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American Cruise Lines scraps Countess and Duchess, evaluating Queen and Empress

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American Duchess, here, and American Countess are going to be scrapped just weeks after they were acquired by American Cruise Lines
Just weeks after acquiring the four river vessels of bankrupt American Queen Voyages, American Cruise Lines confirmed it is scrapping American Countess and American Duchess, and evaluating options for American Queen and American Empress.

The company told Seatrade Cruise News it's considering what to do with American Queen, the largest paddlewheel steamboat ever built, 'including the possibility of donation to a municipal or nonprofit entity.'

American Queen needs costly technical work and the chances of returning to cruise operations look slim. Meanwhile, the vessel is being maintained in New Orleans, with crew on board.

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American Queen is being maintained in New Orleans, with crew on board

Plans for the other classic paddlewheeler, the smaller American Empress, are also being evaluated, ACL said, but the vessel definitely will not be operating on the Columbia and Snake rivers this season. It is at the company's facility in Astoria, Oregon.

Countess and Duchess are in Lousiana and will be recycled, with some furniture, art and other works currently in the process of being removed.

'American Cruise Lines remains focused on modernizing and elevating the domestic cruise industry with new ships, large staterooms, modern technology and rigorous environmental standards,' the company said in a statement to Seatrade Cruise News. ACL did not wish to comment further.

The sole 'qualified bidder'

The company was the only 'qualified bidder' for the four river vessels with an offer of $6.3m, including intellectual property, an amount later adjusted to $6m. So an auction was never held.

Why would American Cruise Lines go after the ships, only to so quickly decide to scrap two and possibly donate another?

'To prevent another competitor,' said a source with knowledge of the fleet. 'If you can get them for next to nothing, I would do the same thing if I were in ACL's shoes.

'... They're in the catbird seat.'

Rushed sale

Yet if potential competitors are out there, why didn't anyone else come forward as a bidder? 'The sale was so immediate,' the source said. 'If it would have been set for six or eight months later, someone would have bought them.'

ACL bid $2.15m for American Queen, $1.6m for American Countess, $200,000 for American Duchess and $1.6m for American Empress, together with $750,000 for intellectual property such as trademarks, website domain names and certain business reports. This was subsequently adjusted by $300,000.

The source, who is not related to ACL, said the boutique American Duchess had never been financially viable due to its steep construction price and only 166 berths and a crew of 120. He said the scrap value will be much greater than the $200,000 ACL paid.

But he argued that the larger American Countess, with 245 berths, was a money-maker, along with American Empress, and he said American Queen's annual cash flow was $16m to $18m.

American Countess built in 2020, Duchess in 2017

Since American Countess was built in 2020 and American Duchess in 2017, these would seem to fit with ACL's focus on modern vessels, but apparently the company didn't see them as consistent with their own newbuilds since both were converted from casino vessels. Moreover, their revenue to non-revenue ratio probably didn't come close to ACL's.

American Duchess sprang from Isle of Capri, a Bettendorf, Iowa gaming boat that was converted and upgraded for cruise service at Bollinger Shipyard in Morgan City, Louisiana. It was inaugurated on Aug. 14, 2017 in New Orleans.

Countess was built using the hull of former gaming vessel Kanesville Queen that was lengthened by 60 feet and underwent a total renovation at Gulf Island Shipyard in Houma, Louisiana, to create contemporary interiors and spaces like the portside bar, with an 80-foot panoramic view.

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An American Countess stateroom balcony and the Grand Lobby

It was completed in March 2020 just as COVID shut down global cruising, so its entry to service was repeatedly delayed until it became the first cruise vessel inaugurated in-person during the pandemic on March 21, 2021 in New Orleans.

Both vessels were built under John Waggoner, who founded the company that became American Queen Voyages, and each was named by a daughter of his serving as the godmother.

At the time, Waggoner talked about the complexity of the American Duchess project, whose conversion was carried out in a pressure-cooker 10 months. For starters, Isle of Capri was too tall to fit under a bridge en route to Louisiana so the pilot house and bridge wings had to be cut off.

'The project grew larger and larger, like a baby in the womb,' Waggoner recounted then, as the company created an upscale boutique vessel with some double-deck loft suites — a first on the US rivers — adding the Lincoln Library, a River Grill specialty restaurant, an Art Walk and more.

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American Duchess River Grill Terrace

To convert American Countess, more than double the time was allowed, and numerous improvements were made, while accommodations were more standardized.

Once the two paddlewheelers resumed sailing in March 2021 — among the earliest vessels to do so — they were championed by river towns like Natchez, Mississippi.

