A Paddlewheel Riverboat in the Blue Ridge Mountains

paddlewheel riverboat
The paddlewheel riverboat Dan River Queen in its heyday

You stand on the creaking deck of the paddlewheel riverboat, a relic of a bygone era. The wheel churns the water beneath you, its rhythmic thump echoing through your chest. The bell clangs as you round an island, and calliope music erupts from the steam whistles. You marvel at the sight of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains and wonder how a paddlewheel riverboat came to be 3,000 feet above sea level in Meadows of Dan, Virginia.

The River

Between the Smith and New Rivers on a high plateau of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, abundant springs converge and burst forth in Meadows of Dan. A 17-acre lake forms the headwaters of the Dan River, which flows eastward down the mountain, crisscrossing the Virginia-North Carolina piedmont and ending its journey at the Kerr Reservoir near South Boston, VA.

The Vision

The Dan River Queen was the brainchild of Shirley H. Mitchell, a successful trucking magnate who, in the 1960s, purchased 2,000 acres of land in the Meadows of Dan area of Patrick County, VA. Mitchell, noting the tourism draw of the mountains, determined to build an entertainment complex in the area. He began by building the Circle M Zoo, housing 110 types of animals, a zoo train tour, and picnic areas. The zoo was a hit—drawing between 1,500 and 5,000 visitors each weekend. Mitchell sought to capitalize on the visitors and add mockups of an “Indian” Village, a mountain moonshine still, and add a campground. The Dan River Queen was included in his plans.

The Paddlewheel Riverboat

The boat originated in Kentucky, where the 52-foot hull was constructed in two pieces and shipped through the Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains for assembly and docking at the Cockram Mill on Dan River Lake.

The paddlewheel riverboat was a replica of an old-time paddle-wheeling Mississippi gambling boat. The Queen’s bell came from an old locomotive, and the pilot wheel and maritime gadgets from a decommissioned cargo ship.

The twin-decked Queen was painted white with red, yellow, blue, green, and black trim. It was adorned with hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs reminiscent of a deck of playing cards. The staterooms were papered with velvety wallpaper. A bar offered non-alcoholic sarsaparilla, ginger beer, and “white lightning” soft drinks. The casino boasted a roulette wheel, mock slot machines, and other antique gaming machines.

The boat was built to be used on the lake as a tourist attraction. The Dan River isn’t navigable for a vessel the size of the Queen. Kayaks are better suited for such a trip.

The Queen’s trip around the lake could be made in under an hour. The boat held up to 100 passengers.

paddlewheel riverboat rotting in a field
The Dan River Queen rotting in a field

The Demise of the Dan River Queen

The glory days of the Dan River Queen lasted only 10 years. Sadly, the Dan River Queen, Circle M Zoo, and Mitchell’s property were liquidated at auction. According to Tom Seig, in a 1985 article from the Winston-Salem Journal, “$60 million, a trucking fiefdom, a dozen homes, 116 antique cars, a 2,000-acre Virginia mountain retreat complete with a zoo and a riverboat were all gone.”

The Dan River Queen hasn’t run for nearly 50 years. However, vestiges of its former glory can still be seen at the Cockram Mill complex in Meadows of Dan. The complex is now home to the Longfin Grill, which provides outdoor dining on the back patio overlooking the mill wheel and the Dan River.

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