High water takes toll on riverboat dockings

Tuesday, July 21, 2015
Ray Delfi, driver of a bus tour, waits for passengers as the American Queen riverboat docks July 31, 2014, in downtown Cape Girardeau. Downtown has seen a dropoff of riverboat stops this year because of flooding on the Mississippi River. (Glenn Landberg)

Only brief glimpses of the grand riverboats that cruise the Mississippi River during summer and fall have been seen in Cape Girardeau this year, as high water and closed floodgates have forced dockings to be canceled.

Early Friday morning, the American Queen, a giant steamboat hosting overnight passengers for multiday river cruises, stopped for a short time outside the Themis Street floodgate, but then made its way downriver to the Semo Port.

The canceled docking of the riverboat was the fifth in Cape Girardeau this year, but more are planned by three cruisers, including the American Queen, owned by the American Queen Steamboat Co. based in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Queen of the Mississippi, a paddlewheeler owned by American Cruise Lines, and its sister ship, the new American Eagle, which hit the water for the first time in May, also are set to dock in Cape Girardeau in the coming months.

The riverboats bring hundreds of passengers for a full-day tour of Cape Girardeau's attractions when docking downtown.

Stacy Dohogne Lane, director of public relations for the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau, works with the riverboat cruise companies to set up tours.

Sometimes, she said, the companies can find a way around the blocked access to downtown, such as the way the American Queen did Saturday.

The company has buses following the riverboat's itinerary and Saturday picked up its passengers from the port for a "Hop-On, Hop-Off" bus tour to area attractions such as historical sites and museums.

The convention and visitors bureau got word of the tour Friday and quickly arranged for attraction visits the next day, Dohogne Lane said.

"The local attractions take it in stride," she said, "and it's certainly welcome funding."

The riverboat companies pay a set fee to attractions for the large tours.

Schedules of the riverboats always are tentative -- dependent on river levels and other factors, Dohogne Lane said.

"You just have to roll with it; you never know what that river is going to do."

Michael Hicks, a spokesman for the American Queen company, said Cape Girardeau often is a stop on cruises between St. Louis and Cincinnati.

"Hopefully [the river] will get down shortly, and we'll be back," he said. "Cape is very popular with our guests, so we look forward to being able to return there again soon."

The American Queen also is deviating from its current and upcoming itineraries between St. Louis and St. Paul, Minnesota, through Aug. 2, according to a statement from the company. The company instead is offering itineraries on the Ohio River, with Cincinnati as the turnaround port, the statement read, and will return to regularly scheduled itineraries when conditions allow.

Cancellation fees also are being waived for the Upper Mississippi River cruises for guests who cancel and rebook another later in the year, though rebooking availability is based on space.

Popularity of the luxury, multiday river cruises has grown in recent years and is resulting in more companies and riverboats in the business.

The addition of the American Eagle to Cape Girardeau's stops is a first. Earlier this year, Viking Cruises announced plans to build ships for Mississippi River cruises and a port in New Orleans by 2017. No definite stops along the Mississippi River have yet been released by the Viking company, but Dohogne Lane said the convention and visitors bureau already has been in contact with the company about the cruises for a few years.

A restoration of the historic wooden steamboat Delta Queen, which used to dock at Cape Girardeau, also is underway, the Associated Press reported earlier this month, and legislation to allow the riverboat to resume cruises has been proposed in Congress. The legislation, if passed, would allow an exemption to water safety laws and enact new safety requirements so the ship can carry passengers overnight.

Generally, the floodgates need to be open and the riverbank free of debris for successful riverboat dockings. The current forecast doesn't bode well for any immediate docking attempts, as the river level at Cape Girardeau on Monday afternoon was 36 1/2 feet -- more than four feet above flood stage. The river is expected to remain near that level at least through Saturday, according to National Weather Service forecasts.

The next scheduled docking of a riverboat is July 30 with the Queen of the Mississippi, according to a schedule from downtown revitalization organization Old Town Cape.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3632

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