by CHRIS ROGERS
For generations, Winonans have gathered at Levee Park to welcome incoming paddleboats. Next Tuesday, the newest addition to the American Queen Steamboat Company’s fleet, the American Duchess, will dock in Winona, on its maiden voyage up the Mississippi River.
For years, Sharon Flatten has been one of the first faces passengers see when they disembark in Winona. As a Visit Winona Volunteer Coordinator and Winona Area Chamber of Commerce Ambassador, Flatten shakes hands with paddleboat passengers as they step off the gangplank, offers advice on what sights to check out, and answers other, sometimes unpredictable questions, like, “Where can I buy some socks?” She said, “It’s so fun. The people are just so thankful and grateful when they come off — lots of friendliness and lots of smiles.”
Winonans do not get a chance to see a new paddleboat on its inaugural voyage every day, but in recent years there have been a few new boats constructed by American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC), the French America Line — whose Louisiane is slated to stop in Winona this year — and other competitors who do not stop in Winona. “There’s been huge demand for it,” AQSC spokesperson Chris Nelson said of Mississippi cruises. “We were having to turn away people who wanted to travel with us. The American Duchess helps us fill some of that demand while providing our customers with a luxurious riverboat experience,” AQSC President Ted Sykes added.
The Duchess is smaller than the flagship American Queen by a good 80 feet in length and two stories in height, and it carries just 166 passengers to the Queen’s 414. However, what it lacks in capacity, the Duchess makes up for in roominess. All of its rooms are suites, most come with decks, and the biggest ones come with optional butlers. “[Other boats] all had lots of rooms, but they weren’t all outside rooms and they weren’t all that big,” said Winona Mayor Mark Peterson, who also directs the Winona County Historical Society and partners with the paddleboat company to offer local tours.
Sykes explained that his company bought a former gaming boat from Bettendorft, Iowa, stripped it down to the hull and rebuilt a new hotel superstructure. More modern than the American Queen, Sykes hopes the feel of the Duchess will appeal to younger customers.
“They’re impressive. There’s no getting around it,” Peterson added. “It’s not something that you see every day and it is something special for Winona. These boats don’t tie up in Rochester; that’s for sure.”
Flatten said that over the years greeting passengers, she has met people who have sent her cards or said they cannot wait to return to Winona and see more of the city. “I think it's really opened up Winona as a destination,” she said.
The American Duchess was christened in New Orleans and set out on its maiden voyage on August 15. It is scheduled to arrive in Winona on September 5 and is slated to make another visit this fall.