Smiles everyone! The American Empress paddleboat is back on the river

Kirk Williamson

Imagine yourself facing a busload of people all wearing masks. You’re wearing one, too, of course.

You were tested for Covid-19 on arrival. You’ve been introduced to the bus driver, and you’ve helped the first 45 guests from the American Empress cruise boat board the bus.

You take a deep breath. First bus out at 9 a.m.

“Good morning, my name is Kirk and I’ll be your guide this morning. I’m a recovering broadcaster who has flunked retirement … twice. We’re in Richland, Washington, one of five cities that we call the Tri-Cities of Washington.”

I wait for folks to do the math, then explain.

On June 14, the American Queen Steamboat Company resumed cruises on the Columbia and Snake river system aboard its American Empress paddleboat. The boat stops at Richland’s cruise dock, where buses meet cruisers who are interested in touring the community.

That’s where local “Hop-On, Hop-Off” guides step in.

We lead a bus tour that takes about an hour and 15 minutes, with three stops along the way: the Reach Museum, Sacajawea State Park and the Parkway shopping district in Richland.

As I write this, the Franklin County Historical Museum is still closed because of the pandemic, so we don’t stop there yet.

We do point it out, along with the Franklin County Courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Three specially marked buses travel with Empress.

They all follow the same route a half-hour apart so guests can step off at the Reach, for example, learn a thing or two from the exhibits, then board the next bus or the bus after that. Each bus has its own guide who makes two complete circuits so all the guests can hear the complete commentary.

Guides coordinate their material to ensure that each segment of the tour is fresh and interesting, even if the guest changes buses and gets a new guide.

Want to know who started the first airplane manufacturing plant west of the Mississippi? We’ll tell you. (Hint: it wasn’t Bill Boeing.)

How big is the cut glass dome on the Franklin County Courthouse? Got that one covered.

What about those mostly similar houses by the intersection of South Fourth Avenue and West A Street in Pasco? And what’s a “reach” anyway?

Where did Richland and Pasco get their names? What does “Kennewick” mean?

All of that and more are shared with about 200 guests who arrive in the Tri-Cities four times a month on American Empress. Guests come from all over the world, but most are from Texas, California, the upper Midwest and New England.

One tour in 2015 had a film crew from Japan’s NHK network.

The American Empress is the largest of the cruise boats on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

After a night’s stay in either Spokane or Portland, guests board in Clarkston or Vancouver, Washington.

Ports of call include Astoria, Stevenson, The Dalles and the Tri-Cities.

On a personal note, my wife Gloria and I really enjoyed our cruise on the Empress. We grew up in Goldendale and thought we knew the Columbia River pretty well. But any boater will tell you that you don’t really know a river until you’re on the water.

We’ve made our two circuits and welcomed nearly all the 200 guests on board. One final announcement to be made. “Enjoy the rest of your cruise. Remember, all aboard time is 4:30 p.m. Empress sails at 5.”

Answer key

Curious about the answers to the Tri-City trivia questions posed above? Williamson provided the answers:

First airplane factory: Charles Zornes, 1908-12, at what is now Big Pasco

Franklin County Courthouse dome: 36 feet diameter, 20 feet tall. Artwork around the base depicts Franklin County towns.

Northern Pacific executive houses, also called “red row” because NP used the same paint as on its cabooses, red with green trim.

Richland is named for state legislator Nelson Rich, a land developer and friend of Howard Amon.

The name “Pasco”: A railroad engineer suggested the name based on a place he worked in Peru, Cerro de Pasco.

Kennewick means “winter paradise; winter haven; grassy place; grassy slope” depending on the dialect of Sahaptin. Its mild weather made it a winter gathering place for tribes.

Kirk Williamson of Kennewick regularly writes about the Columbia Basin Badger Club for the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business.

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