Artist rendering of proposed Inside Passage sternwheeler, courtesy of American West Steamboat Co.

Sternwheeler returns to Inside Passage after 100-year absence
Owners seeking out docking solutions because of busy cruise ship schedule

By DIMITRA LAVRAKAS
The real deal will chug into Skagway harbor in 2003 – the first time since the Klondike Gold Rush days.
The sternwheeler, American West Steamboat Co. Empress of the North, will chug into Skagway in 2003 – paddlewheel and all. While the paddlewheel can propel the vessel at about two knots an hour, it’s the four 1,800-rpm Caterpillar 3516B diesel engines with KATO generators that will speed it along the Inside Passage from Seattle at 14 knots per hour.
Big difference.
Reminiscent of river showboats and the “night boats” that cruised the Pacific Northwest rivers and coastal shorelines in the mid-1800s, the Empress of the North will be more than 360 feet long and 58 feet wide.
While tiny compared to Princess’s 961-foot long, 105-foot wide Radiance of the Seas, the Empress’s original itinerary of arriving when the big boys were in port caused the company some docking problems in Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway.
Scheduled to meet with the Skagway Harbormaster Ken Russo Feb. 6, company representatives were weathered out.
Joel Perry, vice president of marketing for American West said by phone from Seattle that he didn’t know when they would reschedule.
With possible problems in finding a berth on any Skagway docks, Perry said it looked like the Ore Dock on off days may be their best bet. Perry also mentioned the possibility of using the ferry dock.
Andrew Green, vessel agent for Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, said by phone from Juneau that he had met with American West while they waited in vain for a flight to Skagway, and that using the Ore Dock is a possibility, the ferry dock, not.
“That was mentioned as an option, but the ferry dock hasn’t been open in the past,” Green said. “I really don’t know if they (Alaska Marine Highway Service) would go for it. The ferry system has been hesitant to have anyone use that dock, and the east side is not long enough. In the summer you have the dayboat too.”
The Ore Dock is a strong possibility, said Green, if he can coordinate cruise ship dockings and barge traffic.
For the Juneau docking, Perry said it will be likely solved by using the Goldbelt Dock, but that’s still in negotiation.
Perry said they’re looking at an 11-night trip from Seattle with stops in Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway, Petersburg, and Glacier Bay.
Henry Hillman, Jr., company president, said in a press release that the construction contract has been signed with Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland, Wash. Guido Perla & Associates, naval architects, designed the new vessel. The United States Maritime Administration will provide a loan guarantee to fund the project with construction and outfitting costs expected to exceed $50 million.
The sternwheeler will accommodate 236 overnight cruise guests and 84 crew members. That’s compared to the Radiance’s 3,360 passengers.
Following the Alaska season it will be repositioned to Portland, Ore., in mid-September 2003 for inaugural cruises on the Columbia, Snake, and Willamette Rivers to begin the three-year celebration of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial.
“We believe the Empress of the North, like the Queen of the West (the company’s other sternwheeler), continues the totally new generation of full-service, small cruise ships and offers a compelling cruise alternative to both the ‘big ship’ and traditional 100-passenger ‘small ship categories,’” said Perry in the press release. “The vessel size, deluxe stateroom accommodations, single-seating fine dining, two showrooms for entertainment, more personalized service, professional entertainment, and the outstanding itineraries will allow the Empress of the North to compete very effectively against the new mega-sized, high density cruise ships now dominating the Alaska and world cruise markets, and is a major step-up from typical small cruise ship limitations.”