Old Man River made its debut in 1927, courtesy of the musical Show Boat. The song, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, served to highlight the relentless flow of the country’s most famous river at a time when the Mississippi was still the highway of America, thick with boats heading up and down-river with all manner of passengers and goods.
Over the ensuing decades, the river traffic thinned and some of the boats – which dated back to Mark Twain’s era, and before – seemed to have disappeared for good, ancient relics with no place in the modern hierarchy of travel.
When the Delta Queen Riverboat Company went out of business in 2001 (having tried, in vain, to revive business by changing its name to American Classic Voyages), that appeared to spell the end of a proud river-going heritage that dated back to 1890 as The Greene Line. Mississippi river-cruising was officially a thing of the past.
Happily, that wasn’t all she wrote. Although two companies tried – and failed – to keep the Delta Queen legacy alive – there was one riverboat left in the fleet that was reckoned to be a going concern and, when she came up for auction, she was snapped up for a new future, born again under a new brand as the American Queen Steamboat Company.
The American Queen was not an old vessel. Built in 1995 for Delta Queen, she might have been one of the reasons the company ultimately failed, crippled by debt they couldn’t repay for the largest and most opulent riverboat ever built, a white elephant from which there was no escape.
But, under all-new ownership, this was a wholly different proposition, a one-ship operation that stayed firmly focused on recreating the glory days of Mississippi steamboats in classic style. As it turns out, the market for this slower, more relaxed and indulgent river-cruising hadn’t gone away, it just needed to be brought into better focus, and the American Queen was the perfect vehicle for that ‘rediscovered’ variety of modern traveller.
At 418ft long and 89ft wide, she was an immense proposition, boasting 222 staterooms and some of the most opulent public rooms seen since the days of Samuel Clemens himself. Yesterday and today came together in the perfect package, providing a new audience with the chance to fall in love with river-boating for the first time, all over again.
This wasn’t a one-off venture, though. At the same time as the American Queen Steamboat Company was reviving the classic steamer, American Cruise Lines were building a whole new Mississippi fleet, in the image of yesteryear but with the latest technology and mod cons.
Suitably challenged, the AQSC hit back with two additional riverboats of their own, reviving the American Empress (the former 2002-built Empress of the North) on the Snake and Columbia rivers in the north-west and the boutique new American Duchess as a sister vessel to the American Queen, a 166-passenger gem that added new lustre – including sumptuous 550sq ft Loft Suites – to the idea of Mississippi voyaging.
If that is the big picture view of the rebirth of sailing Old Man River, then the small detail is even more impressive. Whereas the ships of the 1970s and ’80s were stylish but rather two dimensional (they actually looked better than the service and dining could deliver), the proposition of river cruising in the 21st century is distinctly more extravagant, dispensing a level of luxury that meets the demands of a more discerning clientele.
Together, American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company have pushed the envelope of classy cruising into a new era along this timeless waterway, which stretches for a mammoth 2,320 miles from Minnesota in the north to Louisiana in the south.
Unlike European river-cruising, this is a more relaxed and idiosyncratic version of the genre, taking in big cities and backwaters, celebrity culture and local distinctions. It divides roughly into three sections: the Upper Mississippi, from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St Paul to St Louis; the middle section from St Louis to Memphis (and with a whole heap of small-town America in between); and the Lower Mississippi, from Memphis to New Orleans, the Antebellum South, via Baton Rouge and Vicksburg, with an increasingly up-tempo and diverse character.
It covers an immense swathe of Civil War history and Native American heritage, and it delves deeply into the story of slavery and the Underground Railroad, ensuring this is a fascinating slice of Americana, constantly accompanied by the tale of the river itself as every riverboat has its own ‘Riverlorian,’ the essential font of knowledge for travelling in the wake of Twain and Co.
And it all adds up to a rich and novel experience for today’s travellers, maintaining the traditions of a bygone age in modern style but with the essence of the period, a slow but deliberate unveiling of the Mississippi’s abiding journey through the heartland of America.
For those looking for the next great cruise adventure, it is a rich vein of possibility, tied up with great food, entertainment and service. For those who have already sampled it, there are always other adventures in store, other experiences waiting to be encountered.
Or, in the words of the song itself:
Ol’ man river, that ol’ man river
He must know somethin’, but don’t say nothin’
He just keep rolling
He keeps on rolling along.
And that now seems like the way things might be for some time to come on the mighty Mississippi.
Have you cruised on the Mississippi? Tell us all about it in the Comments section below.