Though dark skies had threatened to dampen the hour-long event, the sun poked through just as a long list of dignitaries and company execs began extolling the virtues of the boat's return to the Mississippi. American Queen was built in 1995, pulled from service three years ago when its previous owner (Majestic America Line) went under, and was purchased for $30 million by the newly formed Great American Steamboat Company. The vessel recently completed a $6.5 million refurbishment.
"I don't know whether to be excited or terrified," company chairman John Waggoner told the several hundred people gathered in front of the eight-deck, 434-passenger beauty. He said the boat's renaissance was a "textbook case of teamwork," inasmuch as various local, national and private entities worked together to get it back into service.
Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, who garnered particular praise for his efforts, seemed almost giddy that American Queen is back trawling the Big Muddy -- and that it will be homeporting in his city. (To that end, construction continues on Beale Street Landing, an ambitious docking facility that can accommodate 50-foot shifts in the Mississippi's height.)
Citing the recent removal of a 25-foot statue of Ramses that stood guard over Memphis' towering Pyramid structure, Wharton enthused, "We may have lost a king, but we've gained a queen."
American Queen's Memphis occupancy will add 300 jobs to the city. The vessel will offer multiple voyages between Memphis and New Orleans, though it will branch out on other rivers, extending its reach to cities such as St. Paul and Pittsburgh. At a press conference following the christening, Great American CEO Jeff Krida said so far the paddle-wheeler is "doing very well," citing $27 million in bookings and a 97 percent occupancy rate.
For her part, Presley took to the role of godmother with gusto, telling the crowd that the boat will not only bring more people to Memphis but, ever the businesswoman, also to Graceland -- the uber-popular 13-acre mansion-turned-tourist attraction she shared with Elvis Presley. To cap the ceremony, which included a stirring rendition of "Old Man River" by local performer Judy Whitney Davis, Presley was guided to the front of the vessel, where she lunged forward with a bottle of Champagne that broke in spectacular fashion.
"I'm just glad it wasn't Tabasco in that bottle," she said.
--by John Deiner, Managing Editor