Stern Wheelers

Sternwheelers on the Columbia River are back with a vengeance. The largest is the 223-passenger American Empress (below), formerly known as Empress of the North. It is returning to seven-night sailings along the river, something it last offered in 2008.

The American Empress riverboat journeya along the Columbia River, from April through October, between Astoria, Ore., and Clarkston, on the Idaho-Washington border. Their cruise attracted around 6,000 passengers annually. It beat expectations and some of the cruises even had waiting lists. The riverboat operator hired about 80 employees for this year’s cruises.

John Waggoner, chairman and CEO of American Queen Steamboat Co., the Memphis, Tenn.-based operator of the American Empress, said passenger count for 2015 is up by 30 percent from 2014.

Meanwhile, American Cruise Lines of Guilford, Conn., operates the competing 120-passenger Queen of the West paddleboat, and introduced a second boat, with room for 150 passengers, to the Columbia in 2016, said Charles Robertson, the company’s president.

American Cruise Lines will double its capacity on the Columbia River in 2016 with the addition of their second paddle wheeler. It will move and rename its three-year-old, 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi to the Columbia, joining the Queen of the West on the Columbia. The boat will have larger staterooms than the 20-year-old Queen of the West.

The two competing stern-wheelers (the bigger American Empress from American Queen Steamboat Co. and the two stearn-wheelers from American Cruise Lines), offer similar week-long cruises. They go from Astoria to Richland and the Snake River for prices beginning around $3,700 per person.

Tourist Sternwheelers of Oregon:


  1. The 360-foot, 223-passenger American Empress, formerly known as Empress of the North, out of Portland is returning to seven-night sailings along the river — something it last offered in 2008.

  2. The 230-foot Queen of the West was built in 1995 and operates cruises on the Columbia River, out of Portland, and the Snake River, out of Clarkston, Washington.

    Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines operates Queen of the West from April to November with eight-day trips on the Columbia/Snake starting at $3,750. The Queen was renovated in 2011.

  3. The 145-foot M.V. Columbia Gorge is a sternwheeler in service on both the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. She was built in Hood River by Nichols Boat Works and was launched on August 30, 1983. She was built for the Port of Cascade Locks, at a cost of around $2.5 million, of which $1.1 million was funded by federal grants secured by U.S. Senators Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood.

  4. The 87-foot Willamette Queen is an sternwheeler built in 1990 in Newport, Oregon, which operates on the Willamette River, year-round from Salem’s Riverfront Park.

  5. The 65-foot sternwheeler Rose was built over a nearly four-year period from 1979 to 1983 in Astoria, Oregon, by John Hendrickson, and launched on April 24, 1983. Rose was sold to Willamette Sternwheel Navigation in early 2004 and continued to be based in Portland and operated on the Willamette. Her mooring location was moved from Portland to Oregon City in 2010.

Other cruise adventures in the area:

  • Un-Cruise Adventures: Eight-day tours on the 88-passenger Legacy of Discovery are offered in spring and fall, with prices from $3,195. Adventure Life has a newly refurbished vessel the S.S. Legacy, cruising Northwest waters, traveling to Alaska and up the Columbia The ambiance aboard this 88-guest vessel emulates an early Victorian steamer with carved wooden cabinetry and a Grand Salon complete with a dance floor, full bar, and old-world charm.

  • National Geographic Expeditions: Offered in association with Lindblad Expeditions, this small ship (62 guests), seven-day tour in the Sea Bird or Sea Lion brings along Zodiacs and kayaks for side explorations. Fares begin at $4,490 for fall sailings; 800-397-3348.


At the 2014 Portland Rose Festival sea wall, ten ships were docked – five military vessels, three historic vessels and two that are here year-round (the Sternwheeler Portland tug and the Portland Spirit cruise ship:


  • USS Spruance (DDG-111) (above), a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer with a crew of 270 which had recently returned from deployment in the Western Pacific in April.
  • USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) U.S. Navy Ticonderoga-class cruiser has a crew of 330.
  • CGC Alert U.S. Coast Guard medium-endurance cutter, home ported in Astoria.
  • CGC Cuttyhunk U.S. Coast Guard cutter and patrol boat.
  • HMCS Oriole Sail training vessel for the Royal Canadian Navy with a crew of 16.
  • PT 658 Motor torpedo boat, only remaining World War II PT boat with WWII veterans on board all week. Will fire its gas-fired, 50-caliber machine guns.
  • Portland fire boat ‘David Campbell’ Sprayed its traditional colored water – red and blue for the U.S. sailors and white and red for the Canadians.
  • Sternwheeler Portland: This boat has been converted into the Oregon Maritime Museum. It’s the only operating steam-powered sternwheel tug in the United States.
  • Portland Spirit This 150-foot yacht will continue to operate dinner and lunch cruises throughout the Rose Festival.

This aerial from 1935, on Vintage Portland, gives us a great view of the ships arriving at the Portland waterfront for the Rose Festival.