There is something incredibility romantic about an old school riverboat — the frilly woodwork, the gentle rhythm of the paddlewheels, and the Dixieland jazz music playing. Thanks to Long Beach’s protected harbor, we are one of the few non-river locations where the round bottom vessels can safely cruise.
Riverboats Reuben E. Lee, Mansion Belle, Mark Twain, and Grand Romance all have special connections to Long Beach.
One was scrapped, another went aground, one’s daily operation is paused, and the final in limbo.
Disneyland’s Mark Twain was the first functional paddle wheeler built in the United States in 50 years, and was designed by Long Beach Naval Architect D.M. Callis (first Commodore of Seal Beach YC and second Commodore of Long Beach YC). She has been in service since her maiden voyage in 1955, and will continue to make trips daily when the park reopens.
Both the Reuben E. Lee and the Mark Twain were built locally at Todd’s Shipyard. Reuben E. Lee, also known as the Pride of Newport, opened as a restaurant in 1964, later housed the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum until 2006, and soon after she moved to San Diego.
Her funnels emitted fake smoke, a small motor rotated the paddle wheel and her made-up name was a tribute to her sister restaurant Reuben’s, part of the Far West chain of high-end restaurants. She was actually a barge with a restaurant built on top. In 2012, she sunk at the dock and was later scrapped.
Mansion Belle (Spirit of Sacramento) was here locally in the 1960s, based out of Pierpoint Landing. The sternwheeler caught fire in 1996, and then sank. It was hauled up onto the east bank of the Sacramento River in late 2013, where she sits today.
Grand Romance called Long Beach’s Rainbow Harbor home for almost 18 years. She left Long Beach as colleague David Templeton put it in his Argus Courier column, “due to some sort of longstanding disagreement to do with electricity and storage.”
Last September she made the trek from here north, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge to Vallejo, where she is today.
According to her builder and owner Bill Barker, “It was a rough one at Point Conception and again at Big Sur. The weather window was favorable, traveling at five knots, it took five days as the four man crew traveled four to five miles off shore.”
Right now Barker said Grand Romance is about 50 feet from shore, tied up near a dredging company. Unfortunately, there have been several incidents of vandalism since her arrival. This month, criminals painted graffiti on most of her upper deck — including the windows.
In another incident a couple broke into the boat, put on the survival suit that was onboard as well as lifejackets, lashed a trash can and an assortment of empty liquor bottles to it and in a MacGyver-like fashion they floated away. Fortunately the suit had a water activated an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), that alerted local Coast Guard authorities, indicating the vandals' location.
Barker has had more than his share of challenges but remains hopeful to put Grand Romance in service again, possibly offering cruises along the Napa River.
In the Delta, some have joked Missouri Belle riverboat in the popular Netflix series "Ozark" was based on a composite of activities that took place near Sacramento in the ’90s.
In his June 18, 2017, coverage, David Templeton wrote, “In 1997, the Barkers were charged with operating an illegal gambling operation aboard the Queen. They had, in fact, begun offering old-time riverboat gambling as one of the boat’s many amenities, arguing that since the card-playing was taking place on the river, a tidal slough, therefore part of the ocean, it was essentially not bound by city-limit regulations.
He continued, offering some additional background. “By then, the (Petaluma) Queen had already been the subject of a number of reputation-diminishing problems, including one high profile death, when a patron accidentally fell from the boat and drowned, drawing accusations that safety precautions aboard the vessel were less than adequate.”
I wish Bill Barker and the Grand Romance the best, I just want to cruise sitting by the rail sipping on a Disneyland-style kid friendly Mint Julep.