"My time slot is after lunch, so I'd best keep the conversation lively," he told me one day in the Chart Room, where he can often be found, explaining how to read river charts, doling out binoculars and answering questions.
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All those impressive numbers make a listener happy that the newly formed Great American Steamboat Co. rescued the boat last fall and poured $6 million into wiping away the cobwebs.
The boat had been dry-docked since 2008 by the U.S. Maritime Administration, a reluctant recipient after two previous owners became insolvent in turn, unable to pay the government loan that helped build the vessel. The Delta Queen Steamboat Co., which originally launched the American Queen (and christened her with a giant bottle of tabasco), also had two smaller boats once upon a time: The Delta Queen is now a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Mississippi Queen befell a much worse fate - sold for scrap.
Each evening, passengers poured into the Grand Saloon for a pre- or post-dinner show. I joined them the night a Mark Twain impersonator was on the bill. But his performance, management regretted to report, was rescheduled for undisclosed reasons (a nice representation of the rascally side of Twain).
Instead of tales of life on the Mississippi, I listened to soul and gospel music from a quartet in sequined choir robes. It was far flashier than anything a Twain impersonator could conjure up.
After a costume change, the group - whose members sang with verve and were backed by a band impressive for its size and talent - moved through a few decades' worth of hits, culminating in a rousing performance of the Chicken Dance Song. Suddenly, my view was blocked by bobbing heads and cocked elbows.
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 10 a.m., 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 onto the rolling brown waters of the Mississippi.
IF YOU GO:
BOAT DETAILS: The American Queen can carry 436 guests in 222 staterooms and suites. My cruise, which departed St. Paul on Sept. 21, was nearly full, but the big six-story boat never felt crowded.
My stateroom had a sofa and a wicker chair and ottoman, flat-screen television, large closet, ample bathroom with tub, and a second sink just outside the door, across from a mirrored vanity. I stayed in an outside stateroom.
In January, when the American Queen takes a monthlong break in New Orleans, the boat will get another spiffing up. Wallpaper in the staterooms and artwork and carpet in the public spaces will be replaced.
During my trip, a stealth worker replaced dated, dark wallpaper with a more modern version in public spaces during the wee hours.
THE PRICE: Prices for the seven-night trip I took range from $5,795 for a suite with a veranda to $1,995 for the smallest inside cabin (per person, double occupancy); they include one night in a hotel before or after the cruise, all meals, wine or beer with dinner and hop-on, hop-off bus tours in port towns.
CHOOSING YOUR TRIP: Voyages between St. Paul and St. Louis run regularly through early November, with one three-night round trip that begins and ends in St. Paul, departing Oct. 19. I opted for the St. Paul to St. Louis route because the boat stops in a port each day. Trips upriver from St. Louis include a few days exclusively on the boat. "People build a strong relationship with the river on those trips," said the boat's river historian, Travis Vasconcelos.
There are 26 locks between the two cities. Experiencing the 90-foot-wide boat squeeze into the 110-foot-wide locks (and sometimes feeling a gentle bonk as the boat taps a lock wall) is a trip highlight for many on board.
The American Queen plies the Mississippi, Ohio or Tennessee rivers nearly year-round. Many trips have themes, such as "Polka Cruise" and "Walk in Elvis' Steps."
MORE INFO: http://www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com; 1-888-749-5280.