The Port of Camas-Washougal would welcome the largest riverboat west of the Mississippi — the American Empress — a 360 foot long and 58 foot wide vessel that has room for 223 passengers — if Port commissioners approve the funding of improvements to the Port’s guest dock.
Port Commissioners Bill Ward and Larry Keister, as well as Port Executive Director David Ripp, Washougal Mayor Molly Coston, City Councilman Ray Kutch and City Administrator David Scott, recently met with representatives of the American Queen Steamboat Company, to discuss potential visits by the American Empress.
The Port would need to make improvements to its guest dock, also known as the breakwater, before the American Empress could make a stop at the breakwater and have passengers participate in shore tours.
Ripp said the type of improvements and the associated costs of those upgrades have not yet been determined.
Eric Denley, chief legal counsel for HMS Global Maritime, the parent company of American Queen Steamboat Company, said having Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) access and a safe and reliable way for older passengers to embark and disembark the ship are important.
“Also having shore side facilities that can support trucks and other commercial vehicles would allow us to load fuel and supplies and use the community as a replenishment location,” Denley said.
He added that the Port provides the ship’s passengers with first and last impressions of a community.
“Park facilities, benches and access to hiking/walking/biking trails all help us showcase your community and the beauty of the Pacific Northwest,” Denley said.
The Port of Camas-Washougal breakwater is located near the marina and Washougal Waterfront Park and Trail.
Eric Welter, chief marketing officer for the American Queen Steamboat Company, said the American Empress is typically at a dock for a full or half day.
“We are really looking for local businesses to develop more soft adventure excursions along the river– biking, zip lining, fishing and hiking,” he said.
Ward said he would be in favor of having the riverboat stop at the Port of C-W.
“Tourism is an important part of the Port’s economic development strategy,” he said. “It brings in new money and promotes awareness of the community.”
Keister believes the local community could benefit from a tour boat stopping for visits at the Port of Camas-Washougal breakwater.
“The process now is to gather information as to what is required by the Port and the city and what we could expect from their company in terms of financial return,” he said. “This is a 2020 or 2021 possible project. It will be discussed further, but no decisions will be made any time soon.”
An opportunity to benefit the local economy
Ripp said American Empress passengers could purchase lunch at the Puffin Cafe, on the waterfront, or buy goods at the Pendleton Woolen Mills store, in downtown Washougal.
Pendleton Store Manager Meriel Myers said paddlewheeler passengers could shop and go on a tour of the woolen mill and walk across the street to visit the Two Rivers Heritage Museum.
“You’re bringing tourists into a small town,” she said. “It’s great for all businesses.”
Myers said the riverboat’s passengers would probably do limited shopping, due to limited space in their suitcases.
Alex Yost, co-owner of OurBar, in downtown Washougal, said while she and Kevin Credelle welcome anyone through their doors, they have built their business on a foundation of serving local patrons first.
“Any additional business from non-residents or tourists is a bonus for us,” Yost said. “Having more people experience downtown Washougal and the growing number of businesses here is a benefit to all.”
Lulu Suchinda, owner of Lulu’s Boutique, also in downtown Washougal, said visits from American Empress would be welcome.
“This is a great idea to bring in foot traffic to downtown Washougal,” she said. “Anything helps.”
Ships bring customers to Stevenson
This year, the American Empress is scheduled to visit the Port of Skamania County, in Stevenson, four times a month from March through November and stay for approximately 10 hours each time.
In addition to the American Empress, the Port of Skamania County welcomes another paddlewheeler, the American Pride, and a cruise ship, the National Geographic Quest.
Somer Meade, office administrator for the Port of Skamania County, said the Port charges each of the riverboats $150 per day to dock at Stevenson Landing, and $52 per hour for the Port’s facilities team to assist with water and garbage services.
Meade said the American Empress passengers sleep and dine on the boat, much like a traditional cruise with shore excursions.
“The Empress does have bus service for their guests,” she said. “They take them to Multnomah Falls and Skamania Lodge.”
Natalie Bloodworth, an executive assistant with The American Queen Steamboat Company, said American Empress passengers sometimes take shuttles to the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, Bonneville Dam, downtown Stevenson and Multnomah Falls or Mount Hood.
Tabatha Wiggins, a managing partner of Walking Man Brewing, in downtown Stevenson, said the brewery and brewpub are located one block north of where the American Empress and other ships dock, so Walking Man is easily accessible for the boats’ passengers and staff.
Wiggins said in addition to beer, the visitors eat pizzas, sandwiches and salads, and some of them purchase brewery swag to remember their visit to Stevenson.
“Several of the boats have coordinated private groups for tours and tastings at Walking Man on days we’re closed, as well as days we’re open,” she said. “We’re always open to ideas that allow visitors to experience our small town brewpub of 17 years, as a highlight to their visit in Stevenson.”
Lena Kasten, an employee at Bloomsbury of Kanaka Creek Farm, in Stevenson, said it is enjoyable to see passengers from the American Empress and other ships walking around town.
“Sometimes they shop, sometimes they don’t, but it’s a positive experience,” she said.
Bloomsbury sells flowers, gifts, clothing, jewelry and home goods.
“It’s absolutely great for our little community to have the boats visit and (passengers) come ashore,” Kasten said.
Joe Frice, owner of The Shed, a shop that sells vintage collectible toys, comic books and vinyl records, said his customers tend to be younger than the ships’ passengers.
“I don’t think I benefit most from the boats,” he said. “I think the boats are great for Stevenson restaurants, and maybe the apparel shops.”
Frice said he is considering selling knick knacks, such as combs or snow globes, as well as postcards, that mention Stevenson or Skamania County, that tourists could be interested in.
Majority of American Empress passengers are retirees
The average age of an American Empress passenger is 72.
“Most of our guests are retired, well educated, well traveled, well cultured, financially fortunate individuals who have seen the world and want to explore more of America,” Bloodworth said.
Alexandria Lovan, the consumer marketing manager for the American Queen Steamboat Company, said passenger prices for a nine-day sailing on the American Empress start at $1,099 per person based on double occupancy.
The American Queen Steamboat Operating Company, based out of New Albany, Indiana, runs the American Empress on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and the American Queen and American Duchess on the Mississippi River.