By Carlos Harrison

She may be the only real movie star residing in Key Largo. Certainly she’s the only one still reprising her most famous role on a daily basis. And, surely, she’s the oldest.

The African Queen – yes, the African Queen, the one on which Bogie drank his way to his only Oscar – has been rescued from ruin and restored to her silver screen luster.  Or, at least, to the same mud-spattered and weather-battered glory she was in in 1951, when the movie was made. And, thanks to a husband-and-wife team of boat- and movie-lovers, the steam-powered Queen is merrily clak-clak-clakking her way to sea and back again, on as many as five tours a day.

When Lance and Suzanne Holmquist stepped in, though, the Queen was a rotting hulk with a busted boiler, and about as seaworthy as a sack of hammers. She was also just a year shy of her 100th birthday.

“Every time I would walk by, people were just standing there saying, ‘That’s the African Queen. What a shame,’ ” says Lance. “Because the bottom literally had holes in it.  It would fill up with water from hurricanes or in the rainy season. The rust at the bottom of it actually let the water out. The engine was seized. The boiler was unfixable.”

The Queen was already pushing 40 when director John Huston picked her for the title part in his movie. She was a true African river boat when he found her, built in an English shipyard in 1912, named the S/L Livingstone, and sent directly to the Belgian Congo.

“It was just a shuttle boat,” Suzanne says. “There were lots of them made in those days. There was a big kind of business shuttling everything: cargo, mercenaries, missionaries. Just up and down the river. She’s a total workboat.”

Huston renamed the boat for the movie he was making, and sent her sailing, along with Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, into Hollywood history. When filming ended, it was back to work for the African Queen, plying the rivers of the Congo just as she had before. The boat passed through several hands after that, and moved to the United States in the late 1960s. In 1982, attorney Jim Hendricks, Sr., found her in an Ocala cow pasture, bought her, and brought her to Key Largo.

A decade later, the African Queen was added to the National Register of Historic Places. But, after Hendricks died, the boat fell into disrepair, the property of his estate. In 2011, Lance convinced Suzanne that the historic boat could be a going business. 

They made a deal with the family, installed a new boiler, refinished and repainted the boat’s floor, hull and deck, replaced nearly a fifth of the Queen’s rusted steel plating and got the 1896 Sissons steam engine working again.

Total cost: nearly $90,000.

“I’d say 79 percent of it is original,” Lance says.

The result is an attraction that draws movie buffs from around the globe.  

Beth and Frank Desiderio came from Cape Coral specifically to ride the famous boat, and prepared for their visit with a mini-Bogart film festival.

“We went through every film,” Beth Desiderio begins, before Frank jumps in.

“We saw Key Largo. The African Queen,” he says. “We even threw in Casablanca.  I don’t know why we watched that one.”

The Queen’s captain on the Desiderios’ outing was Wayne Marquardt, who looks more like Hemingway than he does Bogie with his white beard. He gilds his tour with trivia about the movie and the boat, lets passengers pose for pictures as they empty bottles of “Gin,” and teases with lines like, “before we go over the rapids, I’ve got a bucket of leeches I’m going to throw on you guys. I like the double scream.”

Judy McDowell came to Key Largo on a getaway from Birmingham, Ala. Once she learned about the African Queen, she says, she had to go for a ride.

“Oh, my gosh,” she says. “It was one of my favorite Saturday afternoon films. ... To stand here on something this old, what could be better?”

And that’s exactly what Lance Holmquist expected.

“There’s the Titanic. There’s the African Queen. There’s the PT 109. What else is there?” he says. “When you think about history, really, the African Queen is right up there.”

When you go...
The African Queen
Canal cruises, dinner cruises, private events
99701 Overseas Highway, Key Largo