Paddlewheeler ends days in Louisiana scrapyard

Published 12:17 am Sunday, June 20, 2010

GRETNA, La. (AP) — Memories are all that’s left now of the Mississippi Queen, the once spectacular paddlewheel steamboat that recently met a quiet demise after languishing in a local berth since 2006.

That was the Perry Street Wharf in Gretna, which after serving as an intensive care ward for the aging Queen, bid farewell to the moldy, mildewed relic last month as it was towed down the river to a scrap metal yard in the Harvey Canal.

‘‘It looked like she was tired,’’ said Walter Haley, operations manager of Boland Marine, which watched over the steamboat for the past four years. ‘‘It will be salvaged of the machinery. They might save the hull because the steel was so thick.’’

On Friday, the Queen sat alone, stripped of its glory and awaiting destruction while docked in the Harvey Canal, off Peters Street, casting a bare, humble image through the scruffy chain link fences.

Built in the early 1970s for $27 million, the Mississippi Queen boasted five decks and 207 cabins. A $2.6 million renovation in 1989 added a spa pool, gingerbread trim above the Pilot House, and enough modern comforts to satisfy royalty while reserving a 19th century charm and a breathtaking view of the steam-powered stern paddlewheel.

The middle child of the three-Queen family, the Mississippi Queen went into passenger service in 1976, a debut for America’s Bicentennial, after a christening in Louisville. She played big sister to the American Queen, which in 1995 took over the title of largest steamboat ever, while playing the successor to the beloved 1926-era Delta Queen.

In New Orleans, the Natchez survives as the only authentic steamboat, while the Belle of Louisville up North awaits its 100th birthday in 2014. But the overnight riverboat trip is no more.

‘‘Mark Twain would probably turn over in his grave and bolt upright if he realized there were no passenger steamboats going town to town,’’ said Clakre ‘‘Doc’’ Hawley, a lifelong pilot and captain who got his first taste of the river life when he snagged a job at age 15 playing the calliope on the steamboat later renamed the Belle of Louisville.

For Hawley, 74, a Charleston, West Virginia native who made New Orleans his home 35 years ago, the Mississippi Queen’s extinction is yet another symbol of the lost Great Steamboat Era, that began in 1815.

Hawley chalks up the end of the romantic steamboats to a distressed economy, union-busters, and the pretty penny that it costs to build the likes of the Mississippi Queen — a vessel that doesn’t compare to the modern-day cruise ships that the captain calls ‘‘big square boxes.’’

‘‘No pretty shape,’’ Hawley said. ‘‘Riverboats were like something out of a Currier & Ives print.’’

Taking a cruise these days means Caribbean islands for most tourists, instead of the Middle American river towns that welcomed the steamers.

‘‘We stopped in different towns and let people explore them, these towns that no one had ever heard of,’’ said Hawley, who piloted the Mississippi Queen and a list of other steamers, beginning behind the controls of the Belle of Louisville in 1962. ‘‘It was a trip for travelers who had done everything else. It was targeted to those who liked to see America.’’

Long, lazy sightseeing trips along the 12,000 miles of navigable waterways in the United States’ four systems — three quarters of which are within the Mississippi River — were the height of fashionable travel for well over a century.

‘‘Helen Hayes made five trips,’’ Hawley said, recalling a line of famous actors who made steamboat excursions. ‘‘She just loved to see the river, sit on the deck with a book and get away from it all.’’

Passengers would fork over cash for three-to-14-night cruises to and from New Orleans well into the 1990s. In 1989, cruise fares began at $435 a person, including four meals and use of the Jacuzzi pool, gym, sauna and movie theater.

After Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, Ambassador bought the three Queen steamers for about $47 million from the now-defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Co. But in late 2008, Ambassador put the trio up for sale and announced the end of paddlewheeler cruises.

The Delta Queen went out in style, offering cruises until 2008 after Congress failed to extend a waiver that let the steamer keep sailing even though its superstructure of wood violated the 1966 Safety of Life Sea Act, which deemed wood structures unsafe for overnight passengers in response to a lethal accident on the water systems.

Now a National Historic Landmark, the Delta Queen became a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., last year. where the rates for a master cabin start at $129 a night. The American Queen remains docked.

At least one piece of the Mississippi Queen, however, was saved from the scrap metal boneyard: the 700-pound bell.

Another private party has donated the bell, complete with delivery, to the Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville, Indiana, where the Queen was built by Jeff Boat from 1973 to 1975.