Delta Queen Fights Back!

| November 2, 2007

This is the second article written , daughter of the man who helped save the Delta Queen 40 years ago. Nori maintains a web site dedicated to Delta Queen and similar steamboats called steamboats.com to this very day. In a coincidence, she is also one of CruiseMates' editors' Paul Motters' dearest friends from childhood.

Since that first article, a group of people have come together again to Save the Delta Queen one more time. In the last article we talked about how a congressional bill had stalled. Now we have news on how regular citizens have persuaded some important politicians to do something about the Delta Queen issue.

The Delta Queen is the last authentic paddlewheel steamboat to carry overnight passengers on the Mississippi River system. She represents the end of an era, which started in the early 1800s, of bright white steamboats with red paddlewheels bringing settlers and supplies to new territories like Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
Churning Up the River   The Paddle Wheel

American cities like New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis were founded solely because of steamboats. But they brought more than immigrants, along with the noble boats came ideas and culture. One example is jazz music, which traveled from New Orleans to Chicago along the river systems.

Samuel Clemens, one of the first - and still one of the most imposing - figures of American literature, romanticized the riverboats in his books, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Twain was himself a steamboat captain for a time, and derived his pen name Mark Twain from his days on the river. It means "mark number two," two fathoms, or twelve feet, a safe depth for a steamboat.

More than a steamboat, Delta Queen represents an entire era of significant U.S. history, when rivers were our first and only supers highway system. In the 1800s, the Mississippi River alone had thousands of paddleboats, and paddleboats also cruised the rivers of Idaho, California, the Northeast, Northwest, and the Great Lakes. Steamboats ruled, until the steam locomotive replaced river travel and most paddle wheelers were destroyed during the Civil War.

The era of American's youth, the 1800s, lives on in the Delta Queen. Any of the boat's repeat passengers will tell you, it is more than a river cruise. It is a trip back in time, revisiting a unique American tradition, the stuff of great literature, and the dream of millions of European immigrants

The Delta Queen - A Registered Historic Landmark

During the 1970 Save the Delta Queen campaign, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the boat a historic place, then in 1989, she earned an even greater designation as a national historic landmark. A plaque from the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service hangs at the top of the grand staircase, framed with American flags, and proclaims: "This site possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America."

These honors are not just symbolic. The Delta Queen is worthy of her status as a national treasure. She is a superb example of ornate steamboat-era design. She is constructed of mahogany, oak, teak, and ironbark, with characteristic long decks, and gracious public spaces. She is as valuable to all Americans as any antiquity, including the Statute of Liberty or Mount Rushmore.

Further, the Delta Queen brings travelers from all over the world to experience the majestic American South. On this cruise we saw historic homes and American artwork in Tuscaloosa, Demopolis, Columbus, Decatur, and Chattanooga. The shore tours are an opportunity for Yankees and foreigners to experience genuine Southern hospitality. Since it has been a tradition since 1946, the people in the towns look forward to the Queen's visits and will miss her.

History of the Delta Queen

Originally built in 1926 for service on the Sacramento River, the Delta Queen was towed (through the Panama Canal) to the Mississippi River and its tributaries in 1946 by the family-owned Greene Line Steamers company. Her homeport was Cincinnati under the Greene Line, but when Coca-Cola bought the boat in 1976, she moved to New Orleans. In the new millennium, she has worked under three successive corporations, the changes due to downturns in the travel industry following September 11 and Hurricane Katrina. However, the cruises are full and she continues to win new friends, as always.

She operates under a Congressional exemption from a 1966 law meant to protect passengers from disasters at sea. Hence the law's original name: the "Safety at Sea" Act. In 1966, when the Safety at Sea Act was making its way through Congress, representatives of Greene Line traveled to Capitol Hill to ask for an amendment to grant their boat an exemption. After all, she does not go out on open waters, but is always within yards of the bank.

My father, Bill Muster, wrote the testimony that Greene Line CEO E.J. Quinby read to the Senate in 1966. Based on this testimony, the boat got a two-year reprieve. The exemptions last from two to ten years, so the boat's representatives have had to go back to Washington for a renewal of the exemption approximately nine times in the last forty-one years.

