Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Whidbey Island and Seattle-based American West Steamboat Company
, owned by Henry Hillman, Jr., CEO of Oregon Rail Corp., have launched the newly constructed overnight sternwheeler cruise ship Empress of the North. Beginning at 5:00am on Monday, June 16, 2003, the 360-foot sternwheeler was transferred on a specially designed rail system into Holmes Harbor, where it launched at high tide at approximately 8:45pm. With the launch open to the public, an estimated 5,000 people showed up for the event.
Designed by Seattle naval architects, Guido Perla & Associates, construction of the Empress of the North began at Nichols Brothers’ shipyard in April, 2002. She is the largest ship built by Nichols Brothers, with over 350 employees on the job and approximately 300,000 man-hours involved in the project. Four decks high, the ship accommodates 235 passengers and 84 crew and features 117 all-outside suites and staterooms, of which 105 have private verandahs. Over 60 miles of electrical wire, 8 miles of piping, and 3,500 short tons (7,000,000 lbs.) of fabricated steel went into the ship’s construction. Its most prominent feature, a bright red paddlewheel located on the stern, which fully propels the boat, measures 42-feet in diameter, or the equivalent of a four-story building. “This has been an incredible project,” says Matt Nichols, owner and president of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. “It was great to see her float off and head down the harbor.”
Following her launch, the Empress of the North was repositioned to Everett, where she is undergoing final outfitting and sea trials before her first scheduled passenger cruise from Seattle to Juneau on August 10, 2003. “The launch of the Empress of the North signifies a tremendous amount of work by a lot of talented people,” states Joel Perry, vice president of marketing at American West Steamboat Company. “After more than a year of anticipation, we couldn’t have been more excited to see the Empress launched.”
The first to ply Alaska’s Inside Passage in over 100 years, this new authentic paddlewheel driven cruise ship will operate four 11-night cruises between Seattle and Juneau in 2003. Departing from downtown Seattle, she will cruise through Lake Washington and the San Juan Island Archipelago before calling on Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia. The ship will then sail north through the Inside Passage, stopping in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Skagway and Juneau as well as include the scenic attractions of Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy Arm Fjord, Misty Fjords, Peril Strait and Le Conte Bay. In 2004, the Empress of the North will operate six 11-night cruises between Seattle and Sitka and nine 8-night cruises round trip from Sitka.
After each Alaska season, the Empress of the North will reposition to Portland, Oregon, where she will operate 8-night cruises between October and May on the Columbia, Snake and Willamette Rivers along with her sister-ship, the 163-passenger Queen of the West, also built by Nichols Brothers. Since 1995, American West Steamboat Company has operated the Queen of the West year round on the Columbia, Willamette and Snake Rivers, along the Lewis & Clark route, Oregon Trail, and Columbia River Gorge.