Paddlewheel River Cruise Roundup

While river cruising’s epicenter is undoubtedly situated over in Europe, the waterways of the United States are becoming more competitive with each passing year. With cruises along the Mississippi River and the Columbia and Snake Rivers of Oregon and Washington State more popular than ever, cruise lines are rushing to build new, purpose-built river cruise ships that offer all the modern amenities cruisers might expect, while still honouring the distinct heritage of this unique area.

River cruise ships plying these inland American waterways tend to draw on the past for their inspiration, and it’s leading to a resurgence in paddlewheel-driven ships for the first time in over a century.

They may look like they’ve come straight out of a Mark Twain novel, but these modern river cruise ships offer all the comforts and conveniences of a European river cruise ship, with spacious staterooms, inclusive amenities, gourmet cuisine, and hand-crafted cocktails.

In fact, on most, the paddlewheel is strictly for show: a series of small propeller systems, known as Z-Drives, typically propels these unique vessels through the water.

Within the United States, two major river cruise lines are leading the way when it comes to classically-styled paddlewheelers: American Cruise Lines and the American Queen Steamboat Company.

American Cruise Lines

American Cruise Lines has four paddlewheel ships out of its total fleet of eight vessels that ply the inland and coastal waterways of North America.

Of these, the venerable Queen of the West is the oldest, having been constructed in 1995 for the now-defunct American West Steamboat Company. As built, she carried nearly 200 guests, but American Cruise Lines ratcheted that down to just 120 guests. She entered service for American Cruise Lines back in 2011 and has been extensively refurbished in the intervening years.

After nearly two decades in service, Queen of the West was finally joined by two fleetmates. American Cruise Lines introduced the brand-new American Pride back in 2012, which carries 150 guests and was originally named Queen of the Mississippi from 2012 until 2015.

Her direct sister, Queen of the Mississippi, entered service in 2015 under the name American Eagle. It’s not just you: the naming convention is very confusing. American Pride and Queen of the West sail the Columbia and Snake Rivers; the Queen of the Mississippi plies the waters of her namesake river.

The final ship in American Cruise Line’s paddlewheel fleet is the brand-new America. Representing the latest in cruise ship design, she carries 185 guests on voyages along the historic Mississippi River.

American Cruise Lines is currently building a fifth riverboat, to enter service on the Mississippi River sometime in 2017. When it was announced, the line stated it intended to name this vessel Queen of the Mississippi. Since there is already one of those in the fleet (and since the Great Name Swap of 2015 still causes endless confusion), we’d like to hope that ACL will name her something – anything – else.

Still, with a fleet of four paddlewheel-driven riverboats and another one on the way, nostalgia has never looked more modern than with American Cruise Lines.

American Queen Steamboat Company

The American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) began operations in 2012, it did so with a single, lovingly-refurbished ship: the 1995-built American Queen.

Originally built for the now-defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Company, she is said to be the largest riverboat ever constructed, with a capacity for 436 guests and a length of 418 feet. Laid up for four years between 2008 and 2012, AQSC put the ship through an extensive refit and refurbishment program that has left this gem of a ship sparkling. In the intervening four years, American Queen has become the flagship of the American Queen Steamboat Company, and currently sails its Mississippi river cruise itineraries.

American Empress plies the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Photo courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company.

Billed as the “largest and most elegant riverboat of the Pacific Northwest,” American Empressoperates AQSC’s itineraries on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, sailing roundtrip from Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon. Like American Queen, AQSC put American Empress through an extensive refit before she entered service for the line back in 2014. She was originally constructed in 2003 for now-defunct Majestic America Line. Today, she carries just 223 guests.

The newest member of the AQSC fleet is American Duchess, which makes her debut in June of 2017. Billed as the first all-suite river cruise vessel in North America, American Duchess will have 83 suites ranging from 240 to 550 square feet, and a total passenger count of 166. Sailing the Mississippi River, she will be the first ship in the AQSC fleet to offer itineraries that call on Chicago and Memphis, in addition to the more traditional Mississippi river ports of New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Next year brings the promise of new paddlewheel-driven ships on the rivers of the United States and with the current downturn in travel abroad to Europe, the American market will be even more important to companies in years to come as travelers look to vacation domestically rather than travelling abroad.
The new generation of paddlewheel ships is unlike anything that has come before them. Modern, comfortable and inclusive, they nonetheless provide a unique window into how travel on these rivers used to be at the turn of the last century.

If only Mark Twain could see the Mississippi now.