Except for one time (1970), the Congress has granted the exemption as a matter of course, until now. On August 1, 2007, Majestic America Line, the boat's operator, announced that 2008 would be the final year of operation. In a press release Majestic said, "Despite tremendous efforts by the company, many esteemed partners and thousands of previous guests, the U.S. Congress has decided that the Delta Queen should not continue operating on America's rivers beyond 2008."

Former Greene Line Steamers' President Bill Muster, Vice President Betty Blake, and most of the veterans of the 1970 Save the Delta Queen campaign are all gone now. In light of the tremendous gravity of the situation, and the effort it will take to ensure the preservation of the boat, I formed a committee to "Save the Delta Queen" again. Esteemed members include Mayor John Lewis of Bridgeport, Alabama, a former Greene Line employee; Vicki Webster, White House-Delta Queen liaison under President Nixon in 1970; Franz Neumeier, webmaster of Steamboats.com; Paul Motter, webmaster of Cruisemates.com; members of the Greene family, and myself (Steamboats.com).

Majestic America Lines invited me on the boat to look at the situation and see how we could help. The cruise, Oct. 15 - 22, took us through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

Delta Queen - Authentic Victorian Era Decor

Seeing the boat again, it was clear that she still offers travelers a warm welcome. From a distance she looks like a wedding cake, each layer smaller than the one below. On the back is the paddlewheel, and on the front is the gangway called the "stage," which is long enough to reach from the bow to the riverbank practically anywhere she may stop.

The boat pulls in toward the bank, paddlewheel out to avoid rocks and mud. The passengers board on the stage and go up a quick flight of stairs. They enter the Forward Cabin Lounge, an authentic Victorian-era ship's parlor, which serves as the waiting room for check-in and disembarkation, as well as an observation room while the boat is underway.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
Hoisting the Stage   Inside a lock

The front fifty feet of the room is bowed and lined with fixed pane windows and decorative Tiffany-style glass above the transom. The windows offer 180-degree views of the river, port to starboard and over the bow. It is a functional room with substantial decor, including round pedestal tables and wooden dining chairs, antique European couches, floral-patterned upholstery and carpet, intricate wood and ironwork in the grand staircase, and ornate wooden doors, columns, window frames, and cabinetry.

Further inside, behind the gift store and Purser's Office is a rear cabin lounge, called the Betty Blake Lounge, which houses historical artifacts, an oil portrait of Betty Blake, photos of the Greene family, and other former owners, and other mementos of the boat's history. This lounge, decorated with antiques, offers comfortable sofas for reading, and tables for working puzzles, or writing letters.

About a dozen luxury cabins open into the Betty Blake Lounge; but most staterooms open to the outdoors, along the sides of the three upper decks. Outdoor staircases, the grand staircase, and the stairwells to the Orleans Room and bow are the only access points. This is traditional steamboat style - there are no indoor corridors to escape the weather like modern cruise ships.

There are another half-dozen luxury suites located on the Sun Deck (top floor). Most of the staterooms have a queen-size bed or two twins, but some have bunk beds. The smaller rooms are less expensive, but all staterooms are luxurious. The d�cor is authentic, with Victorian-era details, antique cabinets, floral-patterned carpet, soft, comfortable beds, and thick quilted comforters.

The bathrooms are tiled and decorated to reflect the era, but with modern plumbing. When Delta Queen was built in 1926 many staterooms were intended as add-on rooms for children. In those days, most family homes had only one bathroom, so it was not expected that a child's suite would have its own facilities. Through the years, the boat has been updated. Now every room has its own toilet, sink, and shower, even if some of the showers are small with a low clearance.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
In the Texas Lounge   The Grand Staircase

In the afternoon, cabin attendants turn down the beds and leave an itinerary and daily program for the next day's cruise. All rooms have a window with a view of the river, and convenient rocking chairs and tables. All the decks are open and dotted with rocking chairs; some passengers walk laps around the boat, occasionally moving from one deck to another through the outside stairwells.

