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    Biggest-ever Mississippi River paddlewheeler comes home to Memphis

    By Wayne Risher - The Commercial Appeal -

    The American Queen steamed into its home port of Memphis today to deposit 400-plus tourists and a down payment on its $89 million annual impact on the region.

    The 436-passenger ship, with a 174-person crew made up mostly of Memphians, docked in the city for the first time since a previous owner pulled it out of service in 2008.

    Passengers sipped mimosas and bloody Marys on the ship's forward deck, Captain John Sutton ordered the ship's whistle blown in welcome, and the calliope played "Tennessee Waltz" and "Rocky Top."

    "On behalf of the captain and crew of the American Queen, welcome to Memphis, our home port," the public service announcer intoned.

    About 8:30 a.m., the six-deck, 418-foot-long steamboat eased up to Beale Street Landing's floating dock and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton proclaimed a new chapter in the city's river-related tourism.

    "This is a critical part of our identity as a city," Wharton said. "You can't call yourself one of America's premier river cities if all you do is go look at the river and throw stones in it," he added.

    The city will seek to burnish that image as the celebration of the American Queen's maiden voyage continues on Friday with a christening at 3 p.m. at the foot of Beale Street. Though the public landing isn't completed, it's open for viewing of the ship until 2:30 p.m. today and 2:30-4:30 p.m. on Friday.

    As the ship's godmother, actress Priscilla Presley, ex-wife of Elvis Presley, will wield the ceremonial bottle of champagne.

    The first cruise out of Memphis leaves at 6 p.m. Friday bound for Cincinnati by way of Louisville.

    Wharton toured the boat and met Memphians who believe they've found careers due to the American Queen ownership's commitment to hire locally.

    "These are people doing real jobs right now. Whether they make this a career or not, the skills they learn here will be critical to our city's hospitality industry."

    The mayor said the Great American Steamboat Company is making good on promises to create jobs, buy locally and ramp up tourism.

    Those benefits prompted Wharton and the City Council last year to support a $9 million city loan that was crucial to the $31 million venture. The city made the 10-year loan under a Department of Housing and Urban Development loan guarantee program.

    Wharton said he was impressed by the largest paddlewheel steamboat ever to navigate America's rivers.

    "This is not just any boat. This is THE boat. They've done a great job of capturing history."

    Just to be historically accurate, passengers Suzanne and Richard Martinez dressed as Southern belle and riverboat gambler, respectively. They fit in nicely with the Mark Twain impersonator who strolled through the Chart Room and out onto the crowded deck.

    "I'm a river nut," said Martinez, who wore a floral print hoop skirt for her grand entrance to Memphis.

    It was their eighth cruise on the American Queen and 22nd on the cruise line that formerly included it, the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen, she said. "I guess if you've got to be addicted to something, this isn't bad."

    The Martinezes drove to Memphis from Tavares, Fla., earlier this month and rode Amtrak's City of New Orleans to Louisiana.

    They were passengers on the American Queen's first cruise, which began and ended in New Orleans, and then set sail April 19 on the inaugural cruise to Memphis.

    She was one of several passengers who praised the accommodations and service on board. "Even if nothing went right, it's still a boat on the river, and everything did go right," she said.