SALISBURY — — Gleaming white with twin black smokestacks and a 23-ton red paddle wheel at its stern, the Queen of the Mississippi is an apparition rising more than five stories above the Wicomico River.
Before the month is out, the lines holding it dockside at Chesapeake Shipbuilding Corp. will be cast off and the Queen will churn down the coast on its way to New Orleans, a life on America's most famous river and a showdown with a bigger-name rival.
American Cruise Lines, the Connecticut-based owner of the vessel, is betting that the 280-foot riverboat is exactly what the cruising public wants. Reservations through the end of the year are robust, company officials said, and construction of a second riverboat has begun at the Salisbury yard.
Last week, workmen bustled about the Queen's five decks and in its public areas and 78 staterooms, moving furniture into place, hooking up lighting and navigational equipment, and installing etched-glass panels in the main stairwell. Incomplete punch lists hung in every room, a reminder of how much is left to do.
"We're always looking at what the next vessel will be. With this one, the future has a little bit of the past," said Charles Robertson, who owns both the shipyard and the cruise company, which specializes in ships that carry fewer than 200 passengers.
Robertson started the cruise line in 1971 and added Chesapeake Shipbuilding in 1980, giving him control over most aspects of his maritime universe. The shipyard has built several of his small liners and restored the 230-foot Queen of the West, a stern-wheeler he acquired in 2009 that cruises the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
Robertson declined to say how much the Queen of the Mississippi cost.
Overnight riverboat cruises lost steam during the recession. The Majestic America Line folded in 2008, taking with it the American Queen, Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen. A month later, River Barge Excursions went under. For three years, only small stern-wheelers on daytime excursions plied the Mississippi.
Now there's a comeback on two fronts.
The massive American Queen, built in the 1990s, came out of mothballs last month to offer three- to seven-day cruises. It took a $9 million loan from the city of Memphis, Tenn., to get the 418-foot boat back in service. In return, the new Great American Steamboat Co. promised to place its headquarters in Memphis and hire city residents for the bulk of its jobs.
The Queen of the Mississippi's maiden voyage is scheduled for Aug. 4. In addition to New Orleans and Memphis, the vessel is scheduled to visit Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and St. Paul, Minn., on subsequent trips.
"The attraction is it's a unique product and pretty exclusive," said Sue Wells, vice president of travel for AAA Missouri. "It resonates with a lot of people. It takes you back to a genteel time."
The question now, travel experts say, is whether the Mississippi can support two riverboats.
"Riverboats really have a hold on people's hearts. This is America's mightiest river, and the cities along it are fascinating," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com. "There's a lot of pent-up demand, so this year won't tell me anything. Next year will be interesting to watch."
Brown said the prices are steep on both ships: depending on the cabin, between $4,000 and $6,600 per person, double occupancy, for a weeklong cruise.
She is concerned that after the initial surge of interest, there won't be enough passengers to go around to support both ships.
"I watch the tea leaves, and my tea leaves are bargains and deals," Brown said. "If we start seeing a lot of them, that will make me nervous."
But Robertson said his company did its homework before starting to build, buying the passenger lists from Majestic America and asking riverboat enthusiasts about their preferences.
"They wanted more space everywhere and fewer people," Robertson said.
As a result, the Queen of the Mississippi looks like a miniature version of the steamboats of yesteryear, with a passenger list topping out at 150. The American Queen carries 436 passengers.
While it has a smaller footprint, the Salisbury-built ship's standard staterooms are 315 square feet — about twice the size of those on the older boats — and all but a handful of the cabins have private balconies. The dining room, with a menu focusing on Creole and Southern cuisine, will not have formal seatings.
Finally, with more powerful diesel engines, the Queen of the Mississippi will cut travel time in half, giving passengers more time in port.
The Queen of the Mississippi features lounges forward, aft and amidships. On the second deck, the Paddlewheel Lounge looks out on the 28-foot-tall paddle wheel. The vessel also offers an exercise room, a library and shaded outdoor areas on the top deck.
History buffs will be able to attend lectures in one of the public rooms or listen on the in-room sound system.
Brown said river cruising is very popular in Europe, with companies launching new ship designs, targeting a younger crowd and offering theme-based trips that highlight food or activities.
"This may attract European tourists," she said. "Americans don't really get river travel, but maybe with the right marketing, they will start to."