Six decades after appearing in the classic film 'The African Queen,' the 100-year-old steamboat is now transporting passengers once more in the Florida Keys. NBC's Mark Potter reports.
By Dan Shepherd
KEY LARGO – A steamboat featured in the classic 1951 movie “The African Queen,” has found new life in the Florida Keys, put back into service after a strenuous renovation project by the husband and wife team of Lance and Suzanne Holmquist of Key Largo, Fla.
The couple, who own a local charter boat company, told NBC News they had no idea the amount of time and effort involved in getting it restored at the back of the dusty boatyard in Key Largo, but for Lance, keeping it historically accurate was important to him and his family.
"To me, keeping it as close to correct was my goal. It was a labor of love and I enjoyed it very much," said Lance, 51. "It just made me feel great, and a lot of people were very interested in the boat and I feel privileged to even do it."
Suzanne, a 36-year-old film history buff, said she had underestimated the impact the boat would have on the community.
"It didn't really become apparent until we were just weeks into it and we'd taken the boat home. People were just showing up in droves at the boatyard to see her being worked on, and then we realized, 'Oh my goodness, she really is special.'"
Lance and Suzanne Holmquist describe restoring the iconic boat African Queen and its role in history.
The ship, powered by a temperamental boiler and clattering old steam engine, was built in 1912, the same year as the Titanic. Before the trusty work boat made its debut in the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, it was used to ferry missionaries, mercenaries and cargo in the Belgian Congo on Lake Victoria.
"It just seems that even if you knock her down she just keeps coming back time and time again, so I just think you just really can't knock her down," Suzanne said. "She's just going to keep coming back."
Suzanne and her husband invested more than $75,000 in renovating the African Queen, which has been fully outfitted with a new boiler and steam engine. The ship now glides through the canals of Port Largo, with the occasional steam whistle blow to remind people that she's alive and well, sailing the world again.
Jimmy Hendricks, Jr., who also lives in Key Largo, owns the boat and leases it to the Holmquists. He said he couldn't be happier with how the renovation turned out. His dad, Jim Hendricks, Sr., bought the African Queen in 1982 after rescuing it from a horse pasture in Ocala, Fla. For a while, it even sailed the sea at various nautical events around the world, including England, Ireland, New York and Australia.
"I can't imagine a greater tribute to my father than that whistle blowing on a daily basis ... I think he's smiling,” he said. “She's (the African Queen) a piece of history, it's a piece of history that needs to move forward."
The African Queen sails almost every day of the week, filled with tourists and loyal film aficionados looking to recapture some of the movie's original magic. Phyllis Frey drove 500 miles round-trip from her home in Vero Beach, and says it was well worth the time.
"There's nothing else like it in the world, it's one of a kind. You can see in the movie how much Bogart loves this boat ... it was his life, he was connected to it," she said. "It's the same thing here, you can see Suzanne and Lance putting all that love and work into this.”
And Lance sees the excitement every time the passengers get on the boat.
"People are thrilled to be on this boat,” he said. “They are traveling from all over Florida at the drop of a hat. And when they sit here, they're just thrilled, you know. They're thrilled... she's old, she's rustic looking, it's not a luxury cruise, but they're just thrilled to be on her.”
It is, indeed, a thrill to be on her but, more importantly, this tough, old boat is once again in a starring role.