Journey to the Past

At the front of the first two levels are large, gracious outdoor decks, furnished with rocking chairs and bench swings. These are favorite places to watch the scenery or observe as the boat goes through a lock. At the back of the boat, passengers have a good view of the paddlewheel. The wheel is half immersed in the river and reaches up to the middle of the first cabin deck. Watching the large pitman arms crank the wheel is an awe-inspiring sight. Passengers are also encouraged to visit the engine room to see the wheel's inner workings. The engine room is a marvel of nineteenth century technology, perfected in this early twentieth century vessel. You stand on the bare steel hull, with walls and ceiling, but the back wall is open in places to allow the steel pistons to thrust back and forth, turning the Pitman arms, which drive the shaft at the center of the wheel. Despite its indoor/outdoor feeling, the engine room is always warm because of the heat from the steam boilers. Steel doors on the floor open into the hull, but passengers are not allowed down there. The temperature in the boiler rooms can reach 140 degrees.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
controls to communicate with the engine room   modern controls in the Pilot House

The bow of the boat, the engine room, and the dining room (called the Orleans Room), are all on the ground floor, just at water level. Below water level, inside the hull, are the boiler rooms and the crews' quarters, which are also hot and noisy. Since the Delta Queen is a historic vessel, passengers are invited for a free tour of the pilothouse at scheduled times when the boat is tied up to shore. This is the room at the front of the boat, atop the Sun Deck, which offers the captain panoramic views of the river. The pilothouse once had a nine-foot wooden steering wheel, where three feet were below the floor. Cables connected the wheel through the boat to the rudders behind the paddlewheel. However, in the 1950s, when one of the cables broke and the boat ended up on a sandbar, the Greene family replaced the wheel with modern steering equipment.

The captain navigates, but to use the gears and speed controls, he must communicate with the chief engineer, stationed at the stern. The engineering crew controls the speed and direction of the paddlewheel. When the captain turns his navigation levers in the pilothouse, identical equipment in the engine room registers his commands, and the engineers respond. If that system fails, the captain has about a dozen more options for communication.

The original equipment included a voice pipe, a hollow tube to carry voices from the pilothouse to the stern. That is now used only in emergencies. Layers of more efficient technology include radios, intercoms, computers, cell phones, and the Internet. All equipment is tested at the beginning of each cruise. The captain also has radios and radar to keep track of other boats and objects along the river. All vessels use their whistles to signal what side they will use to pass each other in the channel. The boat coming down river has the right to make the decision.

Cuisine and Entertainment

Meals are served in the Orleans Room three times a day throughout each cruise. Breakfast and lunch are open seating with both a buffet and sit-down menu; dinner is assigned seating, in two sittings. A typical dinner menu offers several soup and salad choices, plus main entr�es such as lobster, steak, seafood, or pasta. Every menu offers vegetarian options like vegetable jambalaya, or traditional beans and rice. On Friday, the chefs prepared an old-fashioned Southern picnic of fried chicken, barbecued ribs, corn on the cob, macaroni salad, and watermelon. The nightly deserts ranged from luscious seven layer chocolate cake to orange meringue pie to bread pudding with a warm whisky sauce.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
front deck of the Delta Queen   The Delta Queen Gift Shop

The bars serve mint juleps, Margaritas, house cocktails, as well as soft drinks, and a variety of beers and wines. Passengers can get a snack twenty-four hours a day in the Forward Cabin Lounge, which has baskets of fresh fruit, a refrigerator stocked with sandwiches and yoghurt, and a coffee and tea service. Hot dogs, fresh popped popcorn, and appetizer buffets are available throughout the day in the Texas Lounge. A popular addition since moving to the Mississippi is the Texas Lounge bar, added in 1969. Located at the top of the grand staircase, the room was once an observation lounge like the Forward Cabin Lounge. Now it's the main center of activity, with daily live music by a four-piece jazz band that travels with the boat: Walter Kross and Riverboat Rhythm. It is also the site of raucous crowd-pleasing games, bingo included, daily tour talks, parties, and free wireless Internet connection, when coverage is available.

Each day, the band's piano player, Tony Schwartz, or Discovery Guide Travis C. Vaasconcelos, play the calliope, which is an authentic steam piano, located outside on the Sun Deck, near the paddlewheel. The cheerful sound of its whistles radiate seven miles in all directions, notifying anyone in the area that a steamboat is passing through. There is a nightly party in the Orleans Room, where the band plays a different theme each night. The first night is a dance party, successive evenings are for banjo music, show tunes, or Dixieland. A Moonlight Buffet is served at 10:15 P.M., after the entertainment.

