During creation of the park, it was decided to recreate the Mark Twain Riverboat from Disneyland and to add a second "big boat" alongside the canoes and keelboats that would sail the Frontierland River. The choice quickly fell on a classic side-wheeler to complement the Mark Twain which has its paddle wheel mounted on the stern of the ship.
The Imagineers, led by Frontierland show producer Jeff Burke, opted to give the ship a female name and "personality" and soon decided on the larger-than-life character of "Molly" Brown. Margaret Brown, née Tobin, was the wife of J. J. Brown who struck it rich during the gold rush – fitting in perfectly with the Frontierland story. She furthermore grew up in the same town as (and reportedly even met) Mark Twain. Many years later she would survive the Titanic tragedy and become known as the "Unsinkable Molly Brown."
Concept art © Disney
The ship itself was inspired by riverboats on the Sacramento river. Nautical engineer Ray Wallace, who had previously helped design the Sailing Ship Columbia at Disneyland in the 1950s, was asked to lend his expertise to the creation of the vessel. It would feature a large covered paddle wheel on each side, a single smokestack and a so-called walking-beam engine. Unlike its sister ship, however, it would not actually operate on steam but on a Diesel-powered electric engine.
The riverboat was given an opulent color palette of turquoise, orange and gold to provide a contrast to the more masculine Mark Twain. Inspired by a Sacramento sidewheeler called Delta Queen, Jeff Burke added the title "Queen of the River" to the the wheel-houses covering the paddle wheels. Earlier they were planned to sport the text "Western River Line," a reference to the never-built Walt Disney World attraction Western River Expedition that had already inspired the name Thunder Mesa.
The ship's pilot-house and several other interiors were decked out with actual antique machinery and furniture, collected by Imagineer John Patrick Burke. If you ask the crew nicely you might be allowed to visit the pilot-house and admire the collection which includes a brass binnacle and an engine order telegraph with bell.
For its first nineteen years, the ship's on-board audio system played French dialogue between Captain "Bill" and Molly Brown herself, accompanied by a calm piece of Western music called "The Mark Twain" and the Firehouse Five Plus Two song "Milenberg Joys."
As the ship's 20th anniversary approached, the entire Molly Brown riverboat was visibly worn from harsh weather conditions and daily use. A few years earlier, in May 2005, it had also been damaged by an engine room fire during a cruise; the vessel was swiftly evacuated in mid-river with nobody injured but the event added to the regular wear and tear.
It became clear that the boat would need to be stripped to its bare bones and rebuilt from the inside out. The Imagineers decided to use this opportunity and change the ship's colors and details to establish it more firmly as a riverboat in the American West. To this end, it was given a warmer color scheme of yellows, reds and ochres; a California flag was added to its masts and the side would actually read "Western River Line" this time around.
Photo by Megan Prine
On March 25, 2011, the all-new Molly Brown was inaugurated by Buffalo Bill and the Disneyland Paris ambassadors. It set sail with new decoration in some of its compartments and a new soundtrack, featuring bilingual narration and three folk songs ("Wind That Shakes the Barley," "Ragtime Annie" and "Git Along, Little Doggies") replacing the old time jazz tune Milenberg Joys.
New graphics and artwork are on display throughout the boat to support the revised theme. Alongside the flag of California, the masts display the flag and the Naval Jack of the United States, each with 38 stars appropriate for the 1880s time period of Frontierland, matching the original concept.
In the meantime, at the time of writing, the Mark Twain is stored underneath a themed scrim at the Dry Dock, awaiting its own return to form.
As a bonus, here's CafeFantasia's great video of a trip on the Molly Brown:
And to conclude, something you don't see every day… Since the Mark Twain is stored at the Dry Dock, any repairs or maintenance on the Molly Brown has to be done at the Riverboat Landing for now. This provided us with this rare view of the ship's exposed paddle wheel earlier this year: