The tradition of Showboats continues to live on in Nashville, Tennessee along the Cumberland River thanks to The General Jackson Showboat.
Showboats have been a colorful part of history in the United States dating back to the early 1800s.
It’s named after the first steamboat to operate on the Cumberland River in 1817 which was named after President Andrew Jackson, whose historic home — The Hermitage — is located 15 minutes from the dock.
Built by the largest inland shipbuilder in the United States, Jeffboat, located in Indiana, The General Jackson was launched on the Cumberland River on April 20, 1985 (more on its history later).
Since the beginning, talented entertainers have been making The General Jackson Showboat an experience to remember.
With a rotating cast of 15 performers, it operates most days at noon for lunch and again in the evening at 7 pm for dinner.
My wife Ashley and I recently had the pleasure of being hosted on the “Sunday in the South” brunch cruise – one of the most unique experiences during our July 4 long weekend trip to Nashville.
The dock is located near the Grand Ole Opry that’s about a 15-minute drive from downtown Nashville.
Boarding began at 11:15 am for a noon departure along the river. After a photo opportunity with the Showboat as the backdrop, guests were guided to the two-story Victorian Theater in the center of the boat.
As soon as we entered the doors the buffet was waiting with fresh fruit, salad, scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, waffles and biscuits and gravy.
It was then time to find our seats – the table number was printed on the ticket. At the center of the table were a selection of pastries for the table to share. We were seated next to three lovely ladies: one from Hawaii who was visiting Nashville with two friends from Japan. Before long our waiter came over and we ordered bottomless mimosas (it was brunch, after all!). Specialty cocktails, beer and wine were also available to purchase.
As the cruise left the dock at noon, the curtain was raised and a group of performers came on stage.
These energetic singers and dancers brought the room to life with their inspiring melodies. You’ll hear old-time favorites like “Good Ole Gospel Ship,” “Down by the Riverside” and “In The Garden,” plus sounds of today’s contemporary Christian music with songs like “Awesome God” and “Nothing Is Impossible.”
The show finished around 1:15 pm – just in time to head out to one of the decks to take in the sights and sounds of downtown Nashville. The high rises made for a great photo as people on shore waved as the boat went by.
The boat turned around in this downtown stretch of the river and began to head back toward the dock (a round trip to downtown Nashville and back is 14 miles).
The rooftop Hurricane Deck was the most lively part of the boat with its outdoor bar with shade. Here you can enjoy more live music if you don’t mind the heat and humidity of the South.
Take the stairs down one level and you’ll find The Texas Deck that has a gift shop and Heritage Hall (this space is available for private events and weddings). Outside there’s covered seating that faces toward the front of the boat.
The next level down is called the Upper Deck. It has outdoor balconies on all four sides of the boat – head to the back to see the best view of the Paddle Wheel. Head inside and you can sit on the upper level of the Victorian Theater to take in the views of the river in the comfort of air-conditionings.
The Main Deck (level one of the Victorian Theater) also remains open for anyone wanting to enjoy the rest of the cruise in cool comfort (the boat docks at about 2:45 pm).
It didn’t take long once onboard to recognize The General Jackson was an elegant triumph of American ingenuity.
The boat is reminiscent of the opulence of the American Victorian era with its elegant lacy filigree and stately design.
The rebirth of Nashville’s Showboat Era has a fascinating history.
About 150 years after the original steamer was lost, The General Jackson was on the minds and drawing boards of Gaylord Entertainment Company, owner of the Grand Ole Opry.
Plans were made to add the grandest attraction to Nashville. After it was built in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and launched into the Ohio River, the vessel was a spectacle to be seen even before her authentic paddle wheel ever made a single turn.
On April 20, 1985, hundreds of people gathered for the launching ceremony hosted by Porter Wagoner. At the blow of a wooden steamboat whistle, the General Jackson brought showboating back to the river.
The General Jackson was officially christened during a grand ceremony on July 2, 1985.
Thousands gathered at Rivefront Park on the banks of the Cumberland River to her Ol’ Man River sung by William Warfield and river lore from Mark Twain.
Mrs. Thelma Gaylord did the honors as she broke the traditional bottle of champagne against the hull of the vessel.
Captain Edgar Allen Poe was selected as the General Jackson’s Senor Master. A fourth generation riverboat captain, Poe spent nearly his entire life traveling the inland waterways. Captain Poe passed away in late 1993, but not before leaving behind a legacy of skilled officers whom still operate the vessel today.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the General Jackson.
In the flood of 2010, as much as 13 inches of rain in 40 hours drove the Cumberland River out of her banks. The swollen tributary rose 42’ at the gauge in Nashville displacing thousands and causing damage along miles of river.
A crew of 10 deckhands and captain lived onboard the vessel for five days to ensure she would not leave her moorings. The vessel suffered no damage, but the area would take two years to recover from this historic event.
If you’re looking for stunning views, a nice meal and toe-tapping entertainment, make sure to book your spot next time you’re in Nashville.
For more information on the General Jackson, visit www.generaljackson.com.