JUNEAU (AP) -- Sternwheelers have not cruised the Inside Passage in more than a century, but that's going to change next summer.
American West Steamboat of Seattle has contracted with a Washington state boat yard to construct the Empress of the North, a sternwheeler that will be used in summer cruises in Southeast Alaska and fall cruises on the Columbia and Snake River complex.
The Empress is expected to arrive in Southeast in May 2003 in time for a full cruise season. It will be able to accommodate 236 overnight guests and 84 crew members.
In September, the Empress will move to Portland, Ore., to participate in the three-year celebration of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial.
The 360-foot-long sternwheeler will be the largest single-boat contract for Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, Inc., of Whidbey Island. The vessel will cost $50 million, said company Vice President Bryan Nichols. The cost includes furnishings, many of which will be built in at the yard, as well as art work that will be hung after the boat is launched.
The Empress will be used for one-way trips between Juneau and Seattle, said Joel Perry, vice president of marketing for American West Steamboat. The tentative date for the departure of the first trip is May 24, 2003. Ships will stop at Victoria, British Columbia, as well as Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Skagway, Petersburg and Glacier Bay. The northbound trip would take 11 nights; the southbound trip, 10 nights.
Perry said the ship has classic styling, including a high-ceilinged, chandeliered dining room that will accommodate all passengers at a single seating; a lavish showroom for showboat-style entertainment; and a lounge overlooking the sternwheel. Most of the suites and staterooms will have private verandahs. The ship has a functional paddlewheel.
''From the waterline up, it looks like the real thing,'' Nichols said. ''Under the waterline, it is somewhat different from the historic sternwheeler. We have modified the hull shape so that it would handle well in open ocean.''
The vessel was designed by Guido Perla & Associates, Inc., a Seattle firm of naval architects and marine engineers. It is a ''stretched'' version of the Queen of the West, a sternwheeler now operated by American West Steamboat on Columbia and Snake River cruises. The Queen of the West began service in 1995.
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