Friday, 6 September 2013

Paddlewheeling in the Pacific Northwest

Paddlewheeling in the Pacific Northwest

By Michelle Baran

When you think of paddlewheeling, most likely it’s Mississippi that comes to mind, not the Pacific Northwest. But when the 223-passenger American Empress relaunches on the Columbia and Snake rivers in April, it will bring to at least two the number of paddlewheelers sailing along the scenic western routes, paddlewheelers with a somewhat storied and related history in the region.

For U.S. river cruising enthusiasts, the relaunch of the American Empress, which has been dormant since 2008, is likely an exciting offering. The paddlewheeler is undergoing a complete renovation and interior overhaul so that it can once again sail along the rivers it originally plied when it first launched 10 years ago.

The American West Steamboat Co. introduced the American Empress — then a 235-passenger vessel called the Empress of the North — in Alaska on Aug. 10, 2003, as a reproduction of a 1800s-era paddlewheeler. The vessel’s inaugural 11-day Inside Passage cruise from Seattle to Juneau marked the first overnight sternwheeler cruise in Alaska in more than a century.
In October 2003, the Empress began sailing along the Columbia and Snake rivers out of Portland, Ore., alternating itineraries between Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In 2006, Ambassadors acquired American West, and the Empress of the North became a part of Ambassadors’ Majestic America Line fleet.

On May 14, 2007, the Empress ran aground en route to Glacier Bay from Juneau. There were no injuries, but the vessel incurred damage to the hull and took on water, causing it to list. After repairs, the vessel returned to service that summer and sailed until the collapse of Majestic America Line in late 2008.

When the Empress relaunches in April, it will join one other paddlewheeler on the Columbia and Snake rivers: the 120-passenger Queen of the West, a fellow Majestic America alum, which American Cruise Lines acquired from Majestic as it was unloading its assets in 2008.

The Queen of the West was originally launched in 1995, also by the American West Steamboat Co., which was founded that same year. Also in 1995, the American Queen launched too, which is now owned by the American Queen Steamboat Co.

So, it would appear, what goes around comes around. Just like a paddlewheel.