More than 50 years after he first served as an 18-year-old deckhand on board the steamer Delta Queen, Capt. Alan Bernstein still loves the river just as much.
Bernstein, who with his family operates BB Riverboats, was honored January 26 as a 2023 achievement award winner by the National Rivers Hall of Fame. Bernstein’s award was presented at the Passenger Vessel Association’s annual convention in Portland, Ore.
The achievement is the highest honor given by the Hall of Fame in recognition of an individual’s contributions to America’s waterways.
In announcing the award, the Hall of Fame noted Bernstein’s lifelong passion and dedication to the industry as well as his commitment to its history and culture.
BB Riverboats operates two riverboats inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard: the Belle of Cincinnati and the River Queen. The boats take passengers up and down the river from their home port of Newport, Ky.
Bernstein has served the industry as a past president of the Passenger Vessel Association in 1988 and as an active member thereafter. Additionally, he received the national Tiffany award in 1992 for his role in bringing about Cincinnati’s Tall Stacks Celebration. He has also served on the executive board of the Northern Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and is a founding member of the Central Ohio River Business Association (CORBA).
Bernstein helped create the National Steamboat Monument on the Cincinnati riverfront. The monument displays the original paddlewheel from the steamboat American Queen. He was named the Louisville Propeller Club’s 2015 Maritime Person of the Year in connection with work he performed there in helping to preserve and protect the Belle of Louisville steamer. He was also named CORBA’s Friend of the River last year.
“I’m speechless, and most people who know me find that very difficult to believe,” Bernstein said about receiving the National Rivers Hall of Fame achievement award, adding that he was humbled and honored.
In his early years, Bernstein served with Bill Muster and under National River Hall of Fame inductee Betty Blake in a campaign to save the Delta Queen. This work proved to be key as he and his father moved from the restaurant business to offering passenger cruising beginning in 1980.
The B’s in BB Riverboats stand for his father, Ben Bernstein, and for Blake. The company’s first vessel was named the mv. Betty Blake, and she served as a consultant for the business in the early days. She also was “a second mother,” to Bernstein, he said.
Although Blake lost her battle to cancer in April 1982, the lessons she taught Bernstein, along with his father, helped BB Riverboats to continue to thrive, he said.
Those lessons included working until the job was done, even if that was 80 or 90 hours a week, he said, and doing so with a smile.
“My father skipped his high school graduation to experience the river system for the first time aboard the Steamer Delta Queen,” said Alan’s son, Capt. Ben Bernstein, who serves as the chief financial officer for BB Riverboats. “He tells all who will listen how the river gets in your blood and becomes a part of you. He crafted an entire career around his love for the river and everything surrounding the industry.
He added, “To say that our family is proud of all that he has accomplished would be a supreme understatement. There is no person more deserving of the honor and recognition that this award brings, and it showcases all of the dedication, hard work and passion he has exhibited throughout his illustrious and now Hall of Fame career.”
Bernstein’s daughter, Terri Bernstein, now serves as the company’s CEO.
“There’s really no more deserving person than him,” she said. “He has made a huge difference in the river community with Tall Stacks and just his involvement and his interactions with the Coast Guard and the Passenger Vessel Association. I think he has paved the way for a lot of people.”
Both of the younger Bernsteins were on hand at the conference to see their father receive the award, as they both serve on committees within the association.
Alan Bernstein received his first master license in 1981 and currently holds a master license of 1600 tons, an inland master license of 100 tons and an unlimited master of towing license for western rivers.
Bernstein said he hopes he can continue to use his voice to support the industry moving forward.
“I hope that I can continue to make people aware of commercial boating and the passenger vessel world and certainly making people aware of the Hall of Fame,” he said. “It’s a great facility up there.”
He said he owes many people thanks and wanted to express his gratitude but was hesitant to name names for fear of leaving someone out.
He also wanted to take time to show his appreciation for the “young people” who continue to work hard every day in positions both on the river and on shore.
“There have been all kinds of things thrown at the industry, and we’ve been able to survive it over the years,” he said.
While Bernstein no longer goes to the office every day, he said that at 72 he has no plans to retire. It helps, he said, to know he’s passing it along to the next generation of family, just as his father did before him.
“My daughter and son are very, very capable,” he said. “They have grown the business. They have just done great, and I’m so proud.”
Bernstein said he is also excited to see that his grandchildren Emma, 15, and Elam, 11, also have an interest in the business.
“It has been a real honor to watch them grow up,” he said. “They’re two great kids.”
The National Rivers Hall of Fame was established in 1985. Its goal is to collect, preserve and share the stories of the men and women who have had a significant impact America’s river system. The Hall of Fame is located at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa.
Caption for photo: Capt. Alan Bernstein of BB Riverboats received a 2023 Achievement Award from the National Rivers Hall of Fame on January 26 at the Passenger Vessel Association conference in Portland, Ore. Pictured are (left to right), Tommy Lange, Terri Bernstein, Alan Bernstein, Ben Bernstein and Wendy Scardino. (Photo courtesy of BB Riverboats)