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By Wayne Risher - The Commercial Appeal -
The American Queen will slip into Memphis under cover of darkness Thursday to assume her watery throne at Beale Street Landing.
The largest paddlewheel steamboat ever built will be greeted with flowery speeches, inspected by The Peabody ducks and christened Friday by Priscilla Presley.
It all begins with the six-deck, 436-passenger ship's ceremonial landing at 8:30 a.m., following its arrival from Helena, Ark., in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
Memphians will be able to view the ship from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Thursday from the partially completed public landing's grass-covered roof, breezeways and dockside patio.
More public viewing is set for 2:30-4:30 p.m. Friday, when the former wife of "The King" of rock and roll will do the honors in a traditional champagne christening.
The ship will set sail at 6 p.m. Friday for Louisville, where she'll participate in the Kentucky Derby Festival's Great Steamboat Race, and a final destination of Cincinnati. Her next stops in Memphis will be May 15 and June 28.
The ornately tooled and richly appointed Queen won't be open for tours, because of Department of Homeland Security boarding restrictions.
But the event will be the first public opportunity to enter the construction zone and learn more about the giant earthen ramp and corkscrew-like structure that constitute Beale Street Landing.
Parking will be limited. A small parking lot next to the landing is expected to fill quickly. Because setup has begun for the Memphis in May International Festival's Beale Street Music Festival in Tom Lee Park, the closest parking will be on top of the bluff.
Nearly a decade in the making, the Riverfront Development Corp. (RDC) project carries a minimum price tag now pegged at $42.52 million, more than double the original $20 million estimate.
The boat-landing facility is expected to be permanently opened by this summer, four years after ground-breaking. It will house overnight cruise operations, sightseeing cruises and a restaurant in glass enclosures beneath the sloping, sodded roof.
"Everything is coming together very, very nicely," Benny Lendermon, RDC president, said Monday as crews poured concrete sidewalks, painted railings and worked on a rooftop deck.
"This project has had huge, huge issues, but one thing it hasn't had problems with was in the design team's planning and specifications. Everything has worked how it was supposed to work."
Project architect RTN Architects of Buenos Aires, Argentina, had to devise a fully accessible place for passengers to board and disembark boats despite wide fluctuations in Mississippi River levels from season to season and year to year.
The solution is the curious, helical ramp rising up out of the river, coupled with a floating dock that was moved from Presidents Island on Sunday afternoon.
The dock is a barge equipped with a hydraulic lift that raises or lowers a wooden deck to match the height of the helical ramp's access gates. The dock is held in place by mooring arms, rather than pole-like piers, which would obstruct views during low water.
The one-of-a-kind design allows the landing to function when the river level is anywhere from minus-5 feet to 45 feet on the Memphis gauge, said Jimmy Ogle, RDC community engagement manager.
The river, currently around 5 feet, has only been outside the design range 10 times in the last century, including last May's near-record flooding, Ogle said.
Backup plans for the American Queen involve landings on Mud Island.
Carlos M. Brañas and Carlos A. Schapira, consultants with naval architect Consulmar S.R.I., an Argentine consultant to RTN, are in Memphis this week to make sure the floating dock works as designed.
They rode along as two towboats took about three hours to push the 410-foot-long, 28-foot-wide, 1,311-ton dock into place in the mouth of the Wolf River Harbor.
"It was exciting. It was a very, very strong current," Brañas said.
He said the mooring system, hydraulic lift and hand railings challenged designers, who are accustomed to working on large ships. "Our installations are usually bigger than this, but this was complex," Brañas said. "It was unique. It had a lot of architectural requirements."
Officials with the Great American Steamboat Company said the boat will arrive in Memphis around 2 a.m., as is customary with overnight cruises, then backtrack so it can enter the city with local dignitaries on board.
After the public welcome at 8:30 a.m., Peabody duckmaster Anthony Petrina will lead the hotel's famous ducks aboard from 9 to 10 a.m. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton will lead the christening ceremony from 3 to 4 p.m. Friday.
-- Wayne Risher: (901) 529-2874