BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – It arrived about 90 minutes early, but the five-level Queen of the Mississippi paddlewheeler latched onto the Fort Madison pier Tuesday morning in the first of 14 American Cruise Lines dockings this year.
Dignitaries, community leaders and just interested parties flocked to the pier where Mexican Fiesta dancers, a middle school band, some Old Fort staffers in era-dressing, awaited passengers to come down the pier.
Jackie Roeske, of Greenville South Carolina said she opened her curtains after she woke up in her stateroom on the ship and looked out and was struck by the spires reaching up out of the town.
“When I woke up and pulled the curtains, the first thing I saw was the church steeple. It’s just gorgeous – so pretty and it just watches over the town,” she said after being greeted by Fort Madison Mayor Brad Randolph.
“It actually made me think about moving here,” she whispered as her husband Davis walked down the pier behind her.
Davis Roeske quipped it was the first time such a group was glad to see him arrive anywhere.
“I was just thrilled at how important it made me feel to get off this boat and have everybody so pleased to see me. I haven’t had that many people pleased to see me in a long time, if ever,” he said with a laugh.
“It is so wonderful to see a small town be so enthusiastic about something like this, and seeing a bunch of old people come in off a boat and welcome us and the boat. Hopefully, it will be good for your businesses in the future.”
The city has been courting Viking Cruise Lines, the but company is still several years away from building any domestic cruise ships. During initial negotiations with Viking, who needs about $1.7 million in upgrades to the city’s dock, American showed interest.
American stepped into the picture in May only requiring about $30,000 in repairs and upgrades to the pier to begin docking. Director of Guest Relations, Bret Bullock said the process was very efficient and he was kind of blown away by the reception.
“Well, I think it’s remarkable. I think any time you have an inaugural call to a port, you’ll have a special event of some sort,” he said.
“But this is very special indeed to have such a turnout from the townspeople. We’re just as excited as they are, we’ve been working with city leaders for the past several weeks on excursions. But to have the whole city come out and the band and the dancers – this is just very exciting.”
He said the quick timeline was handled well on both ends.
“It was extraordinarily efficient, when you have a city that wants us to be here as much as we want to come to the city – it’s a perfect fit. Between the mayor and your city manager and other city leaders, it was a breeze.”
City Manager David Varley said it is good to see a ship in Fort Madison again.
“I think it’s great. I’m glad to see this many people show up to welcome them here and it’s really exciting to see another ship here in Fort Madison.”
Eric Cade, of Salem Oregon said Fort Madison is beautiful from the shore and he enjoys the small town feel.
“It’s very picturesque. It reminds me of home,” Cade said. “I’m from a small town in Oregon and the train park and brickscape behind it and steeples. I love it. I’m a small town guy and I just love it.”
The excursions on the port of call included two tours on Trailways buses, one focusing on the history of Fort Madison including the old prison and Old Fort, while the other was an agri-tour featuring retail farms including stops at Hinterland Dairy and Harvestville Farms.
Cade said he was taking the agri-tour because he had his two children with him. Another option included a SEIBUS shuttle that would loop around the historical downtown and park areas picking up and dropping off passengers throughout the six-hour layover.
Queen of the Mississippi Capt. Brad Vandiver, who lived for a short stint in southeast Iowa a few years back, said he was excited to learn the boat would be stopping in Fort Madison.
“I didn’t expect this much and I can’t think of a better place than Fort Madison for our guests to experience this part of the world,” he told the crowd gathered by the pier to welcome the ship.
He presented Fort Madison Mayor Brad Randolph with a plaque in honor of the first stop. Randolph said the cruises are another story for the history of the city.
“We think this is a new day and a new chapter for Fort Madison and our community,” he said.
“The volunteers and everyone that came out and welcomed these visitors to our own little piece of the pie down here, speaks volumes to our community and American Cruise Line for choosing us for a destination.”
Other 8 a.m. arrivals occur on Aug. 18, Aug. 26, Sept. 8, Sept. 19, Oct. 3, and Oct. 7. All the 8 a.m arrivals are six-hour ports of call. The other seven stops are 9 a.m. arrivals, which are the 8.5-hour stays and those are on Aug. 15, Aug. 28, Sept. 4, Sept. 18, Sept. 28, Oct. 12, and Oct. 16.
The cruise lines will be sending three different ships to the Fort Madison shores including the Queen of the Mississippi, the America, and the American Harmony.