A Brief Summary of the Delta Queen’s history.
The Delta Queen was built in California of the finest machinery and materials at an unbelievable cost of more than $875,000.
She made her debut cruise on June 2, 1927 and ran overnight trips between Sacramento and San Francisco for the next 13 years through the economic and labor struggles of the Depression. Her final California passenger cruise was Sunday, Sept 29, 1940.
From autumn 1940 to August 1946, the Delta Queen served the U. S. Navy as a floating barracks, a training facility, and troop transport in San Francisco bay.
A NEW PARTNERSHIP
After the war, the Delta Queen was put up for auction. In December 1946, Cincinnati, Ohio steamboat Captain Tom Green of the Greene Line Steamers became the new owner for $46,250.
TO A NEW RIVER SYSTEM
By spring of 1947, the Delta Queen was boarded up and was then towed for almost a month for more than 5,000 miles from California through the Panama Canal to the Mississippi River and to New Orleans. The planking was then removed and the engines serviced. In July, the boat proceeded under its own power almost 2,000 miles up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to the Dravo shipyard at Pittsburgh where the boat spent six months undergoing major renovations costing about $750,000. The Delta Queen departed on her debut Ohio River cruise on June 30, 1948.
Captain Tom Greene had a heart attack onboard the Delta Queen and passed away on July 10, 1950 at the age of 46. His widow Letha Greene was left to run the company. She later wrote, “I stood alone with four steamboats, four children, a broken heart and puzzled mind.” By 1953, the other three boats had been sold to enable continued operation of the Delta Queen. After major repairs were required in 1957, Letha offered the boat for sale in 1958.
A NEW PARTNER
California businessman Richard Simonton became majority shareholder and retained Letha as General Manager and company president. Simonton focused on increasing marketing and public relations to garner media attention. The Delta Queen’s calliope (steam organ) was added and debuted in February 1960. The boat became profitable and the mortgage was retired in October 1960. By 1962, all debts were cleared and by 1964 a profit-sharing plan for employees was even established.
Smooth sailing ended in 1966 as Congress passed a law that outlawed vessels with a wooden superstructure from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers. The law was originally intended for ocean-going cruise ships, but the Delta Queen – never far from the river banks – was ensnared in the regulation. Company official petitioned Congress and ultimately were granted an exemption from the regulation.
THE 1970 EXEMPTION STRUGGLE
When the Delta Queen’s exemption came up for renewal in 1970, Maryland Congressman Ed Garmatz, Chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Commission, effectively blocked more than two dozen bills submitted to save the Delta Queen. Company president Bill Muster and Betty Blake conducted Save the Delta Queen rallies at towns along the rivers gathering petition signatures and encouraging letters to representatives. Despite the efforts of the company, previous guests and steamboat fans, Congressional efforts were stymied. The Delta Queen departed St. Paul on October 21 for a “Farewell Forever” cruise down the length of the Mississippi to New Orleans before the mandatory November 1 end date. All along the river, crowds gathered with signs of support for a last chance to see the boat. More than a month later, the exemption extension for the Delta Queen was successfully passed as an amendment to a bill sent not through Congressman Garmatz’s committee, but instead through the judiciary committee. Somehow the Delta Queen had been saved yet again. Multiple exemptions have been granted to the Delta Queen over the last 42 years.
Facing another necessary congressional renewal of the exemption by October 31, 2008, the Delta Queen’s current owners, Ambassadors International, announced on August 1, 2007 that 2008 would be the Delta Queen’s farewell cruising season. But in October 2007, Ohio Congressman Steve Chabot introduced House Resolution 3852 to extend the Delta Queen’s exemption. Congressman Chabot’s bill was consistently blocked from moving through the House Transportation Committee by Committee Chairman James Oberstar from Minnesota. Congressman Oberstar cited safety concerns despite the fact that he previously had voted for the boat’s exemption.
In hopes of educating lawmakers from the comfort of their Washington desks, Delta Queen crew produced educational films highlighting the incredible safety staff, training, and equipment and then posted the videos on the internet. Throughout the 2008 cruising season, the Delta Queen hosted a series of Tribute Events in 27 Delta Queen ports of call to rally support and acknowledge the hospitality of every river port visited in the 2008 season. A grass-roots effort also hosted events and increased awareness as part of the Save the Delta Queen campaign. The struggle attracted significant local, regional, and national media attention. The boat’s plight was even featured in the New York Times, on CNN and Good Morning America. For more on the legislative struggle to save the Delta Queen, click here.
In April, Congressman Chabot attempted to attach the Delta Queen’s exemption to the Coast Guard appropriation bill. The House Rules Committee voted 9 to 4 against allowing the amendment. On April 24, 2008, Congressman Chabot’s Motion to Recommit (which allows members of Congress to vote on whether the amendment can be added) failed by a swing of only 7 votes. This defeat was quickly followed on April 29, 2008 by Ambassadors International announcement to offer the Delta Queen for sale (along with all six other vessels in their Majestic America Line brand fleet). In September 2008, Ohio Senator George Voinovich also introduce a bill for the Delta Queen exemption in the Senate. It also never reached the floor for a vote.
Due to Congress’ lack of action on behalf of the Delta Queen, the boat was forced out of service on October 31 as the final passengers were put ashore in Memphis, Tennessee. More than 150 crew members lost their jobs. Small towns along the river lost significant revenue provided by the shopping and tours of the passengers. Citizens around the country shared a profound sorrow over the loss of passenger service on the last overnight steam-powered paddlewheeler in the country. A piece of American history was allowed to simply fade away. The Delta Queen was relocated to New Orleans, tied up, and many feared for her survival
A NEW CAREER
In February 2009, Chattanooga, Tennessee hotelier Sydney Slome gave the Delta Queen a new life. Mr. Slome owns the historic hotel Stone Fort Inn in downtown Chattanooga (StoneFort website). The Delta Queen was leased from Ambassadors International and relocated from New Orleans to Chattanooga from February 4 to 11, 2009 and docked at her new home at Chattanooga’s Coolidge Park. This beautiful city park is directly across from scenic downtown Chattanooga along the city’s vibrant North Shore district which is filled with lovely shops and restaurants. The park is adjacent to two pedestrian bridges connecting to downtown, plus a free electric shuttle also provides transportation to downtown attractions such as the fantastic Tennessee Aquarium. Mr. Slome dedicated an enormous amount of energy and money into restoring the boat to her former glory. He has given great care to the preservation of the boat’s historic integrity. If not for this commitment to this cherished piece of history, the Delta Queen could easily have been left closed up, forgotten, and subject to the rot and ruin that can easily consume an inactive vessel. The efforts of the Delta Queen Hotel team have enabled this national treasure to be preserved, cared for, and open for all to enjoy.
The Delta Queen Hotel opened to overnight hotel guests on June 6, 2009 enabling modern Americans to experience the charm and elegance of this National Historic Landmark. If you are ever near Chattanooga, this is an experience not to be missed. Their website is www.DeltaQueenHotel.com.
What does the future hold for the Delta Queen? Only time, and DeltaQueenHistory.com, will tell.