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
Cruise ships and yachts will be visiting a revitalized riverfront in Hannibal within the next few years, if the city’s plans for renovation stay the course.
Hannibal’s riverfront renovation project, which was approved in 2016, calls for an overhaul for docking areas, parking zones and recreation spaces extending from where North Street once ended southward to Bear Creek. In the process, the design plan seeks to maximize the potential use of the riverfront not only as a park space but also as an economic tool in attracting and serving visitors.
The timing of the renovation appears to link it with the spate of new riverboat cruise lines, including Viking Cruise Lines. In fact, Viking’s desire to have two docking slots available — should it decide to run cruises concurrently against other companies or launch two cruises simultaneously — is what has led some residents to believe that the cruise line’s wish list sparked the riverfront restoration plan. Hannibal Parks and Recreation Director Andy Dorian said the plan had been initiated in 2011, one year before the revival of upper Mississippi cruises had begun.
By 2011, wear and tear to a retaining structure referred to as Glasscock’s Wall had meant that repairs to the riverfront would be inevitable, yet not immediate. Replacing the wall would require a significant investment of money and construction to complete, and lining up the financing for such work would require several years of on-again, off-again planning. By implementing a full restoration of the riverfront while construction is taking place, city leaders are attempting to reap the most benefit of a situation that would have to occur with or without a long-term plan.
The project is in the stage of obtaining all required permits, and the physical work is slated to begin in 2018. The concept drawing highlights a more flexible docking area for tug boats as well as excursion ships, including the Mark Twain Riverboat. The marina, after debate among city leaders and concerned boat enthusiasts, will not be scrapped but rather relocated near Bear Creek in most of what is Nipper Park. The park will be moved to the space previously occupied by the marina and expanded to the edge of Glasscock Landing. An installed sidewalk at the river’s edge allows people to travel the length of the park space without interruption.
Among the upheaval of earth, stone and concrete, the riverfront itself will be raised several feet in the process. The changes will result in a Nipper Park less prone to flooding, but the elevation change will not create a significant impact on flooding in general. This also means leveling the old cobblestone incline between Broadway and Center streets; although the stone will be removed, Dorian adds that the stone will be repurposed within the project. The riverfront and Kiwanis park will also be fully electrified to make the area more attractive for holding festivals and other events. The restoration plan attempts to make as many infrastructure upgrades as possible at once in a cost-effective manner.
The price tag befits what one expects from such a project: $5.4 million to cover all phases of the project and to plan for contingencies. The city of Hannibal is prepared to cover the cost itself if needed, though over a 20-year graduated payment plan. Much of the funding derives from Parks and Recreation Department funds and revenue, with specific taxes already in place for several years to cover most of the remaining balance. Dorian notes that the city, while not relying on federal or state funding for the project, will be applying for various grants; he adds that the monies set aside for this restoration are not at the expense of funding other city initiatives since these targeted funding sources are contingent on the project itself — as opposed to pulling money from a central fund.
The riverfront restoration, slated to begin in spring 2018 and to be completed in several stages by 2020, is one of the largest projects attempted by the city in its history. In building a more user-friendly riverfront, city leaders hope to attract more visitors and residents to spend time downtown. Yet, the project also pays tribute to the roots of the city as a river town nearing its bicentennial birthday, a city whose relevance — then and now — owes much to the mighty Mississippi.
- By KEN MARKS
The Mark Twain Riverboat will be back in the water mid-March, and cruising is expected to get underway April 1.
The boat has been a feature of the Hannibal riverfront for more than 30 years, welcoming guests at its mooring at the Center Street Landing.
The boat offers two excursion options — one-hour guided tours and two-hour dinner cruises.
Cruises departs from Center Street Landing three times daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day, with two departures daily during September and October.
Built in 1964, the Mark Twain Riverboat is 120-feet long and 33-feet wide; it has a 400-passenger capacity, and is wheelchair accessible, with a few limitations.
The boat has been owned and operated by Steve and Sandy Terry since 1997.
The one-hour sightseeing cruise includes commentary on river history, legends and sights. You will see Jackson’s Island, Lover’s Leap and the historic architecture of downtown Hannibal. Beverages and sandwiches are available on-ship for purchase.
These narrated cruises are $18 for adults and $11 for children ages 5 through 12.
The two-hour dinner cruise includes live music and dancing and a buffet meal featuring a full menu plus dessert and beverages. There also is a cash bar.
The dinner cruise is $40.95 for adults and $21.95 for children ages 5 through 12.
- By KEN MARKS
Expect wall-to-wall chocolate when visiting Historic Downtown Hannibal on Saturday, March 11.
The Chocolate Extravaganza, now in its seventh year, continues to grow, and this year includes chocolate and wine pairings, a cooking-with-chocolate demonstration, a cakepop class and, of course, an abundance of chocolate treats including candies, mochas, martinis, muffins, cupcakes, pies and more.
Brought to you by the Historic Hannibal Marketing Council, the popular event features a Chocolate Extravaganza Passport, which serves as your guide to the event and contains five chocolate tickets that may be redeemed for your choice of an abundance of special offers exclusive for passport holders — ranging from chocolate soaps, cashmere scarves, spa treatments and more. Passports also provide entrance to some events and award discounts at some merchant locations. Only 500 passports will be available, and passports have sold out the last two years. The $20 passports may be purchased at chocolateextravaganzahannibal.com.
One of the passports includes a golden ticket, and the lucky holder immediately receives an all-access pass with additional passport tickets and a golden ticket T-shirt.
In addition to the passport giveaways, the weekend will feature live music, a gallery art walk and make-and-take classes.
New at this year’s event is a Chocolatier Trivia Mixer that includes, of course, chocolate-themed questions and an all-you-can eat appetizer bar included with your ticket purchase. Each of the Chocolatier Trivia Challenge winners will receive a free Chocolate Extravaganza Passport. Form a team or come solo and you’ll be teamed up with other trivia and chocolate enthusiasts. The event, which starts at 7 p.m. will be at Finn’s Food and Spirits. Tickets are $15.
Passports and tickets for the Chocolatier Trivia Mixer may be purchased at ChocolateExtravaganzaHannibal.com or at these downtown Hannibal businesses: Ava Goldworks, Chocolaterie Stam, Danni Nicole’s, Java Jive, Main Street 101, Mark Twain Museum Gallery, Mark Twain Dinette, Mark Twain Book & Gift, Mississippi Marketplace, the Powder Room and the Wine Stoppe.
More information is available by contacting Dena Ellis at the Mark Twain Museum at 573-221- 9010, ext. 403, or Kenna Bogue at Mark Twain Dinette at 573-221- 5511.
- By KENNA BOGUE