Colonial Salisbury, an 11-square-mile city abutting Maryland’s Wicomico River, is certainly not the first place that comes to mind when you think “cruise ship powerhouse.” That designation goes to Finland, Italy and Germany. But Chesapeake Shipbuilding has been pumping out American-built passenger vessels here for the better part of the last decade.
The man behind Chesapeake, also reputed for its tugs, car ferries and container ships, is owner Charles Robertson. Robertson serves double duty as chairman and chief executive officer of American Cruise Lines (ACL), which operates U.S. inland and coastal waterway voyages on five Chesapeake-built or -refurbed vessels. His latest project, the paddlewheeler Queen of the Mississippi, has him focused on gingerbread trim, glass chandeliers and how to resurrect a Big Muddy cruise industry growing barnacles since 2008, when its two biggest players went bust. In August 2012, QOM, the first new ship built for Mississippi River cruising in some 15 years, will begin ferrying 150 passengers on various routes between New Orleans and Saint Paul, along the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Cumberland and Arkansas Rivers.
Now, amid CO2 tanks, steel beams and fire retardant insulation, the boat is taking shape. Panel by panel, more than 100 workers are creating a modern version of the Victorian paddlewheelers that plied America’s central artery in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At this point, the Queen is some 11 weeks ahead of schedule, which allows for plenty of time for Robertson and his team to test out ideas and features — like that gingerbread trim — many of which, he says, will ultimately be rejected.
Robertson recently gave News Editor Dan Askin a tour of his Salisbury shipyard to get a behind-the-scenes look at how a modern paddlewheeler is built. Let’s jump onboard.
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