The iconic original vessel from John Huston’s classic 1951 film “The African Queen,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, is plying Key Largo’s nearshore waters and canals again — and visitors can come aboard to cruise like Captain Charlie and Rose did in the film (without, of course, raging rapids or deadly pursuit by enemy soldiers).
One of the first passengers to take that cruise was Bogart’s son Stephen, who was the guest of honor at the re-launch of the newly restored boat that carried his father in one of his most famous films.
The boat, by the way, is now an astonishing 100 years old and, fittingly, is registered as a national historic site.
The story of the African Queen’s journey to America and recent $70,000 restoration has almost as many twists and turns as the plot of the film.
The African Queen’s 100-year history began when it was built in 1912 in England. Originally named the Livingstone, until 1968 it shuttled cargo, hunting parties and mercenaries on the Congo’s Ruki River for the British East Africa Rail Company — with a “sabbatical” to appear in the film after it was spotted by John Huston.
In 1968, the boat was purchased and shipped to San Francisco, but was stripped of almost all gear. For a while a restaurant owner tried to run tourist trips on the vessel using an outboard engine for propulsion.
Around 1970, a man named Hal Bailey found and purchased the African Queen for the price of the boatyard bill.
He put it into seasonal passenger operation on an Oregon river, and then decided to transfer it to Central Florida for year-round use — but plans fell apart.
In 1982, Florida Keys attorney Jim Hendricks, Sr., a Bogart fan, found the vessel languishing in a Florida pasture and purchased it for a reported $65,000.
By that time, the African Queen needed significant work. After investing another $65,000 or so to get the boat up and running, Jim Hendricks began offering visitors rides in 1983 out of Key Largo’s Holiday Inn.
In 2001, after an admirable tenure afloat, the African Queen suffered a broken engine. It was never fixed, but the historic boat remained on display for curious tourists and film buffs to view.
Last year, Keys residents Captain Lance and Suzanne Holmquist signed a long-term lease with Jim Hendricks’ son to restore and operate the vessel again.
Since then, they’ve overseen repairs to bring the boat back to its appearance in the film — replacing steel in the hull, replacing the boiler and oiling the black African mahogany to condition the wood.
“It’s important to me because I love old movies and films — and just to see the amount of interest that this boat is still generating, even as dilapidated as she had gotten, it was incredible,” enthused Suzanne Holmquist. “I think restoring the African Queen has firmly sealed the tie and connection with the Bogart name to Key Largo.”
Apparently so does Stephen Bogart, who journeyed to Key Largo to see and ride the vessel and help with its re-launching celebration.
“You know, I’ve never really been on many movie sets — and this is like being on a movie set,” he said. “To be able to ride on the African Queen, and to be able to have it back in operation, is absolutely tremendous.”
Visitors can come aboard the historic vessel for 90-minute canal cruises offered several times each day.
Two-and-a-half-hour dinner cruises, featuring a three-course meal at Key Largo’s Pilot House, are offered Friday and Saturday nights.
Want to step back in time and cruise on the boat that carried Bogart and Hepburn? Just call 305-451-8080 to begin your African Queen adventure.