MARIETTA - Layne Carpenter of Marietta doesn't remember the first time she saw one of the "Queen" sternwheelers.
"She was only two months old at the time ... I took her picture from this same spot with the boat in the background," said Peggy Carpenter, Layne's mother.
Now 21, Layne posed with the world's largest steamboat-another of the Queens- in the background as the American Queen returned to Marietta Monday morning after a four-year hiatus. It's the first time any of the large boats, also once regular-visitors The Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, have been in Marietta since 2008.
A couple walks along the docks near the American Queen during the sternwheeler’s stop in Marietta Monday. (Photo by Sam Shawver)
"It's much bigger than I thought. I didn't realize how big this boat really is," Carpenter said. "I think it would be great to be on board and see the country from the river."
Apparently that's what a lot of other folks are thinking, too, according to Bob Buesing, who helps coordinate shore excursions at each port for the Great American Steamboat Company, owners of the American Queen.
"River tours are big in Europe and other countries, and it's growing here, too," he said. "We're carrying several international travelers on this trip from countries like China, Australia and South Africa."
The 420-foot-long, six-deck Queen made the nine-hour stop in Marietta Monday on a week-long journey from Louisville to Pittsburgh.
Buesing said free shore excursion tours are included for passengers at each port. Three buses follow the boat to every port, providing convenient land transportation for the tourists into river cities along the route.
"I call it our 'hop-on, hop-off' touring program," he said.
The Marietta tour includes visits to seven locations throughout the city-the Greene and Front streets shopping districts, The Castle, Campus Martius Museum, Ohio River Museum, Historic Harmar Village and Armory Square.
Marietta Councilman and local Trolley Tours operator Harley Noland helped provide narration for visitors on the American Queen tour buses.
"They take the city tour from 8 a.m. to noon, go back on board the boat for lunch, then the passengers can go out again to explore the city on their own during the afternoon," he said.
Buesing noted that 20 passengers had opted for a special tour package that included a cooking class at the Cook's Shop on Front Street.
"Our ultimate goal is to keep more people in town," he said. "In the old days they might stop at Blennerhassett Island for the entire day and never make it into town."
From the American Queen's pilot house Captain Joe Jamison and pilot Finley Fraser keep the huge sternwheeler on course, assisted by a crew of 172.
Both men have piloted other boats, including the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, during their careers.
"This is our first official visit to Marietta since the Great American Steamboat Company purchased the boat in 2008," Jamison said. "We're not at full passenger capacity-probably at 70 to 75 percent right now, but we didn't really start booking until October."
The boat had become inactive, along with several others, when the Majestic American Line decided to discontinue its cruise business in 2008. The American Queen was later purchased by the Great American Steamboat Company, based in Memphis, Tenn.
Buesing said reservations for next year are already "flying off the shelf."
Early Monday afternoon Jamison presented Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews with a plaque of recognition from the American Queen.
"During renovation of the boat we replaced the boards in the paddlewheel, and have cut pieces from those old boards to mount plaques that we try to present to officials at each port," Jamison said.
One never know who might be aboard the American Queen. Late Monday morning Steve Boone, one of the original members of the '60s group, The Lovin' Spoonful, was relaxing on the top deck after a turn around the city.
"I'm very impressed with downtown Marietta," he said. "It's a great place."
Boone, from St. Augustine, Fla., said he and his wife enjoy taking motorcycle road trips, and Marietta would be a nice stop on a future journey.
He said performing on the sternwheeler is an enjoyable experience.
"We do three shows during the tour-and this is a terrific boat," Boone said. "It's not too large, like an ocean liner, and the floor's not rocking back and forth when you're trying to play."
The Lovin' Spoonful and '60s crooner B.J. Thomas are providing entertainment during the Louisville to Pittsburgh tour.
Holland, Mich., resident Joyce Brown had also returned from a tour of Marietta.
"I already have plans to come back and bring my quilting club," she said. "We have 12 to 15 members and all travel on a church bus to visit different locations. We're always looking for something different, and for me this has been the best stop on the trip."