Rollin’ on the river in grand elegance

JIM HAUGHT | Sunday Gazette-Mail photos
The American Queen bills itself as the largest steamboat ever built, and offers modern amenities designed to depict a bygone era.
Dinner is done in elegance, an elaborate five-course affair every night.
Various West Virginians joined the four-day Cincinnati-to-Louisville round-trip. Here are two Wheeling couples, Joe and Veneida Baker and Kathy and David Young, at the gangplank.
A crew hand standing before the impressive power wheel.
A passenger waves to crew on shore as the ship passes through a lock.
The writer’s dog, Sadie, splashes in the water and checks out the boat where her owners will be spending a few days without her.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginians who live near the Ohio River — at Huntington, Point Pleasant, Ravenswood, Parkersburg, St. Marys and other towns along the meandering path — sometimes see a spectacle: a colossal sternwheeler that looks like a floating palace, making one of its Pittsburgh trips.

The American Queen is awe-inspiring.

It’s 418 feet long, six stories high, with room for 436 passengers in ornate staterooms, plus 160 crew.

It has all the perks of a mammoth cruise ship in a far more intimate setting: an elegant theater, a gracious dining hall with 20-foot vaulted ceiling, a Mark Twain river lore gallery, a topside swimming pool, a spa, nightly entertainment shows, daily history lectures, antique furnishings, champagne receptions and various other luxuries.

It’s a genuine steamboat, burning diesel fuel to boil the steam that drives two monster pistons. They in turn move the enormous sternwheel that churns the ship upstream or down.

The ship is so tall that its twin smokestacks lie flat for passage under bridges, and its pilothouse can be lowered 9 feet, like an elevator.

Advertising brochures call it “the largest, most opulent riverboat in the world.” That’s believable to me.

Taking a waterborne vacation on this behemoth is an adventure.

My wife and I boarded at Cincinnati for a four-day jaunt to Louisville, Kentucky, and back, and it was marvelous.

We didn’t join bus tours of riverside cities, because it was joyful simply to stay aboard and relish life on the wide Ohio River.

Dining is sumptuous, with five-course dinners nightly. Overeating is a temptation.

The boat’s wisecracking pianist said people “arrive as passengers and leave as cargo.”

I assume that cruise-takers tend to be older, like us. On our trip, the boat was full of retirees, many using wheelchairs, walkers or canes. Some were accompanied by grown children or grandchildren.

I also assume that cruise-takers generally are affluent, because prices are steep. As a couple, we paid $2,000 for the smallest stateroom — while many others cost twice or three times as much.

Floating resorts are expensive. After years of plying the Mississippi and Ohio, the Queen went bankrupt in 2008. It was purchased for $15.5 million by new owners, who spent $6 million more on refurbishments.

Although gambling boats have sprouted around America, the Queen has no casino.

We felt one minor aggravation: The Queen’s cruises are arranged so that guests spend the first night in a luxury hotel, boarding the boat next day. The stay at Cincinnati’s Hilton Netherland Plaza had some difficulties, with oldsters on walkers required to stand in long registration lines. Maybe the Queen’s owners can simplify and quicken the sign-in process — or just let passengers drive directly to the boat.

Once we became waterborne, the trip was magical. Watching the passing shoreline, going through locks, and other river experiences were charming. It was an adventure to remember.

Reach Charleston Gazette editor Jim Haught at 304-348-5199 or

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