RICHMOND -- Construction has begun on a paddlewheel vessel that will conduct cruises on the James River in Richmond.

A Louisiana shipyard began cutting steel last week for the Annabel Lee, a paddlewheel boat that will bring a modern version of life on the Mississippi to the James River beginning in May.

Thomas M. Mountjoy, president of Residential Concepts Inc., said that three weeks of negotiations over docking near Richmond's Intermediate Terminal, where the boat will tie up, had been concluded successfully.

"I now have the commitments needed and a contingency plan if anything comes up," Mountjoy said.

He said that he immediately notified Service Marine Industries Inc. in Morgan City, La., to begin construction, committing himself and 25 other investors to the $1 million project.

"We've already started," said Eustis Thibodaux of Service Marine. "We've got a contract to meet or else we start getting penalized. I expect we'll get finished ahead of schedule."

Mountjoy announced plans for the 600-passenger boat in November but backed away somewhat in December when potential docking problems arose.

The boat should be ready for its first public cruise May 20, a week later than originally expected.

The shipyard's delivery deadline is May 1, and the boat will travel under its own power to Richmond via the Intracoastal Waterway.

"It's a right good boat on partially protected water," said Thibodaux. "Now you wouldn't want to be on it in open seas but it'll do fine on the river."

The 108-by-34-foot shallow-draft paddlewheeler will have two decks with galleys and dining and dance floors.