The Portland Spirit operates a fleet of five boats, including the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler. Offering a variety of cruises including Champagne brunch, lunch, dinner, sightseeing and various specialty/holiday cruises. Between the beautiful scenery, friendly employees, fresh Northwest cuisine, talented entertainment and distinctive vessels, we have all the ingredients for a great cruise experience.
Portland Spirit History
The Portland Spirit, Willamette Star, Crystal Dolphin and Explorer vessels are locally owned and locally operated by American Waterways, Inc., which began operations in 1994. The Portland Spirit company also operates the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler and Locks Waterfront Grill in the Port of Cascade Locks, Oregon. We employ approximately 150 people seasonally and performs about 2,000 cruises annually.
AWI mission is to provide excellence in river dining. All of our vessels are beautifully appointed, temperature-controlled and offer extensive beverage options.
American Waterways, Inc. (dba “Portland Spirit”) was founded in 1991 and its first project was a joint venture whale-watching cruise company called San Juan Sealife Cruises out of Everett, WA. In early 1994, AWI sold its share of San Juan Sealife Cruises and focused exclusively on the Portland market.
In March of 1994, AWI chartered the M/V Star Dancer, a 150-foot, 540-passenger vessel, from Pacific Marine of Hawaii and renamed the vessel the Spirit of Portland. Against all odds, The Star Dancer sailed across the Pacific Ocean to Portland traveling at a brisk top speed of 8 knots, taking over a month to reach its final destination. The boat was quickly remodeled and pressed into service in early May, 1994. AWI’s goal was to become the first dinner boat in the nation that gave each party a private table, live entertainment and freshly prepared food on board. Sounds simple, but in 1994 it was revolutionary and extremely difficult to do. Even after achieving ground-breaking accomplishments in the river boat industry, the first year of operation for the Spirit of Portland was difficult and the company struggled to meet payroll. On January 1, 1995, Dan Yates and his Uncle Wayne Kingsley purchased the company, made payroll and changed the name of the vessel to Portland Spirit.
AWI is now a local family and employee-owned company. Many of our employees have been with AWI for several years and about ten are owners of the company.
- 1996 — AWI had the M/Y Willamette Star, a 75-foot, 149-passenger yacht, custom-built in LaCrosse, WI by Skipperliner Industries. The Star was trucked out and assembled in Boardman, Oregon. The Star was designed to offer our clients more booking options and to provide small groups the opportunity to host exclusive events.
- 1997 — AWI participated in the purchase of eight acres of downtown Portland waterfront at 110 SE Caruthers Street. Near OMSI, Caruthers Landing is home to the Portland Spirit, its maintenance facility, office building and dock.
- 1998 — AWI completely remodeled all passenger areas of the Portland Spirit. The $750,000 remodel added 40 seats and renewed the interior. In December of 1998, AWI purchased the Crystal Dolphin, an 84-foot, 140-passenger yacht. In November of 1999, the Crystal Dolphin had a $250,000 remodel which completely upgraded all passenger spaces and galley.
- 2000 — AWI built more than 300 feet of dock at our SE Caruthers Street location. The dock provides 800 amps of electrical power, sewage pump-out, potable water, fuel and computer hookups.
- 2003 — AWI cut the Willamette Star in half and extended her by 18 feet. The extension increased her seating from 65 to over 100. The Star was also completely remodeled during the extension project.
- 2004 — The Portland Spirit was repowered with new, environmentally friendly engines and generators. In the Spring of 2004, the Explorer Jetboat (previously named the Outrageous) was purchased from Lake Meade Cruises and started operations. Cinnamon Bear returned to Portland when AWI obtained the rights and launched our first annual Cinnamon Bear Cruise. Cinnamon Bear has captured the hearts of children for over 70 years and in 2007 we published the first children Cinnamon Bear book.
- 2006 — AWI entered into a long term contract to operate the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler out of Cascade Locks. Since 2007, AWI has invested more than 1.5 million dollars into the Cascade Locks operation. At the dock in Cascade Locks, we feature our land-based restaurant, Locks Waterfront Grill.
- 2015 — The interior décor of the Portland Spirit was refreshed and interior stairwell to the Columbia Deck was rebuilt.
- 2019 — AWI launches the Bigfoot Adventure Cruise in partnership with Cliff Barackman (featured on Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot) on the Explorer Jetboat.
- 2022 — The galley (kitchen) of the Portland Spirit was completely gutted and brand new kitchen equipment and flooring was installed. AWI also launched a new state-of-the-art GPS-triggered narration system on the Portland Spirit with an app that allows you to listen to the narration inside the boat with headphones.
We strive to make every cruise special. AWI is proud of how the Portland Spirit has become the centerpiece of downtown Portland waterfront and the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler a major tourist attraction in the Columbia Gorge national scenic area. Dedicated employees, great boats and beautiful rivers combine to make AWI a world class operation.