A Queen in Need of Saving

As mentioned, the Queen is a designated a national historic landmark by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She has been kept alive in her nascent state as a working passenger vessel through repeated Congressional acts exempting her from the 1966 Safety at Sea Law. Besides complying with all safety codes and doing everything necessary to pass U.S. Coast Guard inspections, the Delta Queen has received continuous upgrades like non-skid deck coating, additional lifeboats, state-of-the-art fire detection sprinkler systems and fire retardant paint developed by NASA. If someone so much as lights a cigarette in one of the staterooms, the fire crew will arrive within minutes. The boat has professionally-trained fire fighters onboard at all times.

Still, for some inexplicable reason, this is the year the committee chairmen in both the House and Senate have decided to block the boat's exemption by calling her a "fire hazard." After all these years, and all the exemptions, the Safety at Sea Law now threatens the continuation of the boat's service despite the fact she never goes on the sea and is always within reach of the safety of shore. It is an unthinkable blow to justice to force the Delta Queen out of business. The Delta Queen is safe, and if any problems develop, they can be fixed.

A Few Options for the Delta Queen

As the daughter of one of the people who took care of the boat from 1966 to 1976, I believe that my dad, Bill Muster, would know exactly how to handle this situation - if he were here. His original work helped to keep Delta Queen alive for the last forty-one years.

In my opinion, the worst thing that could happen would be if the Delta Queen were neglected and allowed to sink, or if her Certificate of Inspection were to expire and she ended up in a boatyard. Something like this happened to her identical twin, the Delta King, which sank on the Sacramento River. Fortunately, the Delta King was restored about twenty years ago and now serves with dignity as a hotel-restaurant and mystery theater in California's capital city, Sacramento. It happens that Sacramento and New Orleans are sister cities, and Old Town Sacramento was built to resemble the French Quarter, with small shops and restaurants. Old Town also has the Spirit of Sacramento, an excursion paddle wheeler that gives rides. Although the Delta King had problems to overcome after World War II, the boat continues to make a contribution.

The second worst-case scenario for the Delta Queen would be if she were shipped overseas, like the much-beloved British vessel, the Queen Elizabeth II. Over her forty-year life, the QE2 has crossed the Atlantic more than eight hundred times and circled the globe twenty-five times. The QE2 will have a great second life as a hotel and entertainment spot in Dubai, but the Delta Queen is one of only two United States historic places that move; the other being the San Francisco trolley cars. She must stay in our country. The final, worst-case scenario would be if the boat were to be sold to a casino and tied up on the Mississippi River as a gambling boat. Most everyone, including the Greene family, the original owners, would agree that this would tarnish the Delta Queen's legacy. Plus it would require extensive renovation.

The fans of the Delta Queen and members of the committee want her to continue to operate as an overnight passenger vessel, as she has for most of her eighty-one years. If the people who love the Queen can rally Congress, the Queen can continue to run. I believe that with the proper care, the boat can safely carry passengers for another hundred years.

There is still time to get the exemption this year. Ask your Congressperson to support H.R. 3852 to extend the exemption ten more years. Go to Thomas.loc.gov, enter H.R. 3852 in the search window, and click to search by bill number to read it. In addition, call your two U.S. Senators and ask them to introduce save the Delta Queen legislation. The exemption must pass both the House and the Senate to become a law.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
Typical Alabama home   A Southern Queen Anne Style house

You can ask your mayor to pass a Save the Delta Queen resolution. At this time, more than two hundred cities have resolutions. The first resolution, from Bridgeport, Alabama, is posted at Steamboats.com. You can also contact the convention and visitors' bureaus, chambers of commerce, and departments of tourism in the cities where the Delta Queen stops. Inform them of the effort to save the Queen and encourage them to contact their legislators. Be sure to contact your local newspapers and TV stations to tell them you are following this issue and want to hear news as it comes up. Write a letter to the editor, too.

One of the easiest things people can do is keep hope alive. Now is the time to take action to save her! Web sites for news of the campaign are: steamboats.com, steamboats.org, save-the-delta-queen.org, and savethedeltaqueen.com.

Recommended Articles