Vessels: Tall Stacks Draws 800,000 to Queen City

Monday, November 24, 2003

By Larry Pearson

Every four years the excursion vessel segment of the commercial marine industry stages one of the largest festivals in the United States, yet except for the vessels that participate in it, little is known about this event. It overshadows the Workboat Show but receives little attention in the marine press.

From an attendance standpoint, if this event were the World Series of Baseball, the Workboat Show would be T-ball for five-year olds. The event is called Tall Stacks and is held on the Ohio River every four year in Cincinnati, Ohio. The 2003 event was the fifth such Tall Stacks event and was attended by over 800,000 people during a five-day period in mid-October.

As has been the case in the past, 17 of the country's most ornate Victorian-styled riverboats participated in the 2003 Tall Stacks celebration. This writer has attended every one starting with 1988 and continuing in 1992, 1995, 1999 and this year.

It is a superb marketing event for the passenger vessel industry, reminding young and old alike of just how much fun a riverboat cruise can be. And if you think one riverboat is pleasant to look at, try 17 of them at one place at one time.

The most interesting thing about Tall Stacks is that the participating vessels don't do any thing special...mostly run breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight cruises just as they do "back home". Of course, with 17 steamboats in one place at one time, there is an opening parade of the boats and races between vessels that are matched up depending primarily on the "challenges" and good-natured insults the Captains present to each other. All in good fun mind you, this event is a nostalgic throwback to earlier times when steam power was king and a smaller America moved its commerce primarily on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Of the 17 vessels in attendance three of America's five authentic steam-powered passenger vessels were there in all their glory the deep rumble of their steam whistles most evident with every departure.

Among the active steam-powered vessels, the Belle of Louisville, located just downriver from Cincinnati was there as was the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, risen anew from the bankruptcy and management ineptness of the past. Now owned by a much larger entertainment company, Delaware North, the two Queens have never looked better and are completing a most successful 2003 season.

The third of the three steamers of the Delta Queen Company, American Queen, was busy with paying customers upriver in Minnesota during the Tall Stacks event and the magnificent Natchez, the fifth of the steam-powered vessels couldn't break free from her continuous harbor cruise schedule from her homeport in New Orleans.

The other fourteen vessels in Tall Stacks depended on the Gods of Cummins or Caterpillar to keep their propellers turning and they operated almost non-stop from 7:00am until midnight.

Over the course of the five-day festival, the vessels served over 117,000 meals on the various cruises and that included 32,000 meals to groups that would charter one of the boats for a cruise. The vessel ranged in size from the diminutive Chattanooga Star to 149 passenger "T" boats to huge vessels such as Opryland's General Jackson and Gateway Clipper Fleet's Majestic with over a single cruise capacity of over 1,000 passengers.

The Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen really operate under a special set of conditions during Tall Stacks. Since these two vessels are the only ones at Tall Stacks that operate overnight cruises, their attendance is really a part of a larger cruise itinerary. For example, the Delta Queen arrived on Friday (the event started Wednesday) from Nashville and the Mississippi Queen came in about the same time from St. Louis and discharged their passengers as they do on a regular basis.

A new group of riverboat fans mixed in with those who extended their cruise climbed on board. The Cincinnati AAA operates three-day charters for both boats during Tall Stacks. Both steamers participated in the Parade of Tall Stacks along with the 15 other vessels and then departed on three day cruises (the Mississippi Queen to Maysville, Ky. and the Delta Queen to Madison, Ind.) that would bring them back to Cincinnati on Sunday for closing ceremonies. Since both vessels are totally full of paying passengers, neither offers separate meal cruises for Tall Stacks attendees. But their mere presence adds greatly to the Tall Stacks experience.

Also in attendance were two vessels from Capt. Bill Bowell's Padleford Packet Boat Company of St. Paul, Minn. Practically a legend in the passenger vessel industry, the 70+years old Bowell was president of the Passenger Vessel Association for the first 10 years of its existence and a participant in Tall Stacks since the first one in 1988. This time around Bowell bought the Anson Northrup, a 93-ft. vessel with a dinner seating capacity of 228. Also representing Padleford was the Harriet Bishop (named after Minnesota's first school teacher), a 98 footer that can hold 300 for cruises.

Also spotted was the Celebration Belle of Moline, Ill. Originally built for Bob Kehl as the West Virginia Belle, the vessel has been an excursion boat, a gaming vessel and once again an excursion boat. Captained by another legend in the passenger vessel business, Capt. Joe Schadler, this big boat is 190 ft. long and can seat 650 for meal functions and carry 800 in an excursion mode. It is quite a thrill to see a gaming boat continue to be in use when so many of her contemporaries are simply rusting away, unable to be sold for even a few pennies on the dollar.

Every event has its founder, it's sparkplug, if you will. For Tall Stacks, the catalyst back in the mid 1980s was Capt. Allan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats (named after his dad Ben Bernstein). It was Allan's hard work, vision and persistence that led to the first Tall Stacks celebration, and his company has played a major role on the water and behind the scenes ever since. (Ever wonder who cleans the boats after ever cruise and picks up mountains of trash. Look no further than BB Riverboats.). Without Allan Bernstein's vision, there would have been no Tall stacks in 1988 and probably none in subsequent years.

This year Allan brought the River Queen, a 136-ft., three-deck vessel with a dinner cruise capacity of 250. The River Queen was one of the 16 riverboats that made the original 1988 Tall Stacks event and has been to every one since.

