Saved and Safe, Beloved Steamboat Looks Forward to 2020 Launch
The Delta Queen, the oldest American overnight passenger steamboat that is still intact and able to travel, is the last remaining authentic link to our nation’s 200-year tradition of passenger steamboat transportation. The Delta Queen and her identical twin Delta King (which is currently docked in Sacramento) were constructed in 1926 for more than $1 million each, compared to a paltry $80,000-$100,000 price tag for other steamboats built at the time. And indeed, the Delta Queen’s Tiffany-style stained-glass windows, hardwood paneling, brass fittings, and grand staircase crowned by a crystal chandelier made her the height of luxury.
The two steamboats traveled from San Francisco to Sacramento each night until 1940, when they entered the Navy to support the war effort. The Delta Queen, painted in battleship grey, ferried soldiers from the pier at San Francisco bay to transport boats anchored farther out to sea. The steamboat also received the first group of wounded officers from the attack on Pearl Harbor and sent them to San Francisco hospitals.
After the end of World War II, Captain Tom Greene bid on the Delta Queen and transformed her from a battleship to a river boat for tourists, with a new port city of Cincinnati, Ohio. From there, throughout her first tenure as a tourist boat, she traveled to more than 80 ports in the South and Midwest.
The Delta Queen’s luck took a turn for the worse in 1966, when a cruise ship with a wooden super structure caught fire off the Florida coast. In response, Congress enacted the “Safety at Sea” act, which requires any vessel carrying more than 50 overnight passengers to be constructed entirely of fire-retardant materials. While the law was intended to keep passengers safe, it inadvertently targeted—and grounded—the Delta Queen.
Fortunately, starting in 1968, the vessel was exempt from the law—her safety records were pristine, and she never strayed far from the shore. For decades, she maintained her exemption and continued to sail as an overnight tourist steamboat.
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But in 2008, the Delta Queen’s then-owners did not act to renew the Safety at Sea Act exemption. In addition, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, publicly opposed the Delta Queen’s exemption renewal for that year. Rep. Oberstar cited safety concerns, while Sen. Inouye wanted the crew to be unionized before supporting an exemption.
Since the Delta Queen was harbored in the shores of Chattanooga, Tennessee, she was leased by Delta Queen LLC, who operated her as a floating hotel. In 2015, Phillip Johnson, Cornel Martin, and Leah Ann Ingram, then purchased the steamboat under a new company called DQSC, LLC without a Safety at Sea Act exemption—a financial risk for all involved in the sale.
While the Delta Queen made a modest living as a floating hotel, her new owners knew she needed to become an overnight riverboat once more to turn a profit. What’s more, a key aspect of her identity would be lost if she couldn’t travel with overnight passengers. So she was sent to Houma, Louisiana, and stored until she was ready to sail once more.
With the Delta Queen safely stowed away, her owners resumed the fight for an exemption. The National Trust, which had been monitoring the ship’s situation since 2007, designated her a National Treasure and included her in 2016’s America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List.
Along with other passionate advocates, the National Trust helped tell her story to lawmakers who had the influence to impact her future.
Phillip Johnson explains that thanks to the 11 Most listing and National Treasure designation, “we were able to get the word out and get people actively calling their congresspeople to save the boat. It made our issue important to representatives.”
After years of petitioning local representatives, alerting the media, and asking Delta Queen fans for their support, the steamboat’s advocates were successful; the Coast Guard Authorization (S. 140) passed Congress and was signed into law in 2018, enabling her return to operation as an overnight passenger vessel.
With her exemption well in hand, Delta Queen LLC is now in the process of a multi-year restoration. She’s in need of over $10 million in repairs, including fire safety updates, more efficient generators, and sewage upgrades, as well as a litany of mechanical updates. Still, according to Johnson, it’s important to maintain her historic mechanical character. “What the passengers will hear and see is what the Delta Queen is largely known for,” he says.
The Delta Queen should be ready to set sail around 2020, and her fans can hardly wait to board her once more. One of the ship’s most outspoken advocates, Jo Ann Schoen, says she’s already planning her next trip on the Delta Queen with her girlfriends. Schoen grew up on the Ohio River in a home her family had owned for over a century, and her great-grandfather was a steamboat captain and owner in New Albany, Indiana. When Schoen first rode the Delta Queen in 2001, she fell in love with the experience, and has worked closely with the owners and the National Trust to ensure it sets sail again.
“My love for steamboats was not an acquired taste,” she says. “It was in my blood.”
More than the ship’s beauty and elegance, however, what Schoen remembers most are the friends she’s made after many years of travel on the Delta Queen: “So many of the crew came back year after year. We made friends from all over the world.”
Once the Delta Queen is fully restored and operational, Schoen, Johnson, and many other of her tireless advocates hope to continue forging bonds with their fellow travelers and steamboat lovers for countless journeys to come.