November 2008


The evening ceremony was small but poignant. The boat docked within a secure area of the Port of New Orleans, so the general public did not have access to come down and share the festivities. We gathered with members of the local media and a representative from the New Orleans city government. Aching and feeling sick to my stomach, I gave the VIPs a final tour of the vessel. We then all gathered in the Texas Lounge for a small reception and presented the city with their plaque.

Captain Gabe Chengery and Captain John Dugger

Captain Gabe Chengery and Captain John Dugger

Honored guests included Captain Doc Hawley and Captain Gabe Chengery who both have served as Masters aboard the Delta Queen. Also attending was Scott Young who served as President of the old Delta Queen Steamboat Company back in the 1990s. Everyone shared stories and reminisced. Laura and I closed the party with one final performance of Delta Queen Waltz, the gorgeous song written by Grammy award-winning songwriter John Hartford, who also was a liscensed riverboat pilot.

As the party wrapped up and people drifted out, a heavy silence settled over the boat. It was agonizing and so we set out into New Orleans to locate sufficient distraction.

 

 

Captain Doc Hawley

Captain Doc Hawley

The next day (Nov 7) the final details were completed to pack her up and prepare her for her sleep. Many handshakes and hugs were exchanged as the last remnants of this precious riverboat family drifted away with the wind.

Early the next morning (Nov 8) the Delta Queen slipped quietly away from the dock and crept across the river where she sullenly tied up to the Mississippi Queen to await news of her fate.

I will always cherish that I was able to escort her along this remarkable journey.

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Annie Lebeaux plays the final calliope departure concert.

Annie Lebeaux plays the final calliope departure concert.

The deck crew let loose her lines and the Delta Queen sounded her whistle. She made her final departure from Oak Alley Plantation and rounded gracefully downstream. Annie Lebeaux played a wonderful concert on the calliope as there were many out on the decks of the American Queen to watch the Delta Queen head downstream into history.

Captain Gabe Chengery, Laura, and I stood along the rail and watched the American Queen until we rounded the bend. Captain Gabe went to visit in the Pilot House and Laura and I turned to a few final tasks packing things away. For much of the ride down to New Orleans, we kept ourselves busy to distract from the flood of emotions lurking just beneath the surface. Finally, we gave in and sat out on one of the swings on the bow forward of the Forward Cabin Lounge and watched the final few miles creep by.

Rounding into the harbor we gathered once again with Captain Gabe at at the calliope as the Delta Queen made her entry into New Orleans harbor. Captain Gabe played a terrific concert filled with a greatest-hits of good old river tunes. He closed out with “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” which is a special song that Captain Doc Hawley used to play for him aboard the Avalon when Gabe was just a youngster. Gabe said he wanted that to be his final song on the Delta Queen. He then returned to the pilot house and graciously turned the keyboard over to me to bring her on in. Captain Dugger had asked us to cut off at the bridge, so I played a few of my favorites.

The last song played on the Delta Queen calliope was “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I wanted to close with that because I read in Letha Greene’s book that was the last song played as the boat departed Cincinnati back in 1970 when they thought it might be all over for the Delta Queen. Jane Greene told me it was also one of her dad’s (Captain Tom Greene) favorites. The song also is a New Orleans favorite, so I thought it very appropriate. I held the last chord as the echo resounded off of the bridge, and I swear to you, I had trouble pulling my hands off the keys. I just couldn’t let go. Emotionally, I’m not sure I will ever be able to. Playing the calliope that day, working aboard the boat, meeting so many incredible guests and crew members, have all been some of the greatest honors of my life.

The boat dipped down near Algier’s Point and rounded back upstream to dock quietly alongside the Riverwalk Mall. A few shoppers and diners in the food court stepped outside onto the mall’s balcony to watch. I wondered if they had any comprehension what a tremendous historical moment they were watching. Quite possibly the end of the Steamboat Era. I wished for a massive microphone and speakers to announce to all of New Orleans the sigificance of this moment. I wanted them to share in my utter and absolute deperation and dismay. I wanted them to cherish this boat and its history as much as I do. But they quietly turned and went back to their sandwiches and shopping. I thought my heart would burst.

Once docked, Laura and I distracted ourselves by slipping down to the crew mess for a quick bite of dinner before the busy evening of receptions, tours, media, and ceremonies would begin. The crew mess, usually boisterous, was solemn and silent. The few of us eating did so quickly and quietly. I wondered if the boat understood her days were ending. I have seldom felt such deep and profound sadness.

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Staff from the Oak Alley Foundation with Captain John Dugger on the Delta Queen's grand staircase.

Staff from the Oak Alley Foundation with Captain John Dugger on the Delta Queen

Early this morning, we slipped out for one last stroll through the beautiful grounds of Oak Alley Plantation. We roamed along the majestic row of of oaks which date back about 300 years. I’ve visited California’s great Sequoia’s and these Oaks rank right up there. What a sight. As you walk off the boat, up an over the levee, the two parallel rows of 14 oaks are one of nature’s most delightful treats. The beautiful mansion at the end dates back to the 1830s. (The oaks predate the home by more than a century, planted in there neat rows by some ambitious settler long ago.)

We held hands, savoring the beauty of the day and the scene. We went all the way back to the gift shop to enjoy a slice of the best pecan pie I’ve ever enjoyed. Oak Alley also offers another best – the best mint juleps – and one was a necessity this morning for us to share and sip on. Here’s my video version of a stroll around the grounds.

