It would be difficult to over-estimate the impact of the first commercial steamboat churning its way upstream past Hannibal around 1825; the few residents who would have seen this landmark event might have thought it a sign that their world was about to change forever. Even today, that sense of wonder exists for those who come to the riverfront to find a 3- to 5-story vessel docked at the western bank of the Mississippi, like a floating hotel.
Just as the establishment of a national highway network and safer, faster, more comfortable cars and trucks enabled the population of cities to spread into suburbs and “exurbs,” the steamboats allowed the opening of the upper Mississippi to be more accessible to trade – leading to more jobs and settlements to the north of St. Louis. Before the use of steam engines, travel north of the Missouri River confluence would have been challenging, since the river depths are much shallower and it is prone to freezing over in winter.
A packet — or transport — riverboat, eased trade between St. Louis and destinations north such as lead-mining giant Galena, Ill. Moses Bates, who was pivotal in the founding of Hannibal and Galena, used Hannibal as a stopover point; it did not hurt that the region provided raw materials such as limestone, salt and other minerals to make it a profitable port. Packet boats were not restricted to supplies, rather they tended to carry just about anything necessary for life along and off the river – building materials, livestock, people, household goods, etc.
Steamboats made the process of transport and settlement faster, which caused a growth spurt along the river. By the 1850s, accounts peg the number of ship dockings in Hannibal at greater than 1,000 annually. Railroad expansion would take some business away from the river, but not until well after the end of the Civil War. By the end of the 1800s, the rails would claim more of the passenger trade as fares would become more affordable, yet “excursion” boats remained an option into the mid-20th century.
The decline of riverboat cruises along the upper Mississippi for years could not be pegged to just one factor: aging vessels too expensive to repair and economic recessions pushing down demand did not help the business, either. The resurgence of cruises that include Hannibal as an attraction began in 2012, and the forces behind this are a bit more clear. First, heritage tourism is booming. This tourism is based on a love of history more than simple amusement, such as traveling the Mississippi to understand the river itself as well as its role for settlers and traders. Second, Americans can enjoy the luxury of a cruise without having to obtain a passport. In addition, themed cruises provide an experience not easily matched by other types of travel packages, featuring on-board historians, excursions at different stopovers and suites with views of the landscape.
Here come the cruisers
The American Queen Steamboat Co., whose namesake vessel is the largest steamboat ever built, began running routes in 2012. The American Queen — with a capacity of 435 people — stops six to eight times per year.
This year, the company is introducing a smaller ship named the Grand Duchess, claiming it is the first all-suite paddlewheeler built in the U.S., capable of accommodating 166 guests. The Grand Duchess is scheduled for five stops between late July and late August, with her sister ship visiting twice.
American Cruise Lines initiated its St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn., routes almost simultaneously. Its Queen of the Mississippi boat, like the new version of the American Queen, was built specifically for use on the Mississippi River. The Queen of the Mississippi is designed to hold 150 passengers, and its brand-new counterpart, the America, can service 185 people. Together, the two are scheduled to make 17 stops from July through October; up from an average of 10 to 12 routes per season.
A third player in the market will begin its cruises this year: the Louisiana-based French America Line will roll out its 150-capacity all-suite Louisiane ship at the end of June, scheduled to make eight stops through September. This raises the total of projected visits to 32 from 17 in 2016, though anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of scheduled stops may be canceled because of river conditions and other factors.
Nature of the river
The nature of the river north of St. Louis is often what dictates the number and timing of these 8- to 10-day cruises. Shallow depth, a network of 28 lock and dam systems, late season flooding and dredging issues can conspire to make the window for travel much shorter than that of the lower Mississippi, where cruises are possible year-round. Also, demand is higher for the warmer climate of the south, where companies have scheduled twice as many routes as those in the north. Finally, the cost of a cruise may limit the number of visitors: prices per person can range from $2,000 to up to $4,000 for a two-bed suite, and trips from New Orleans to St. Paul can exceed $9,000 for a fortnight.
Who takes these trips? While some tourists from overseas are attracted to the cruise packages, the majority of customers are U.S. citizens more than 50 years of age who are drawn to this type of travel as much as the destination. A 2015 survey of cruise ship travelers shows that roughly 40 percent have taken multiple cruises. The average income for those taking river cruises is more than $100,000 per year. In essence, the type of tourist coming by boat to Hannibal is distinct from the demographics of those who come by other means.
This economic impact of this is not easy to estimate. If the scheduling holds, more than 5,000 visitors will be brought here who may not otherwise have found their way here. Since many dockings are limited to 5 hours or less, spending is somewhat dampened.
The Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau, along with feedback from passengers, has been able to influence the companies enough that at least one trip from each major liner has spent a full day here each of the last two years.
The cruise market opens Hannibal to a type of tourist not available to every river town, and the publicity and advertising offered by the companies costs the individual communities nothing.
What about Viking?
One notable omission from the cruise schedule is Viking. One of the biggest and highest quality cruise liner companies in the world, Viking had made headlines in the area in 2014 — though rumors were surfacing before then — that it would begin its own venture onto the Mississippi by 2016, planning 28 stops in Hannibal. Now, the company is hopeful that it can deploy up to six ships, two at a time, by 2018.
The delay is because of a law enacted in 1920 called the Jones Act that requires any ship used to transport people or goods between ports inside the U.S. to have been built in an American shipyard and be entirely American-owned.
As of late 2016, Viking was still working on a shipyard and fulfilling the other requirements.
More communities are taking advantage of the increased traffic as a way of boosting tourism through the original social network: word of mouth that spreads when travelers head home.
- By KEN MARKS
July 16: 9-day voyage, July 23 to July 31, starts in St. Louis with destination of Red Wing, Minn. Theme is Mark Twain.
July 31: 9-day voyage, July 29 to Aug. 6, starts in St. Louis with destination of Red Wing, Minn. Theme is Mark Twain.
Aug. 10: 16-day voyage, Aug. 5 to Aug. 20, starts in Minneapolis with destination of New Orleans. Theme is the Mighty Mississippi.
Aug. 20: 23-day voyage, Aug 13 to Sept. 4, starts in Minneapolis with destination of New Orleans. Theme is the Mighty Mississippi.
Sept. 23: 9-day voyage, Sept. 16 to Sept. 24, starts in Minneapolis with destination of Alton, Ill. Theme is Life on the Mississippi.
July 30: 9-day voyage, July 23 to July 31, starts in Minneapolis with destination of St. Louis. Theme is Mark Twain.
Aug. 1: 9-day voyage, July 30 to Aug. 7, starts in St. Loius with destination of Red Wing, Minn. Theme is Life on the Mississippi.
Aug. 13: 9-day voyage, Aug. 6 to Aug. 14, starts in Minneapolis with destination of St. Louis. Theme is Life on the Mississippi.
Aug. 16: 9-day voyage, Aug. 13 to Aug. 21, starts in St. Louis with destination of Chicago. Theme is Architecture and the Arts.
Aug. 26: 9-day voyage, Aug. 20 to Aug. 28, starts in Chicago with destination of St. Louis. Theme is Chicago Blues.
QUEEN OF THE MISSISSIPPI
Aug. 11: 7-day voyage, Aug. 5 to Aug. 12, starts in St. Paul, Minn., with destination of St. Louis.
Aug. 27: 7-day voyage, Aug. 26 to Sept. 2, starts in St. Louis with destination of St. Paul, Minn.
Sept. 8: 7-day voyage, Sept. 2 to Sept. 9, starts in St. Paul, Minn., with destination of St. Louis.
Oct. 8: 7-day voyage, Oct. 7 to Oct. 14, starts in St. Louis with destination of St. Paul, Minn.
Sept. 1: 7-day voyage, Aug. 26 to Sept. 2, starts in St. Paul, Minn., with destination of St. Louis.
Sept. 3: 7-day voyage, Sept. 2 to Sept. 9, starts in St. Louis with destination of. Paul, Minn.
Sept.15: 14-day voyage, Sept. 9 to Sept. 23, starts in St. Paul, Minn., with destination of New Orleans.
Oct. 4: 7-day voyage, Oct. 3 to Oct. 10, starts in St. Louis with destination of St. Paul, Minn.
Oct. 16: 7-day voyage, Oct. 10 to Oct. 17, starts in St. Paul, Minn., with destination of St. Louis.
Oct. 18: 7-day voyage, Oct. 17 to Oct. 24, starts in St. Louis with destination of St. Paul, Minn.
Oct. 30: 14-day voyage, Oct. 24 to Nov. 7, starts in St. Paul, Minn., with destination of New Orleans.
July 30: 8-day voyage, July 29 to Aug. 6, starts in St. Louis with destination of St. Paul, Minn.
Aug. 27: 8-day voyage, Aug. 26 to Sept. 3, starts in St. Louis with destination of St. Paul, Minn.
Oct. 8: 8-day voyage, Oct. 7 to Oct. 15, starts in St. Louis with destination of St. Paul, Minn.