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    -  -  -  -  -      Riverboatin’      -  -  -  -  -   

 

  Most every Memphian remembers riding a riverboat on the Mississippi River in their childhood. I am no different, as I recall walking down those cobblestones in the early 1960s, hopping aboard the MEMPHIS QUEEN II or the BELLE CAROL, and taking a sightseeing cruise. Back in the ‘60s, the sightseeing cruise even landed on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River and allowed the passengers to disembark onto the sands for a few minutes.

  Fast forward to the 1985 and I am now Interim General Manager at Mud Island. I meet Capt. Jake Meanley, Capt. John Lozier, Capt. Dale Lozier, and two boys (J.T. & William) that are all involved in the Memphis Queen Line (MQL). A daily 1:30 p.m. sightseeing cruise originating from Mud Island (which opened in 1982). J.T. and William would also supply some fish, caught from the Mississippi River and Wolf River Harbor, for the aquarium at the Mississippi River Museum.

  Upon the completion of my stint at Mud Island, I became the General Manager of the Memphis Queen Line in the Spring of 1994. The MQL was operating four vessels (MEMPHIS QUEEN II, MEMPHIS QUEEN III, ISLAND QUEEN and the MEMPHIS SHOWBOAT) for over 1,100 cruises and 120,000 passengers annually. Sightseeing, Dinner, Proms, Private Parties, Weddings, Wedding Receptions, School Fields Trips, Moonlight, Sunday Brunch, Sandbar Cruises – you name it, we would cruise it! We even took cruises to Helena, Arkansas for the King Biscuit Music Festival weekend in October each year that became so popular, we were able to make the Helena Cruise a nice 7-hour day cruise for groups of 100 or more, up to six times annually.

  We also developed a festival in New Madrid, Missouri named Riverboat Days and had a fun weekend up there (1996-98). In the Autumn of 1995, we cruised two vessels (ISLAND QUEEN & MEMPHIS QUEEN III) all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio for the Tall Stacks Festival, a gathering a riverboats from all over the country which occurred every four years. Normally, it takes five days to cruise from Memphis to Cincinnati, going 24 hours-a-day straight non-stop upriver at five miles-per-hour. Well, we took twelve days, as we “tramped” along the way, setting up “local” excursions in small towns like New Madrid, Mt. Vernon, Evansville, Cloverport, Ft. Knox and even Rabbit Hash, Kentucky (three sold out cruises of 300 passengers each in Rabbit Hash!). And then once we got to Cincinnati, we ran eight cruises-a-day on both vessels for a week. What an experience . . .

  I “curated” two museum exhibits (40 Years Of Riverboatin’ and Art On The River: The Paintings Of Capt. Dale Meanley Lozier) while at MQL. “40 Years” opened in 1995 at the Mississippi River Museum and also traveled to the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas and the New Madrid Historical Museum in New Madrid, Missouri. “Paintings” showed at the Mississippi River Museum in1996. What fun!

  I also met a lot of celebrities on cruises, such as Ringo Starr (have you ever had a photo made with a Beatle?), U2, Cybill Shepherd, Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones (who I had autograph my ear of corn from the Field of Dreams, the only ear of corn that he has ever autographed in his life!), dignitaries from countries honored by Memphis In May, etc.

  Riverboating and Steamboating have long been in the historical DNA of Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis was founded on the river and built on cotton, along with the hardwood industry in the 19th century. Hundreds of years ago, animals and Native Americans determined the pathways (that later became roadways) to this highest piece of ground on the Mississippi River between Cairo, Illinois and Natchez, Mississippi. Memphis would not flood and became the center of the mid-south delta embayment. European explorers traversing the river would find their way to this high ground beginning in the 16th century, when Hernando DeSoto discovered the Mississippi River in 1541, the site of the first river confrontation between Europeans and Native Americans, 66 years before the founding of Jamestown, Virginia.

  So, Memphis is an old town (founded in 1819) and #6 on the National Register of Historic Places for listings. The historic cobblestones were began being laid in the 1850s, stabilized the levee and attracting all sorts of steamboats and industry. Memphis was the cotton capital of the world, as between 1880-1920, 70% of the nation’s cotton crop was within 200 miles of Memphis. Capt. James Lee of the Lee Lines was one of the most famous Captains and owners of the steamboat business along the Mississippi River at the turn of the century. But steamboats yielded to railroads and barges, and eventually the local river industry moved south eight miles to President’s Island in the early 1950s.

  Capt. Ed Langford began the Memphis Queen Line operation in 1955, and hired Tom Meanley to be a part-time Captain. When Capt. Langford’s health began failing him, Capt. Tom bought the Memphis Queen Line in 1960 and began building boats. To make a long-boat-building-story-short, Tom, his family and crew built the MEMPHIS QUEEN III (1977-79) and the ISLAND QUEEN (1982-84) from scratch – first building the hull of each vessel in the Meanley Shipyard (back yard of the residence) on Shelby Drive in Whitehaven. The hulls were moved by a house-moving company down the roads to McKellar Lake, launched and then towed up to the cobblestones, where the first-second-third decks, smokestacks and pilot house were all welded in place – a truly “Made-In-Memphis, family and crew tourism story”.

  Today, the third generation of family, Capt. William Lozier (Capt. Tom’s grandson) owns the company, Memphis Riverboats, and will be transitioning the boarding operation of all Memphis Riverboat cruises over to the new Beale Street Landing this Summer (2012). Another duty for Memphis Riverboats will be providing the mandated security plan for the Beale Street Landing, as well as the maintenance and operation of the unique docking system. Due to the fluctuation of the river levels of over 50 feet annually, the Riverfront Development Corporation held a design competition that has produced a ADA-approved, handicapped accessible ramp and docking system at all levels of water fluctuation year round, along with a green grass roof to walk up on, and a riverside restaurant.

  The advent of Beale Street Landing has already paid dividends as the The American Queen Steamboat Company has opened its office in Downtown Memphis, with Memphis being the home port for the AMERICAN QUEEN, the largest riverboat ever to operate excursions on the Mississippi River (89-feet wide X 418-feet long X five stories tall, sleeping 436 passengers). The AMERICAN QUEEN will offer multi-day/night cruises from one end of the Mississippi River (New Orleans) to the other (St. Paul) almost, all the way to Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, all the to Chattanooga on the Tennessee River, stopping at numerous ports along the way for day trips on land in specially made Steamcoaches. Also, three other overnight excursion companies have booked docking times at Beale Street Landing this year. So, Riverboatin’ is alive and well again on the Mississippi River.

  The AMERICAN QUEEN’s inaugural arrival into Memphis will be Thursday, April 26 coming in from Helena, after beginning in New Orleans. Jimmy O will be a featured lecturer on this cruise (and another in May). Special ceremonies (bands playing, fireworks, etc.) will be featured all day Friday, April 27 including a christening of the AMERICAN QUEEN before its departure that evening, heading upriver to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville.

 

There are many stories to tell about the Mississippi River, Steamboating history and about the
Memphis Queen Line and Memphis Riverboats – so come take a cruise this year and Go Riverboatin’ . . .

 

Next “Detour”
Coming Soon

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