This week marks the twentieth anniversary of a court case that effectively ended the short-but-memorable reign of The Petaluma Queen, the privately owned replica Mississippi paddlewheel boat that graced the Petaluma River for just under five years in the 1990s.
Built in Mendocino by Sonoma County brothers Bill and Neal Barker, the graceful vessel was moored in the Turning Basin, offering dinner cruises up and down the river. Within months, the sight of the Queen in the water became a point of pride for Petalumans, her Disneyland-ish image thrown onto phone books, visitors’ guides, and even represented in the highly visible history mural painted by Steve Della Maggiora on the wall at the corner of Washington and Petaluma Blvd. The boat was eye candy for photographers and catnip for tourists, who were charmed by the site of the craft, which had a certain whimsically effective way of highlighting Petaluma’s reputation as a charming, old-fashioned riverside town.
Then, 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. By then, the 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.
The gambling case went to court, and in June of that year, the Barkers lost (see sidebar for an excerpt from Dave Alcott’s Argus-Courier story that week), and vowed to take the Queen off the Petaluma River, relocating her to some other body-of-water. Within a year, she was gone, her last public cruise on the river taking place in April of 1998. At the time, the Barkers said the Queen was being relocated to the Napa River, where she’d be renamed The Grand Romance.
For most local residents, that was the last they ever heard of the Petaluma Queen, though her memory still lives on in the occasional photo, and that mural passed by thousands of motorists every day.
So where is the Petaluma Queen — excuse me, The Grand Romance — today? That took a bit of digging to uncover. According to various newspaper reports, the Grand Romance never did make much of a splash in Napa, apparently due to permitting issues there. For a few years, she was docked in Vallejo, where the Barkers continued to operate her as a dinner cruise business. Then, in 2001, she left the area entirely, the Barkers accepting an opportunity to ply their paddlewheel trade in Southern California.
Long Beach, to be specific, where a brand new marina had been constructed, and was looking for tenants with a strong tourist appeal. According to a 2012 newspaper article in the Grunion Gazette (seriously, the Grunion Gazette), the Grand Romance — she’s still bearing that name – left Northern California in early September, and spent five days on the ocean, with Bill Barker captaining the craft, slowly making her way down to Long Beach.
As fate would have it, the ship arrived the morning of September 11, 2001. There had been plans to have a celebration when the ship arrived, with a Dixieland band and a dockside party, but by the time the Grand Romance docked at her new home, the 9-11 terrorist attack had taken place, the Twin Towers had fallen, and the country was on lockdown.
TWENTY YEARS AGO
Petaluma’s most visible tourist attraction and its dominant symbol of the town’s come-hither posture for countless Bay Area visitors ran aground this week when a jury convicted owners of the riverboat Petaluma Queen of a misdemeanor for violating a city card-room ordinance.
“Definitely,” fumed defense attorney Paul Neuer when asked Tuesday if the owners, Neal and Bill Barker, were considering moving the life-sized model of a turn-of-the-century paddle-wheeler out of town. The riverboat enjoyed three years of warm acceptance in the city, but hit the shoals of city bureaucracy last year when it added gaming tables.
The photogenic Queen’s image has become ubiquitous in Petaluma’s tourist promotion campaigns and publications. Its eye-catching appearance at the docks at the turning basin projects a “river town” feel.
The Barkers were each found guilty of one count of violating a city ordinance restricting the number of card rooms that can legally operate. The Barkers did not have a city license last summer when they began running a card room operation aboard the Queen on its dinner cruises down river. The Barkers each face a $100 fine.
June 20, 1997, Petaluma Argus-Courier