HUNTINGTON - Passengers aboard the American Queen riverboat cruise unexpectedly found themselves anchored in Huntington on Saturday after high water diverted their planned voyage away from the upper Mississippi River.
However, guests said they were happy to be in the Jewel City, having spent the day sightseeing and shopping. It was also a pleasant surprise for the city, which rolled out welcome ambassadors to direct them to local businesses and attractions.
The steamboat was on its 19th day of a 21-day cruise after embarking June 25 from New Orleans. Passengers had booked a journey along the entire length of the Mississippi River, ending in Red Wing, Minnesota. Those plans were dampened from the start when crews determined water levels in the upper part of the river were too high to safely navigate. Historic rainfall in many states made ports inaccessible, with the threat of more rain as Hurricane Barry made landfall in Louisiana on Saturday.
Instead, the ship diverged onto the Ohio River with stops along the way in Kentucky at Paducah, Henderson, Brandenburg, Louisville, Augusta and Maysville. They also stopped in Madison, Indiana, before arriving in Huntington. Guests planned to stay overnight in the city before arriving in Cincinnati on the last day of their journey Monday.
In Huntington, guests spent time checking out the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Museum, the Heritage Farm Museum & Village, the Huntington Museum of Art and the Ritter Park Rose Garden. They also spent time shopping in Pullman Square, Old Central City and Heritage Station.
Guests were surprised by the itinerary change, but not bummed to be in Huntington, said Alex Edmonds, one of the ship's excursion specialists. Originally guests had planned to be in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on Saturday.
"They were shocked initially because many of them had the idea to do the entire length of the Mississippi River, but Mother Nature always wins," Edmonds said.
It was many of the guests' first time in Huntington, and several remarked about its quaint charm and southern hospitality, she said.
"This diversion has really been wonderful," she said.
Ed and Marsha Hopko were looking at antiques in Old Central City after having spent the morning at Heritage Farm. The couple, from Ijamsville, Maryland, said they were glad to visit the farm's village, which was one of the most memorable excursions of the whole trip. The farm features 16 authentic-looking buildings from 19th century Appalachia.
"We used to go up to Colonial Williamsburg a lot, but they are much friendlier (here)," Ed Hopko said.
At the Village Antique Mall in Old Central City, staff were thankful for dozens of new customers who poured in throughout the day, said assistant manager Denise Poole.
"They really liked shopping locally, and we are even shipping some things they couldn't carry back to the boat," Poole said. "They complimented the mall and said they've been traveling all over and this was their favorite place, which made us feel good."
To transport guests around town, the cruise brought in double-decker buses that made stops every half hour. Each bus was designated a Huntington ambassador, which is a program of the Huntington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The ambassadors gave a quick history of Huntington and then pointed people to different attractions along the bus route. There were also ambassadors at each stop to answer questions and give directions, said Tyson Compton, Huntington Area CVB president.
"It's such a great opportunity for us to showcase Huntington because the people are coming from across the country and even other countries," Compton said. "It's our hope they walk away with a good feeling of Huntington and their friends and family will want to come visit."
The American Queen's sister ship, the American Duchess, will make a planned trip to Huntington on July 25.
Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.