Mayor Steve Lawrence went on the inaugural voyage of the American Empress as an ambassador for The Dalles and a student of economic development.
He wanted to learn what 223 passengers would see when the paddlewheel anchored at the new commercial dock near the Lewis and Clark festival area. And where they would choose to go after disembarking from the largest riverboat west of the Mississippi.
He said as the vessel approached the dock near the Lewis and Clark festival area, the industrial section of town was hidden from view. From the third deck near his suite, the historic buildings could clearly be seen — including the steeple of St. Peter’s Landmark — against the green backdrop of cherry orchards.
“I was so pleased because The Dalles looked so clean and bright,” he said.
Lawrence and his wife, Donna, boarded the Empress for the inaugural voyage March 28 in Vancouver, Wash. They spent the four days enjoying scenic vistas that ranged from rugged mountains near Cascade Locks and Stevenson to the high-desert of Tri-Cities, Wash., where they disembarked.
They were then transported by bus to Spokane, where they caught a plane back to Portland. His airfare was covered by city economic development funds and the couple paid for her ticket.
It was the first journey in five years for the 360-foot long ship formerly known as the Empress of the North. The trip was originally scheduled to end at Clarkston, Idaho, which will be the regular destination. However, repairs on upriver navigation locks forced a change in plans and the vessel docked in Tri-Cities.
On Tuesday, Lawrence and City Councilor Dan Spatz personally delivered a plaque of appreciation to Capt. Rob Nordstrom, which will be hung with others in a fourth floor hallway. They told the captain and his officers, Staff Capt. Mike Chance and Chief Mate Andrea Mickelson, as well as Kurt Ramier, cruise director, and Bernhard Schindlauer, hotel manager, to let the city know about any problems they encountered so resolutions could be found.
“Here’s to The Dalles,” said Spatz during a champagne toast following the presentation of the plaque.
He delivered a gift basket from The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, including chocolate covered cherries to represent the largest sector of local agriculture and a major economic engine for the county.
“What we noticed was more than the elegance of the ship, it was being treated like family,” Lawrence told Nordstrom. “You’ve got a great crew and they do a fantastic job.”
The captain said it is enjoyable to have the Fort Dalles Floozies on the pier to greet passengers from the ship.
“You’ve put together a great dock and a great town to stop in,” he said. “It’s fun to see the people turn out and embrace the whole thing.”
There are four captains on the Empress to stand watch and each of these officers works four weeks and is off for an equal amount of time. Shifts for other crew members are staggered so some are on the water for lengths periods of time than others.
Even when passengers are sleeping, Nordstrom said work in the 24-hour operation continues, with some of the 75 crew members performing maintenance duties and making sure the next day’s activities are lined up. There is currently a vacancy for a medic if anyone in town is interested in applying, he said.
He has been at the helm for 42 years and said being a riverboat captain is a great profession because “I get to drive a boat.”
“I’ve been on the water since my senior year in high school. It’s the only thing I know how to do well,” said Nordstrom.
The Empress will stop in The Dalles every Tuesday — landings will take place Monday once lock repairs are completed — and provide visitors with morning Hop-On, Hop-Off shuttles through town until the cruise season ends Nov. 16. Stops available for passengers include the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, Fort Dalles Museum, Sunshine Mill and the historic commercial district.
Buses are also provided during the afternoons to take visitors to the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River and Maryhill Museum and Stonehenge on the Washington side of the Columbia, among other locations.
Lawrence described the Empress as a “floating museum” because high quality art graces the specious corridors on each deck. Raimer said $1.5 million was spent on renovations to the interior after the American Queen Steamboat Company purchased the Empress from the U.S. Maritime Administration.
Bob Giersdorf collected western art with the thought of having it on display in a museum but died before he had the opportunity to achieve that goal. Raimer said having the artwork onboard the vessel complements the beauty of the furnishings.
Also impressive to Lawrence was the history lectures that take place daily in the Paddlewheel Bar on subjects such as the Lewis and Clark Expedition and early pioneers.
“I challenged them a little bit, tested their knowledge,” he said.
The homeport for the Empress is Portland and she measures 360 feet in length and has seven stateroom categories, available at a cost that ranges from just under $4,000 to nearly $7,000. There are multiple places for guests to gather and enjoy a beverage and meal.
Lunch at the Astoria features a buffet and entrees that range from Pacific salmon salad to a “frontier” sandwich of maple glazed ham and roast turkey breast surged on grille brown bread with roasted red peppers, avocado and Brie cheese.
Dinner at the River Grill and Bar is more formal, with fresh seafood, including lobster tail, and char grilled steak.
“Everything is fresh, we don’t have any frozen foods,” said Schindlauer.
Live music is offered every night in the Show Lounge and Ramier arranges everything from Bingo games to magic shows and comedians for enjoyment during the day.
“We try to have a lot of variety,” he said.
Almost 90 ships will stop in The Dalles this year, up from 40-50 in 2013, the first tourist season the new dock was open for business. Lawrence said “good things” are coming to the town with the growing influx of visitors.