We enjoyed having Zeb Mayhew and his staff from the Oak Alley Foundation come aboard the Delta Queen for a tour and visit with the Captain.

Just following their departure, we prepared for the Delta Queen’s final departure to head on down to New Orleans.

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USS Kidd in very low water.

USS Kidd in very low water.

Wow, the water is low. We dock near the USS Kidd and today it is sitting in its cradle with dry riverbed showing underneath. As the water rises, the Kidd floats up along a brace that holds it in place. Good design for the lower Mississippi where the river level can vary up to 60 feet in a year! That sounds like the swings of my emotions in the last few days!

The Delta Queen pulling in to Baton Rouge.
The Delta Queen pulling in to Baton Rouge.

We stood out on deck and enjoyed watching the Delta Queen come down river, make her turn back up into the current and glide gracefully over to dock next to the American Queen. My goodness, she is a beautiful boat. Here’s a little video pan down her side for your enjoyment:

 

 

 

 

We had several media today and I was busy with interviews. It is so encouraging to see the media interest in the boat. Perhaps the only positive thing about the boat’s “retirement” is the media interest that is generating. Hopefully this coverage will help garner the civic and political support we will need to get the legislation passed.

St. Francisville, LA mayor Billy D'Aquilla and Baton Rouge mayor 'Kip' Holden.

St. Francisville, LA mayor Billy D'Aquilla and Baton Rouge mayor "Kip" Holden.

We enjoyed sharing todays Tribute Event with St. Francisville, LA mayor Billy D’Aquilla and Baton Rouge mayor “Kip” Holden. The DQ was scheduled to visit St. Francisville only once this year at the beginning of the season but the water was too high to dock there. So, we invited the mayor and some of his staff to come down and join our event in Baton Rouge. It was a lovely day and a nice event.

The DQ stayed a little later after the AQ pulled out to help the AQ guests get a more restful night’s sleep.

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Election Day in Natchez, Mississippi. We scurried off to the post office and mailed our ballots. We are voters! It feels good to reengage in the democratic process.

natchez-signNatchez has always been a great riverboat town, dating back all the way to 1811 when the first steamboat docked here. We were very touched that Natchez even produced the banner shown here as a special tribute to the relationship between the boats and the city.

The good news is that Majestic has finally decided to allow American Queen guests to come aboard the Delta Queen for a visit. They had offered seven 2-hour cruises for sale at a cost of $49 each. None of them sold enough to meet the minimum to operate the trip. Somehow, people on a week-long riverboat cruise weren’t interested in paying $50 to take a two-hour riverboat cruise. But at least the company has given in and opened up the DQ for visits. I hope this will dilute some of the tensions amongst the AQ passengers this week.

The Natchez casino at sunset, just behind the AQ.

The Natchez casino at sunset, just behind the AQ.

 We had another nice event with the city representatives from Natchez. The boat is staying until 11pm, so a few of us slipped away for dinner at the incredible Kings Tavern restaurant. Terrific meal! On the way back, many steamboaters gathered at the famous Under The Hill Saloon for one last toast to the city. Supposedly, Mark Twain used to visit this historical pub when he served as a steamboat pilot before the Civil War. WE gathered here again before a dark time in steamboat history.

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Lovely Vicksburg. After the last two ports, it is so nice to have attractions within walking distance of the boat! Plus many are headed out on tours, most to visit the interesting Vicksburg battlefied of Civil War fame.

Laura and I ascended Vicksburg’s intimidating hills to dine once more at Walnut Hills, one of our favorite restaurants. You sit at a big round table with a spinning “lazy Susan” circular disk in the middle which is quickly filled with good, hot southern cooking! Besides the terrific meal, we also owe them a big thanks. They were kind enough to allow us to have our absentee ballots mailed there. We were so excited to get them and cast our ballots, postmarked by tomorrow’s election day. It is great to be excited to vote again!

The Vicksburg event went great and the mayor had some very nice words to share.

Unfortunately, tensions are increasing amongst AQ guests. We are in port all day each day this cruise and so far the folks on the port side have their view blocked all day by the Delta Queen. Now, I would consider this a treat, but many do not. Not only is the view blocked, but the exhausts are loud and the diesel smell is very strong. Even worse, the docking for port except Oak Alley Plantation on the last day will keep the Delta Queen on the same side. People are getting cranky. Nerves are on edge. I know ours are. Up at the Calliope Bar a guest was complaining to Laura. (Even though we’re not staff, guests think anyone below 50 must be, so we always get plenty of feedback.) The gentlemen was so angry about the DQ situation that he said, “They should just sink it!” My sweet, tender Laura just burst into tears as he stormed away. She said later that his words felt like a knife cutting into her heart.

To help with the problem, after the American Queen departs, the Delta Queen will remain at Vicksburg until until very late to give the AQ port side some quiet time to sleep. The DQ will join us in Natchez in the morning.

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Greenville VIPs with Captain John Dugger.

Greenville VIPs with Captain John Dugger.

Greenville on a Sunday is quieter than a feather falling on pile of cotton balls. Our morning stroll reveals that the downtown road are under construction for miles and you can count the remaining downtown shops on one hand. Much like Helena yesterday, the shore tour is the only attraction to today’s stop. But we did have an opportunity to visit with Mayor Heather Hudson and several visitors from the city. They enjoyed their tour of the Delta Queen and we had a nice ceremony for the dozens gathered along the waterfront.

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