“Camas, Wash.” has been emblazoned on the stern of the American Empress paddlewheeler since 2014, but 2022 was the first time the Empress, the largest riverboat west of the Mississippi River, has attached itself to the Camas-Washougal dock originally slated to be the riverboat’s home port.
On Wednesday, June 8, representatives of the Port of Camas-Washougal, the cities of Camas and Washougal, local businesses and the American Queen Voyages (AQV) luxury cruise company gathered with an enthusiastic crowd of local residents near the Port’s newly restored breakwater dock on the Camas-Washougal riverfront to welcome the Empress to East Clark County.
“We have been talking about wanting cruise ships to be able to bring guests downtown for like a decade, so this was really monumental for us,” Carrie Schulstad, the director of the Downtown Camas Association (DCA), said. “Seeing the first guests come up the plank almost brought tears to my eyes because it’s been a long time. That American Queen Voyages valued what we have enough to come here creates a whole other layer of pride about the community. It was a big lift. They think it was worthwhile to come, and they did, so it feels pretty darn good.”
Port commissioners approved a 5-year moorage agreement with AQV in March, bringing the American Empress to the region in an effort to increase tourism and provide local businesses with a much-needed boost.
AQV will use the breakwater dock at Parker’s Landing Marina twice a week, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Wednesday and Saturday through November.
“Their company is very big about coming into a community and really being a part of that community. They see it as a positive thing,” the Port’s business development manager, Derek Jaeger, said during a Port Commission meeting in March. “They are really all about supporting events and things that we have in our region. I think it’s a great opportunity to partner with a company like this that will have a good economic impact for our region. Plus, it will be kind of cool to see a big paddlewheel boat outside at the marina.”
The weeklong American Empress voyage on the Columbia River starts in Vancouver and includes an overnight pre-boarding stay at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. The boat then embarks for Astoria, Oregon, before circling back with stops in Stevenson, Washington; The Dalles, Oregon; Richland, Washington; and Clarkston, Washington.
After disembarking in Clarkston, passengers board buses bound for Spokane, Washington.
The 360-foot boat has capacity for 223 guests and features four decks and 112 staterooms, including single rooms for solo travelers and luxury suites.
“We are thrilled to be coming to Camas-Washougal,” AQV’s director of port services, Shelly Hartfield, told Port commissioners in March. “It’s been something that we’ve been looking at for five years, so it’s wonderful to see it come to fruition.”
On Wednesday, after the Empress arrived at the Camas-Washougal dock for the first time, several local dignitaries, including Camas and Washougal mayors Steve Hogan and Rochelle Ramos, gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially welcome the riverboat to the Port’s new and improved breakaway dock.
“One of the reasons that we’re here is that these are amazing towns,” Hartfield said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “I have walked around Camas four times now, and I continue to be amazed when I walk in the stores and with the friendliness of all of the people. Washougal has been absolutely fantastic. One of the other reasons that we’re here is this amazing view (of Mount Hood) and the Gorge. It’s absolutely breathtaking.”
Built in 2002 at the Nichols Brothers Boat Builders shipyard on Washington’s Whidbey Island, the Empress first launched in 2003 under the ownership of Majestic America Line, touring Alaska’s Inside Passage and the Columbia River.
Then called the Empress of the North, the riverboat sat idle in Portland’s Vigor Shipyard for five years before AQV founder and chairman John Waggoner purchased the Empress from the United States Maritime Administration in 2013.
“We have the boat in the shipyard and we’re getting it ready, and the welders come up and say, ‘Hey, what name should I put on the stern?’” Waggoner said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Our vice president of operations, Greg Brown, had come here, and it was a nice day like today, and we looked at the dock, and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, John, this is a perfect dock. We ought to make this our home port. We could buy that little facility up there.’”
“Then Shelly and I came one day, like three weeks before the christening (in 2014). The wind is blowing, and the waves are coming (up) and we get wet walking down here, and we said, ‘I’m not sure that will work right now, but we still have ‘Camas’ on our stern, and it’s our home port. We’re going to call it ‘the boomerang boat.’ We weren’t here, but now we are.”
“I really do believe you put intention out there into the world and things happen, and that’s what happened,” Schulstad said. “The city and the Port all put intention into this, even way back when the time wasn’t right. But the intention was there, and now look where we are, all these years later.”
Merchants welcome American Empress visitors
After disembarking from the American Empress, tourists will walk to The Black Pearl event center’s parking lot, where they will board a “hop-on, hop-off” bus bound for Washougal’s Two Rivers Heritage Museum, Pendleton Woolen Mills and Cottonwood Beach before it heads to downtown Camas’ shopping district.
AQV passengers typically spend between $135 and $175 per stop, according to Jaeger.
“We understand the impact. We understand the commerce that (will) happen. Hard numbers, we will see as we go on,” Schulstad said. “But my board vice president was in Stevenson recently, and he stopped into (a restaurant) for lunch, and it happened to be an American Empress day, and he was chatting with some of the people there, and the merchants were saying that it makes a huge difference in their business. … The merchants are very excited. I think they are going to do very, very well.”
The arrangement will benefit local organizations in other ways as well, according to Schulstad.
“The collaboration that happens between the Port and downtown, that is strengthened,” she said. “The collaboration between the DCA and the (Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce) has strengthened because of this. We have such a welcoming bunch of quality merchants who are not only happy, of course, that they’re going to have customers, but they’re really happy to welcome new people into town. Really, that’s their heart — they want to share the town. They want to share what they’re offering. They want to be introduced to new people. They want to share why our town is important and culturally relevant. It’s really powerful on many, many levels. It’s not just commerce. It’s more culturally significant.”
Schulstad said that she has received positive feedback from business owners and Empress tourists.
“I was a little bit worried that we were going to get such low attendance, that we wouldn’t even notice a difference because of the festivities going on at the Port, but (the business owners) said they did great,” Schulstad said. “The people that are on the bus, the demographic is older — the average age is 72. It brings them back to their childhood to see a historic, charming town like this. One of my staff members was at Dairy Queen yesterday, and (some passengers) were getting some ice cream. They had their bags and they had been shopping, so she said ‘Hello’ and chatted with them a little bit, and (they said), ‘This is so charming and great. It feels old-fashioned. Look at the kinds of stores that you have.’ They like the juxtaposition … of a really authentic, charming feel of a historic town and the top-notch amenities.”
In Washougal, meanwhile, Two Rivers Heritage Museum officials prepared for the Empress by recruiting and training local volunteers to act as docents, who are “basically tour guides to help create an inviting, interesting and welcoming experience for these guests,” according to museum volunteer Richard Johnson.
“Our docents will occupy one of three stations on the museum campus,” museum volunteer coordinator Lois Cobb said. “They will answer questions, point out highlights, and introduce the next exhibit area on the tour to guests. … We understand that many passengers enjoy learning about the places where they take port. There is no better place locally than the Two Rivers Heritage Museum to do just that.”
Museum organizers are still seeking volunteers who can commit to covering at least one 4- to 5-hour shift per month.
“We are so excited to welcome these guests to our area,” Johnson said. “We want their experience at the museum to be informative and memorable. And we need help from community members to make that happen.”