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Cincinnati's riverboat roundup

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


photo
[Photo courtesy of American Classic Voyages]
A scene from America’s heritage: Riverboats crowd the wharf at Cincinnati’s Tall Stacks celebration last October.
CINCINNATI- If you lived along any of the great inland rivers not much more than a century ago, every once in a while you would hear the magical tootle of the calliope so loud and strange it frightened cattle and delighted small boys for miles: Riverboat's coming!

And sometimes in the bigger towns and ports, two or three riverboats might be tied up at once. Those floating palaces are rare today, but you can catch more than a dozen paddleboats and sternwheelers gathered in all their glory here for Tall Stacks. The event happens every four years, with the next one tentatively set for October 2003; tickets usually go on sale six months or more in advance.

Cincinnati drew 19 boats from up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1999, from as far away as Galveston, Texas. That event last fall was a five-day festival of tours, riverboat races, dinner cruises, and constant ragtime and Dixieland on their calliopes.

Meanwhile, this city celebrates its river heritage continuously. Several large excursion boats dock downtown to take daytrips and dinner cruises. The Delta Queen, originally out of Cincinnati, still makes stops here on its overnight cruises. The Majestic, the oldest showboat afloat, still holds a full season of performances. Numerous restaurants with riverboat themes are docked on the Kentucky side of the river; the floating casinos downriver in Indiana are direct descendants of the Maverick's riverboats.

And always, the Ohio is filled with working boats, barges and tugs, moving coal and other freight up and down the river.

Riverboat tourism has been steadily growing in recent years, with reproductions and restored boats from many ports catering to a nostalgia for riverboats and the early 19th century that they dominated.

It is at Tall Stacks, however, that the golden age of steamboating is most vividly recalled. More than 600,000 people came last fall, filling the docks daily in long lines, wanting to walk through the boats and talk to the deckhands, engineers and captains who keep them running.

Those who get up before dawn and beat the crowds down to the riverfront enjoy the rarest sight in the early morning chill: More than a dozen riverboats, gangplanks laid down to the landing and lanterns twinkling in the mist rising off the river, ready for the day's bustle as they were 150 years ago.

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