertain thousands of passengers, river cruises are smaller and more intimate, with the ever-changing scenery a central focus of the voyage.

It’s a European attitude Americans are just beginning to re-appreciate, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic.

“The popularity of river cruising in Europe is really beginning to explode,” she says. “Cruising the ancient rivers that spurred the creation of fantastic cities like Paris, Vienna and Budapest, is a perfect way to get into the heart of Europe and to experience the smaller cities and villages that often create such wonderful memories.”

That makes the paucity of cruising along the Mississippi, our greatest river, so glaring.

Life on the river
Today, the Riverboat Twilight is the only mom ‘n’ pop river cruise still running overnight passenger trips on the mighty Mississippi. Capt. Kevin Stier and his wife, Carrie, have been running all aspects of the operation since 2006.

“He was a deck hand and I was a ticket taker when we met,” says Carrie. “We fell in love on the boat and then we fell in love with the boat. Then we bought the boat.”

Now, three times a week, they depart from Le Claire, Iowa, and run 140 passengers 88 miles to Dubuque and then back the next morning. The couple has two children, Emily 18, and Jacob, 15, who both work onboard.

Passengers depart the boat in Dubuque to stay overnight at the Grand Harbor Resort. They receive passes to the Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and are served six on-board meals. Total cost, including accommodations: $349 per person double occupancy.

For all that, you can almost say you get the best part — the river — for free.

“Nothing compares to being out here on the river,” Capt. Stier says. “We pass 600 islands, see eagles, pelicans and pass through parts of this great river where it is five miles wide. I consider myself a lucky man.”

On the Mississippi
Cruising the Mississippi is central to understanding Twain, says museum director Lovell.

“He came back to the river over and over and used it for the setting of his best books,” Lovell says. “He was never more alive than when he was on the river.”

In fact, she says on-river research for the often overlooked classic memoir/travelogue “Life on the Mississippi” from 1883 (said to be the first book written on that oh-so-modern contraption, the typewriter), gave him the impetus to finish another river-based masterpiece, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“I’d give up authoring in a minute if I could go back to being a riverboat pilot,” Twain wrote in the river memoir. “Piloting on the Mississippi River was not work to me; it was play — delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play; and I loved it.”

Chris Rodell is a Latrobe, Pa., contributor who blogs at www.EightDaysToAmish.com.

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