Delta Queen Rights Restored

| Thursday, 26 Sept. 2013

The Delta Queen Steamboat - authentic steam paddle power

The oldest steamboat in America regains the right to cruise with passengers

The oldest steamboat still afloat in the United States, the Delta Queen, just had it legal authority to carry overnight passengers on the Mississippi and other rivers restored by a vote of the U.S. House of Representatives last night. Wednesday’s vote came in at 280 to 89.  

It is a long story. Delta Queen is one of a few moving National Historic Landmarks registered with the National Park Service. It was built in the 1920s largely of wood, which made it unqualified to carry passengers under the Safety of Life at Seas Act passed in 1966. Delta Queen was going to be dismantled and scrapped, but after extensive fireproofing and remodeling and extraordinary efforts by certain people who lobbied congress to “Save the Delta Queen” it received an exemption to the SOLAS Act from Congress allowing it to stay in operation since the early 1970s. The “exemption” was re-granted every year until 2008 when Congressman Oberstar of Minnesota, as head of the transportation committee, decided to block the exemption bill by holding it in his committee.

At the time, Oberstar gave a rousing speech to stop the Delta Queen in the House by citing an incident on a similar riverboat, the Savannah, which had burned and killed hundreds of soldiers. What he did not mention was that incident happened at the end of the Civil War, almost 150 years ago.

The Majestic America Line – Xanterra Connection

In 2008 Delta Queen was the “flagship” of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company owned by Majestic America Line, which also operated the three former Windstar vessels, which it acquired from Carnival Corp. Majestic America Line eventually foundered as a company soon after losing the Delta Queen and eventually had all of its steamboats repossessed by MARAD (the federal government) for money owed.

The Delta Queen was eventually bought by a Denver-based company named Xanterra Group and moored in Chattanooga, Tenn., since 2009, to be operated as a moored hotel and restaurant. But coincidentally, Xanterra is also the same company that also came to own and operate Windstar cruises, also acquired from Majestic America Line when it declared bankruptcy. Xanterra is now operating Windstar as a cruise line and will also soon add the three popular smaller Seabourn vessels to the Windstar fleet in a pending sale.

So, could Xanterra choose to start sailing Delta Queen as a river cruise vessel? It could, but it doesn’t seem likely. It is more likely that another buyer will step in. Notably, in 2008 when Majestic America Line went under all cruising on the Mississippi River ended for several years, but in the last two years it has been revived with at least two companies (American Queen Steamboat and American Cruise Lines) both offering Mississippi cruises on a regular basis.  Blount Cruises also offers Mississippi cruises on a semi-regular basis.

The fact that Delta Queen is already owned by Xanterra, the same company that acquired the Windstar vessels from the same company, is still very interesting, however, since they entered the cruise business with Windstar after they took over the 88-room Delta Queen to be operated as a hotel. They never counted on her cruise vessel status to be restored.

Rep. Steve Chabot’s bill would grant the boat a 15-year exemption. He and others had tried for five years to renew the Delta Queen’s exemption, but they were stymied by opponents who raised questions about the boat’s safety and concerns about disputes over union representation of the ship’s crew. In truth, there are several US-flagged vessels sailing American rivers with non-union workers, however.

 

[The Delta Queen] “preserves an important piece of American history and it supports American jobs,” Chabot said during the 40-minute debate. “The Delta Queen is beloved by many, many Cincinnatians who spent years watching her sail into our city to unload passengers at dawn and head back out with a new group at dusk.”

But opponents once again said the boat is a “fire trap” and Chabot’s bill would put passengers at risk just to benefit one boat and its prospective new owners.

“Thousands of people have lost their lives in boats that were not safe, in boats that were made of wood,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. “Simply put this is a bad piece of legislation.” That statement is once again in reference to the Savannah, which was taking Union soldier home after the Civil War when it caught on fire and the soldiers drowned.

During the House debate on Wednesday, Democrats opposed to the legislation suggested the U.S. Coast Guard has long been opposed to giving the Delta Queen an exemption from current law. Garamendi and others said the boat has outdated mechanical and safety systems that cannot be properly upgraded. Chabot and others noted that the Coast Guard would have to recertify Delta Queen’s safety before it could move.

“Safety is paramount,” Chabot said, arguing that Congress needs to grant the exemption to “unlock” private investment to make the necessary safety improvements.

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