Nostalgia is an interesting concept. It is a remembrance of a time past, but it undeniably glosses over the less appealing portions of those memories. There is a distinct difference between recreation and nostalgia. When it comes to travel on rivers such as the Mississippi, nostalgia and not recreation is the order of the day.
The American Queen was built in 1995 to follow the lines and interior décor of the romantic steamboats of the 1870s and 1880s. She is a faithful interpretation of the original designs. She is not, however, a recreation. The American Empress, which entered service in 2014, is also an authentic interpretation, but not a slavish recreation of a Pacific Northwest riverboat from the late 1800s.
A recreation, such as some of the buildings in Williamsburg, stays true to the original, eschewing modern conveniences and safety features. It would be illegal today to build a riverboat without modern lifesaving equipment, satellite navigation, fire-suppression systems and contemporary communications capabilities. Even if the original designers of the American Queen and American Empress had wanted to craft a faithful recreation of a 19th century riverboat, it would be impossible. Thankfully, technology has advanced far beyond that utilized on the original riverboats and as a result, travel is infinitely safer.
It is also infinitely more comfortable. A recreation would have utilized the same engines, might not have provided for electrical lighting, certainly would not feature air conditioning or flat-screen televisions and the actual accommodations, even those at the high end of the scale would appear to be preposterously small and crude boxes by the elegant stateroom standards of the American Queen and American Empress. Clearly, nostalgia is best served by an interpretation and not a recreation.
Riverboat travel was romantic to those ashore, but hardly posh to those aboard. While it’s true that the top accommodations on the biggest boats featured a large social hall that was a gilded and fenestrated wonder, on the smaller boats it was just a large open area. In either case, it served as a lounge, bar and dining room. It was usually ringed by what were termed cabins but were, in actuality, small sleeping compartments without toiletry facilities. When nature called, it was a community affair attended to in shared bathrooms.
For those who are interested in the details of the steamboat business, there is a fantastic reference book, Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History by Louis C. Hunter, that is among the very best of its kind and pulls no punches in, among other things, describing what river travel was really like.
In the book, a contemporary account of travel by riverboat in 1843 notes that the boat was “the filthiest of all filthy old rat-traps I ever traveled in; and the fare worse, certainly much worse, and so scanty withal that our worthy commander could not have given us another meal had we been detained a night longer.” Others noted that the “food was detestable – salty meats, rancid butter, coffee and tea without milk.” Cola-glazed ham, crabcake benedict, bourbon pecan pies and other treats served on an American Queen Steamboat Company voyage would have been unimaginable to the earliest river travelers.
Accommodations and atmosphere fell short on most boats even by the standards of the day. Staterooms were described as “sleeping shelves” with “scanty and dirty bedding.” But even on the top-of-the-line steamboats, such as those belonging to the fabled Anchor Line, life was not all peaches and cream. The lower decks of all boats were for the transport of freight, workers and the disadvantaged. In many ways, the lowest decks of a riverboat served the same function as that of today’s bus companies: cheap yet efficient transportation.
But on those lowest decks, passengers shared space with livestock. It was not uncommon for pigs, cows, chickens and other farm animals to roam the lower decks, stepping around (or on) the bedding of the deck passengers who tried to find spots to rest between bales of cotton.
By contrast, there are no deck passengers on the American Queen or American Empress. The food is exceptional, the bedding first-rate and, of course, each stateroom or suite has its own bathroom. Stroll the decks and you won’t find an errant cow, a clucking chicken or have to step over a bale of cotton. Instead, you’ll settle into a rocking chair, sip a Mint Julep, and watch the scenery glide past as you await dinner in the elegant, air-conditioned dining room.
We may look back fondly on the great steamboat era of the 1800s, but we do so with rose-tinted glasses if we choose to disregard the realities of travel by river 150 years ago. It was often harsh, uncomfortable and not always pleasant. Today, it is an escape from the reality of our everyday lives to a place where every need is met, entertainment ebullient, service friendly and refined, enrichment programs entirely enlightening, accommodations filled with period décor and modern amenities, ports of call fascinating and welcoming, and cuisine that celebrates the traditions of the past with the palate of today. Forget recreations, travel with the American Queen Steamboat Company is nostalgia re-imagined.