The economic impact is 'significant,' Mayor Dan Gibson said at the time. 'Cruises provide a steady flow of visitors to our area on an annual basis,' helping support annual businesses.

'Natchez loves the American Queen and we had the American Duchess last week as the first paddlewheeler back, and I'm thankful we now have American Countess,' Gibson said then. 'Three of the finest boats in America, cruising the Lower Mississippi and coming to Natchez every week.'

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Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson, right, welcomed John Waggoner in March 2021 when his riverboats returned

The mayor was not immediately available to comment on Wednesday.

The news of Countess and Duchess heading to the breakers was 'very sad' and 'shocking' for Peter Knego, cruise historian and journalist, whose YouTube channel is Peter Knego's MidShipCinema.

'I don’t understand why they would bid on these ships to only retire or dispose of them,' he said. '... There was so much care in their conversions, with the specially commissioned paintings celebrating the steamboats of yore and those wonderful double deck suites, etc. This reads like a game of “catch and kill," Mississippi style.'

Knego, who's made multiple trips to India to document the scrapping of passenger vessels on the beaches of Alang and save what treasures he can, also voiced concern about the 'waste of destroying something that is still viable. The steel and perhaps the furnishings will be recycled but the rest of the dismantling will create a lot of toxic waste for the already overwhelmed landfills,' he said.

Mostly Knego is alarmed about American Queen's future.

'That boat is a magnificent creation, from her steam engines to her calliope, genuine functioning paddlewheel and all the festoonery that distinguishes her from all of the other river cruise boats out there,' he said in an email.

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American Queen's grand staircase and Grand Saloon

'Her soaring dining room and show room, the gentlemen's and ladies’ parlors, the woodwork and furnishings, that beautiful staircase, her promenades, chandeliers — there was no expense spared in creating her as the most majestic and exciting riverboat in history.'

Said Bruce Nierenberg, who was president/CEO of AQV forerunner Delta Queen Voyages from 2003 to 2006 when the line was owned by Delaware North Companies: 'It would be a tragedy to not have a traditional vessel like the American Queen in the market. She has time left and the market has always loved the ship. New ships are great, of course, but we should not lose our historical content prematurely.'

ACL hasn't reached a decision on the Queen.

Built in 1995, it's of an age when many of its oceangoing counterparts are now leaving service — one example, many of the 1990s Fantasy-class ships of Carnival Cruise Line that were scrapped during the pandemic.

1930s steam engine

American Queen is powered by a 1930s steam engine that was recycled from the US Army Corps of Engineers' dredge Kennedy. The engine can run forever, according to a source that knows the vessel well, but it's a challenge to find crew to run it and there are other other technical issues related to pipes and plumbing that need addressing.

The Queen has a vast Tiffany glass collection and many other elegant appointments, but its compact accommodations and dearth of private balconies are inconsistent with ACL's style. The vessel's age would tie it for oldest in the fleet, along with the 1995-built former Queen of the West (now American West) which was significantly updated when acquired in 2010. The next oldest ACL vessel is of 2005 vintage.   

Interest in repurposing American Queen

Seatrade Cruise News understands there's interest in American Queen from entities in the heartland that are considering whether it could be repurposed into a museum/restaurant/entertainment venue/hotel. These may be exploring funding sources from tourism and economic development agencies.

The Steamship Historical Society of America cited numerous examples of entities that have preserved classic vessels around the United States but said this takes a major effort, often requiring government support.

Seatrade Cruise News reached out to some river towns but did not hear back on Wednesday.

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American Duchess is pictured at The Dalles, Oregon

Knego also worries what will become of the 2003-built American Empress, which he called 'another spectacular vessel that is considered the Columbia River’s equivalent to the American Queen.'

It's early days for ACL as the owner, and the fact the company already operates another classic vessel there which is eight years older and comes from the same shipyard (Nichols Brothers Boat Builders) may work in American Empress's favor.

Benefits of the acquisition

American Cruise Lines is likely taking some heat from steamboat enthusiasts and environmentalists on account of dismantling two newer vessels but perhaps considers that's outweighed by the benefits from the intellectual property it acquired?

A customer database, trademarks, domain names and travel agency business that previously went to AQV. Some employees, including skilled engineers, were moved over, strengthening its team.

And now only Viking, with one ship, directly competes.

Enduring business model

ACL continues clipping along, churning out multiple new vessels a year, of different designs, at its affiliated Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Maryland. These smaller, nimbler ships haven't been as impacted by high and low water river issues, and the business has been going for decades while several owners of American Queen have failed.

In the past five years, ACL has nearly tripled its US fleet and vastly expanded itineraries, with more than 140 ports in the charts for the 2024 season.

See also follow-up story 'Can this boat be saved?'