WASHOUGAL — Passenger Bonnie Westbrook had nothing but high praise for the American Empress paddlewheeler, which docked Wednesday for the first time at the Port of Camas-Washougal.
“The food is really good, and the entertainment was better than we expected,” Westbrook said as she and her husband, Wayne, of Henderson, Nev., watched the festivities and ribbon-cutting around the inaugural event.
The couple have been on many ocean cruises, she said, and the 360-foot vessel compares favorably.
“Most old paddlewheelers are not that comfortable, but the furnishings are nicer than the American Queen,” she said of the Empress’ sister ship that features Victorian furniture.
After the event, the Westbrooks and the other passengers were set to board three luxury charter buses to make many stops for shopping in Camas and Washougal. Passengers typically spend between $135 and $175 per stop, according to Derek Jaeger, business manager for the Port of Camas-Washougal.
Washougal Mayor Rochelle Ramos and Camas Mayor Steve Hogan said they couldn’t be more pleased, even though they only learned about the plans a few months ago.
“This is a great opportunity to showcase our heritage along with many of our businesses,” Ramos said.
Having the boat dock at the Parker’s Landing Marina every Wednesday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. through November will not only be an economic boost for the area, but also a challenge, said Hogan.
“It’s up to us to make sure we have attractions that are going to be a boon to the riverboat,” he said.
The seven-day American Empress voyage on the Columbia River starts in Vancouver and includes an overnight pre-boarding stay at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. The boat then embarks for Astoria, Ore., before circling back with stops in Stevenson, The Dalles, Ore., Richland and ending in Clarkston. After disembarking in Clarkston, passengers board the buses for a road trip to Spokane, and from there will fly home.
Jaeger said the economic impact of the boat docking at the port is huge and brings about $2.3 million to the towns.
“And on top of that, economic impact includes $300,000 in purchases by local businesses for supplies, as well as $170,000 a year in state and local taxes,” he said.
John Waggoner, founder and chairman of American Queen Voyages, which started in 2011, said it took every penny he had to buy the American Queen, and he almost didn’t buy the American Empress, which first set sail in 2014.
“Our original plan was to just buy one boat, the American Queen,” he said. “We had just bought the America Queen, it was our first week of operation, and I got a call from Chip Hannigan of the U.S. Maritime Administration.”
Hannigan praised Waggoner for buying the American Queen, which had sat unused for a number of years, and for taking it off the government’s hands and hiring a crew. Then he told Waggoner about a boat that had been sitting in Portland for six years, and said, “I want you to buy it.”
Waggoner said he didn’t have the money for the American Empress, and his wife Claudette said if he ever tried to buy another overnight cruise boat, she would “kill me in my sleep.” But he was able to secure the financing when he was allowed to sell advance tickets after signing a binding purchase agreement, and his wife eventually came around.
His company now owns seven boats.
Despite the economic impact of the boat, concerns have also been raised about the diesel-powered vessel’s environmental impact.
But Waggoner, who trained as a marine biologist, said he’s doing everything in his power to mitigate negative consequences.
“The boat is the first to use hybrid (technology),” he said, “And we’re working on hydrogen power.”
There will also be no single-use plastics on the boat and passengers will be given aluminum water bottles to keep, he said.
Although the boat can carry 223 passengers, Waggoner said, this trip has 160 passengers who came from as far away as Florida, New Hampshire and Iowa. After being introduced to this area on the paddlewheeler, many will come back again, Waggoner said.
“It’s a great trip to showcase the lower Pacific Northwest.”