Queen for a day

As hundreds of passengers from around the country stepped off the American Queen to get a look at Marietta Tuesday, hundreds of residents from around the Mid-Ohio Valley gathered at the Ohio River Levee to get a look at the massive paddlewheeler.

“I could see myself sitting on one of those balconies, watching the world go by,” said Carolyn Barnes, 68, of Belpre. “That’d be a relaxing trip.”

Martha Johnson, a passenger on the American Queen’s voyage from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, confirmed Barnes’ conclusion.

“You come on a cruise to be relaxed, to not be rushed to do anything,” she said.

On Tuesday, Johnson and her husband Kline, retired college administrators from Montgomery, Ala., were leisurely taking in the sights of the Pioneer City, where the seven-deck, 418-foot boat carrying somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 passengers was moored from about 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.

It was the Johnsons’ first visit to the Pioneer City, which is the sort of town to which they’d like to return – maybe for longer than a vacation, had circumstances been different.

“It’s a town I would enjoy retiring in,” Kline Johnson said, referring to the city’s history, size and connection to Marietta College.

The Johnsons toured Marietta by bus and did a little shopping, with Kline picking up a hand-painted plate at a downtown shop. Meanwhile, Pina Tomassi, 68, and her friend Dale Olson, 78, visited the Campus Martius and Ohio River museums and toured Mound Cemetery.

“I’ve traveled a lot of the world and wanted to do something in the U.S.,” said Tomasi, who splits her time between Arizona and California and has gone on river cruises in Europe.

Representatives of the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau were set up at the levee to provide visitors with information and guides to attractions and destinations in the city. Some Washington County royalty also made their way down to the levee to greet the travelers.

“We wanted to come out as queens and welcome the Queen,” said Whipple resident Marie Crum, 45, who won the title of Mrs. Ohio International in April. She and Marietta resident Christina McMahon, 35, the reigning Majestic Ms. Pure American National Queen, greeted passengers as they disembarked – and became an attraction themselves.

The women posed for a photo with 6-year-old New Matamoras resident Kaycee Berentz, then allowed her to try on their royal raiments – Crum’s sash and McMahon’s crown.

The boat was “good” Berentz said, but when asked what her favorite thing about the morning was, she pointed to Crum and McMahon and said, “Them.”

“That’s a tough act to follow right there,” laughed Crum, who had earlier been invited onto the boat with McMahon for a tour.

Access to the boat is generally limited, but that didn’t stop numerous people from at least coming out to take a look.

“It was awesome,” said Brittany Brown, 9, of St. Marys, W.Va. “I just liked it because it was so big, and it had lots of room where people can move around.”

Brown came to the boat with her grandmother, Shelba Brown. It was likewise a family affair for many others.

“She’d never seen it before,” Marietta resident Wess Apshaga-Meaux said of his 8-year-old daughter, Fiona. “And my grandmother used to bring me down when it docked. It seemed like a fun thing to do.”

Fiona agreed, and was impressed by some of the facts she learned about the American Queen.

“My dad told me that the smokestacks fold down, so I thought that was neat,” she said.

The smokestacks do indeed retract, American Queen second mate Braxton Lumford said. Fully extended, they give the boat a height of 99 feet, which can be a hindrance when passing under bridges. And they’re not the only adaptations the boat can make when trying to fit beneath a span.

“Our pilot house sits on an empty room on jacks, so we can lower it down on those hydraulic jacks so that it pretty much disappears,” Lumford said.

With the smoke stacks, pilot house, Internet array and other features retracted, the pilot can operate the boat from a steering stand on a walkway that usually is perpendicular to the pilot house.

The American Queen is piloted by a pair of captains, each working six hours on and six hours off. Just before noon Tuesday, the captain on duty was Vincent Bradford of Parker, Colo.

Bradford worked on the American Queen from 1996 to 2004, and rejoined the crew earlier this year. In between, he piloted towboats but said he prefers his current gig.

Some members make it onto land, depending on their schedules. One of them Tuesday was Gwayne “Mr. G” Robinson, a laundry staff member who calls Memphis, Tenn., home. He said residents and businesses welcomed him and the rest of the crew with open arms, with a cab driver getting him to Walmart to pick up supplies and taking him by KFC for a bite when he was concerned he might miss lunch back on the boat.

“This is a nice place that anybody would want to relocate,” Robinson said.

At some of the boat’s stops, Robinson said, he sees boarded-up buildings reflecting the recent economic turmoil. But from where he was standing Tuesday, Marietta’s downtown looked vibrant.

“I haven’t seen a boarded-up building yet,” he said.