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 journeys 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 paddle wheeler, American Pride with room for 150 passengers.

The American Song is the third American Cruise Lines ship to operate on the Columbia River, joining the Queen of the West and the American Pride, which dock by the Oregon Red Lion.

Cabins on the modern American Song range from 304 to 900 square feet and start at $4,925. The ship has five decks, an 8-foot draft and can carry 186 passengers. The ship has a modern propulsion system consisting of 2x azimuth thrusters (“Z-drives“) manufactured by Veth (Holland) with 360-degree azimuthing forward and aft propellers which give American Song total flexibility for docking and maneuvering.

Columbia River cruises now total seven as of 2019, according to Vancouver-based USA River Cruises which has campaigned for years to promote the Columbia River as a cruise line venue. “The Columbia River outsold the Mississippi River last year, for first time ever,” said USA River Cruises co-owner Cindy Anderson. “Last year we had six ships on the river and they were all sold out, from May to October.”

American Cruise Lines essentially doubled its capacity on the Columbia River in 2016 with their second paddle wheeler, the three-year-old, 150-passenger American Pride, 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 cruise companies (American Queen Steamboat Co. and American Cruise Lines), offer similar week-long cruises. They go from Astoria to Richland and the Snake River for prices beginning around $4000 per person. Un-Cruise Adventures and National Geographic Expeditions offer more exploratory adventures while the the 145-foot M.V. Columbia Gorge runs day cruises out of the Port of Cascade Locks.

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. You can identify her by the yellow “flames” at the top of her stack.

  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.

The Columbian has a good summary of The four major Columbia/Snake river cruise operators:

  1. American Cruise Lines
    2017 dates: Weekly from March through November with food and wine-themed cruise offered six times/year.
    Ships: American Pride and Queen of the West.
    Maximum occupancy: 120-150 passengers.
    Rates: Beginning at $3,535 per person
    Contact: 800-460-4518.

  2. American Queen Steamboat Co.
    2017 dates: Weekly from March 18 through Nov. 27 with wine-themed cruise offered twice/year
    Ship: American Empress.
    Maximum occupancy: 223 passengers.
    Rates: Beginning at $2,699 per person.
    Contact: 888-749-5280.

  3. National Geographic Expeditions
    2017 dates: Two departures weekly from Sept. 19 through Oct. 14.
    Ships: Sea Lion and Sea Bird.
    Maximum occupancy: 100 passengers.
    Rates: Beginning at $4,890 per person.
    Contact: 888-966-8687.

  4. UnCruise Adventures
    2017 dates: April through November with Rivers of Wine cruise offered April 22, June 24, July 29, Aug. 5, Aug. 26, Oct. 14, Oct. 21.
    Ship: S.S. Legacy.
    Maximum occupancy: 88 passengers.
    Rates: Beginning at $3,695 per person.
    Contact: 888-862-8881.

In Portland tour boat operators include Willamette Jetboats and American Waterways, which owns and operates the Portland Spirit, Willamette Star, Crystal Dolphin (charter) and Explorer (Gorge trips).

1. Portland Spirit:
Monday-Saturday year round on Portland Seawall
Boarding 11:30am, Cruising Noon-2:00pm

2. Portland Spirit Tours on the Explorer:
Daily June-September. Boarding at 8:15am cruising 8:30am-3:30pm
All Passengers from $94. The Explorer high speed boat goes from Portland through the Heart Of The Gorge, covering over 120 miles.

3. Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler:
2 hour cruise, Adults From $30
The Sternwheeler operates in Cascade Locks May-October and boards from Marine Park at Cascade Locks. It moves to Portland from November-April.

4. Willamette Jetboat Excursions:
– Tour 1: 2 HOUR, SCENIC TOUR $44.00
May 6 & May 7, 2:45 pm daily, May 13-June 16
June 17 – September 4, 11:45 am & 4:30 pm daily
September 5 – October 1, 2:45 pm daily

– Tour 2:
1 Hour. Downtown Bridge & Harbor Tour – Bridges, Shipyards and Portland Waterfront
Tuesdays, June 27 – August 29

– Tour 3: 3 hour Columbia River & Lunch – Tuesdays Only – Adult: $55.0

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.