Two of the largest excursion vessels on the water joined Tall Stacks 2003, one for the fourth time and one for the first time. The Majestic, flagship of the 40-year old Gateway Clipper Fleet, headquartered in Pittsburgh, but with a major presence in St. Louis as well celebrated her fourth Tall Stacks. The Gateway Clipper Fleet was founded by another legend in the passenger vessel business, John Connelly, a master riverboat promoter who also founded the riverboat gaming industry in Iowa along with Bernie Goldstein and Bob Kehl.

The Majestic is 277 ft. long and is actually an articulated tug-barge with the connection between the two units cleverly hid by an exterior façade. (Connelly subsequently used this same design in the design of several riverboat casinos.) The vessel can hold 900 persons for harbor cruises and 650 for luncheon-dinner cruises.

The other very large riverboat at Tall Stacks and making her first appearance at the event was the General Jackson. Stationed at Opryland, the 274-ft. vessel seats 800 for meals and 1,100 in an excursion mode. Meal cruises onboard the General Jackson are three hours long and feature a 40 minute show in her 400 seat theatre. During the cruise there are two seating times for the show and two seating options for the buffet. All 800 passengers enjoy both the show and the buffet.

Other vessels in attendance at Tall Stacks were the Colonel from Galveston, Texas, the Creole Queen from New Orleans, the Island Queen from Memphis and the Keystone Belle of Pittsburgh. Your reporter noted that the Keystone Belle also appeared at Tall Stacks in 1992 and 1995 under the name Queen of Hearts,

The P.A. Denny was in attendance in 2003 as she was in 1995, 1992 and 1988. Also representing the host Port of Cincinnati was the Spirit of Cincinnati, who made her fifth appearance at Tall Stacks. The Spirit of Jefferson made her third appearance at Tall Stacks. She is owned by Jefferson County, Kentucky who also owns her "big brother" the Belle of Louisville.

One of the changes at Tall Stacks is year is the growth of corporate charter cruises. The Tall Stacks Gala on Friday night was the toughest ticket to obtain, unless you are a stowaway like your writer. Held on the General Jackson, the Gala includes Governor Bob Taft and his wife Hope, the 17-riverboat captains and the vice admiral of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Themed cruises covered almost every topic possible. There was a Sara Lee dessert-sampling cruise, a bourbon cruise and not to be left out, a scotch cruise. The Mountain Mist Quilting Cruise highlighted the history of quilting in Cincinnati with live quilters onboard and they seemed to keep everyone on board in stitches. Sterns Textile Co., in Cincinnati sponsored this cruise.

Local ice cream maker Graeter sponsored an Ice Cream Social Cruise.

These days Elvis is everywhere and he made the Tall Stacks scene as well. The King's Cruise on the Island Queen featured an Elvis Impersonator.

Wine and Cheese cruises were popular. The Cincinnati International Wine Festival sponsored a cruise, as did the Barrelhouse Brewery featuring a wide selection of local brews.

Not to be outdone on the cruise front was the Havana Martini Club who sponsored a cruise for their members and friends.

As you might imagine the stretch of the Ohio River at the Port of Cincinnati had the potential of being a traffic nightmare when you add 17 riverboats for five days on top of a very busy river normally full of large tows moving in both directions. Keeping the boats separate is the job of Tall Stacks Control, headquartered in a small tugboat on the Kentucky side of the river near the Mike Fink Restaurant.

David Smith, Port Captain of Catlettsburg, Ky, a tiny river town on the Ohio River near Ashland, Ky, is one of the eyes of Tall Stacks Control.

Smith has been working in Tall Stacks Control since the 1992 event, but came down to the 1988 festival on a tugboat," just to experience it."

"In my normal job, I might go for an entire day without a boat, but at Tall Stacks it is usually hectic and confusing, Smith said. "We usually have two captains on duty per shift that may last six hours, Smith added. The Coast Guard has a major presence as well. "We may have from two to six Coast Guard people on duty in the center along with us," Smith remarked. In addition, the Coast Guard pilots patrol boats and are on the Tall Stacks vessels.

"In the end, we are just an advisory service. It is the Captain that is in charge of navigating his or her boat," Smith said.

By the way, the Tall Stacks festival is not a free event. As a matter of fact, ticket pricing strategy was one of the big gambles for the promoters of Tall Stacks 2003. Instead of charging $5 admission for each day of the event, a price of $12 in advance and $15 at the gate was charged for all five days.

"The new arrangement encouraged people to return to the festival and the return visits helped boost total attendance, "said Tall Stacks Executive Director Michael Smith.

"We also added more musical events to the program featuring top name acts like Emmylou Harris, B.B. King. Los Lobos and Mary Chapin Carpenter," Smith added.

The Sawyer Town exhibit hosted 50,000 kids over the five-day even and was also a big part of the festival's success Smith believes. The presence of 2,600 volunteers also kept things running smoothly, Smith thought.

The $12-$18 admission ticket is to get into the grounds of Tall Stacks. For another $18, you can tour all the riverboats from 6:00am to 9:00 am. After that the boats begin their daily cruise schedule

"It was a combination of many things-riverboats, music, historical exhibits, kid's activities hot air balloons an even fireworks made Tall Stacks 2003 a world class event," said Peter Gosak, president of the Tall Stacks Commission.

All 117,000 available riverboat cruise tickets were sold at prices from $18 to $75 and over 32,000 cruise tickets were sold to groups, a 30% increase in this category.

The next Tall Stacks is scheduled for 2007.

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