African Queen to be restored to former seedy glory

The African Queen, the 28-foot steamship made famous by the eponymous 1951 movie The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, will soon be restored to the grungy-but-determined riverboat that made it a star. The boat has been rusting in dry dock next to the Key Largo Holiday Inn since 2002 when its late owner, Jim Hendricks, lawyer and the owner of the Key Large Holiday Inn, passed away.

His son, also named Jim Hendricks, has leased the boat for 10 years to charter boat captain, business owner and passionate restorer of classic boats Capt. Lance Holmquist. Holmquist and his wife Suzanne plan to spend tens of thousands of dollars restoring the African Queen. Once she’s in running order — the restoration is expected to take at least two months — the Holmquists will offer inland water tours on the African Queen. No word on whether any of the itineraries include getting stuck in the reeds and make some poor drunken Bogey impersonator tow the boat by hand through leech-infested shallows. (For the record, I would take that tour. I would take the hell out of that tour.)

The African Queen was born the S/L Livingstone in Britain in 1912. Built by the Abdela & Mitchell shipyards in Brimscombe, Gloucestershire, the open-hulled steamship was sent to Africa overland and used by the British East Africa Railway Company to transport cargo and passengers over the Ruki River and Lake Albert in the Belgian Congo (now the DR Congo) and Uganda. It was idling in Uganda when director John Huston and producer Sam Spiegel discovered it while scouting locations for the movie in 1950.

They secured the vessel, renamed it the African Queen and pressed it into service for the shoot. The challenges it and the cast and crew had to endure during filming were numerous. The film was shot in Technicolor which required large specialized cameras, unwieldy at the best of times and particularly difficult to haul through malaria and dysentery-infected water in the sweltering jungle heat. Everyone but Bogey and Huston got sick. Bogey attributed his indomitable good health to having eaten only canned baked beans and asparagus and drunk only whiskey.

The movie was a huge success, the top money-maker of the year, and it earned Humphrey Bogart an Oscar, his only one, for Best Actor in a Leading Role. After the boat became a superstar, it went through various changes of ownership and condition. In 1982, Jim Hendricks found himself with $65,000 left over from a bank loan he had secured to build an addition to the Key Largo Holiday Inn. The bank told him to do something sensible with it. He bought the African Queen.

Hendricks kept it in good condition, piloting it himself on the inland waterways of the Florida Keys. In 1992, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. After Hendricks’ death, his son was unable to keep it running but always hoped he’d have the opportunity to restore it as a tribute to his father. The Holmquists will make that dream a reality.