As the Delta Queen left Pittsburgh for a recent 10-day Ohio River cruise, the last of America’s wooden paddlewheel steamers played its famous calliope for passengers and swarms of fans gathered along the banks of the Allegheny and Ohio rivers.
This scene is a typical one that has played out since 1927 along America’s great waterways. But it’s not business as usual. A “Save the Delta Queen” banner hangs from the deck railing reflecting the hope that this will not be the last summer for this historic boat.
The Delta Queen’s survival is threatened by a 1966 federal fire safety law called the Safety at Sea Act, which prohibits any wooden vessel with more than 50 passengers from making overnight voyages. The boat carries 174 passengers and 80 crew. Despite the law, the Delta Queen has won nine congressional exemptions. The latest will expire in October, and efforts in Washington to renew it have failed thus far.
Why, after 40 years, is the exemption about to be pulled? The reasons appear to be political.
Majestic America Line, which operates the Delta Queen along with four other steamboats, says the real opposition has been Congressional allies of the Seafarers International Union. The union represented the Delta Queen’s crew for more than 30 years, until Majestic America took over the boat in 2006 and made them non-union. Since then, two union-friendly congressmen, Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota and Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii have actively pursued to permanently dock the Delta Queen, stating the ship isn’t meeting safety standards.
Majestic America is quick to point out that the Delta Queen has an excellent safety record despite its wooden superstructure. The hull is made of steel and the wood has been coated with fire-resistant paint, every room is equipped with heat and smoke detectors, and modern sprinkler and electronic monitoring systems have been installed. Additionally, there is a guard on duty who patrols the ship during the night. Also, like big cruise ships, the Delta Queen’s passengers and crew undergo a fire and boat drill at the beginning of each cruise.
If Congressional opposition wasn’t a big enough obstacle there’s another issue. Ambassadors International, the parent company of Majestic America Line, announced last month that it is selling its steamboat business to concentrate on its international cruise line, Windstar. The company says it’s hopeful that it will find a buyer who will continue to operate all its steamboats.
The Delta Queen was built in 1926 to transport passengers and cargo on California’s waterways. During World War II, the boat was called into military service in order to transport troops on the West Coast. In 1947 the boat was decommissioned and was purchased by Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, who transported the boat on a barge through the Panama Canal, to its new home where it would cruise the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers.
“The Delta Queen has soul,” says Mary Charlton, the boat’s historian. As I walked with Charlton around the Delta Queen, I have to agree with her soulful assessment. The Delta Queen is a product of a by-gone era with its stained-glass windows, elegant red mahogany woodwork, and rare Siamese ironwood floors.
Charlton points out the 32-whistle, steam-driven calliope whose 44-karat gold-plated pipes fill the air with happy tunes each evening as the boat cruises. She then shows me the original bell that came from a steamboat Mark Twain rode on in the 1880s when he was researching his book “Life on the Mississippi.”
Indeed, history is everywhere around the Delta Queen.
“She is the only remaining example of a time when our rivers were our superhighways,” adds Charlton. She says for that reason the boat has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
As the Delta Queen left Pittsburgh many fans drove six miles downriver to meet the boat at its first lock, Emsworth Lock and Dam. As the boat entered the 110-by 600-foot chamber the calliope bellows out “The Pennsylvania Polka.”
Within minutes of the first notes, a traffic jam had formed on the roads leading to the dam. People crowded against the metal fencing to get a better view and many came equipped with cameras and camcorders in hand. For most, the opportunity to wave to passengers and watch the technical marvel of the lock was a fun change of pace.
However, for some the vision of the Delta Queen lowering in the lock was a somber one. Pittsburgh residents Ellen and Bill Simpson had chased the Delta Queen downriver because it might be the last time they see it. With tears in her eyes, Ellen talked about how much the boat means to them. The couple has cruised on the Delta Queen a half dozen times over the years and hopes to be able to continue doing so. “It’s an American classic,” said Ellen. “We must save it.”
If the Delta Queen is spared, it won’t be the first time. In 1970 the boat had a jazz funeral in New Orleans before winning a last-minute exemption. Let’s hope the politicians in Washington wake up and grant this great steamboat the exemption it truly deserves.
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