PORTLAND, Ore. — American Queen Steamboat Co. (AQSC) officially put its second paddlewheeler into business on Saturday with the christening of the 223-passenger American Empress.
The relaunched American Empress, formerly the Empress of the North, had been laid up since 2008 when former owner Majestic America Line went bankrupt.
AQSC entered into a binding purchase agreement for the American Empress with the U.S. Maritime Administration in May 2013. Since then, the company has been refurbishing the vessel and preparing it to once again sail overnight passenger cruises on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
“This is really a celebration of the American dream,” Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said at the christening ceremony, applauding AQSC’s efforts to reignite the U.S. river cruise industry. LaHood, who has a passion for American rivers, was invited to speak at the naming.
Claudette Waggoner, wife of AQSC Chairman and CEO John Waggoner, served as godmother of the vessel.
AQSC now has two paddlewheelers in operation, the Empress and the 436-passenger American Queen, and there is a talk about a third vessel.
Waggoner said that while he wants to take a year or two to focus on filling the American Queen and American Empress, the company is eyeing the Great Lakes and Eastern Seaboard for its next vessel.
Asked what will prevent AQSC from going the way of Majestic, Waggoner said, “No. 1, first and foremost, we are a vessels operations company.”
AQSC is a division of HMS Global Maritime, a company that operates and manages numerous vessels, including ferries and government transport vessels.
He added that AQSC aims to execute a steady and deliberate growth of its cruising business. The company researched the factors that led to Majestic’s demise and hopes to steer clear of making the same mistakes. For instance, during its time at Majestic, the American Empress ran aground twice.
“Right now, we have eight people onboard qualified to run this vessel,” said Waggoner, adding that a deep navigational staff is intended to decrease the probability of accidents.
The American Empress was originally built in 2003 and sailed Alaska’s Inside Passage and the Pacific Northwest through 2008. It is one of two vessels operating overnight cruises in the region. The other is the 120-passenger Queen of the West, another Majestic alum dating back to 1995, which is owned and operated by American Cruise Lines.
The home port of the American Empress will be Vancouver, Wash., situated across the Columbia River from Portland. It will sail eight-day, one-way itineraries between Vancouver and Spokane, Wash.
Featured stops are Astoria, Ore.; Stevenson, Wash.; The Dalles, Ore.; Sacajawea State Park, Wash.; and Clarkston, Wash.
There will be complimentary shore excursions as well as premium shore excursions for an additional cost. There will also be an included pre-cruise hotel night in Spokane or Vancouver, Wash.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.