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HomeArts/LeisureThe Delta Queen: An endangered piece of our American history

The Delta Queen: An endangered piece of our American history

A piece of American history is endangered.

The Delta Queen sailed into Clarksville Monday on what may be one its last journeys down the Cumberland, and all the other rivers she’s traveled.

The Delta Queen steams into Clarksville
The Delta Queen steams into Clarksville

The Delta Queen is a grand lady and a legacy from our collective history. She is only remaining all-wood paddle-wheeled craft still sailing American waters with a complement of passengers scattered about, some opting to sit on the comfortable white rocking chairs on its decks. The Delta Queen looked and sounded like something in a classic Mark Twain novel.

On Monday, Clarksvillians were treated to the sound of the Delta Queen’s caliope, lilting over the Cumberland with tunes such as Yankee Doodle, It’s a Grand Old Flag, Robert E. Lee, and Give My Regards to Broadway (many show tunes from the pen of George M. Cohen, another piece of American history). Tony Schwartz kept the ivory keys lively with yesterday’s music, but called the concert a “tribute to Clarksville.” (Delta Queen history)

Cruise Director Mary Charlton, in discussing the Delta Queen’s river journey, said:

“Small towns are what made this country great. This (visit with its caliope concert) is our way of saying thank you.”

City Councilors Deanna Mclaughlin and Bill Summers presented the key to the City of Clarksville to the Delta Queen’s captain.

Delta Queen's grand staircase

The steam whistle blew, to the delight of passengers and riverbank visitors, many sitting under tress at Riverfront Park, just taking in the sight of this historic ship.

Within the next two weeks advocates for Save The Delta Queen are going to deliver a set of petitions and resolutions to Sen. Specter’s office at Capitol Hill. This will consist of petitions, resolutions, and Steamboats.org petition messages that we’ve collected since our first delivery to them on April 18. Anyone who has petitions or resolutions, please let us know so we can give you details about whom to send them to and when.

For the past 42 years the Delta Queen has journeyed under an exemption from the Safety of Life and Sea Act, but that exemption is up at the end of this year. Congressman Steve Chabot’s bill to continue the Delta Queen’s 42-year exemption from the Safety of Life at Sea Act has been sitting in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure since October 16, 2007. Advocates of the Delta Queen say now the only hope to save the Delta Queen lies in the Senate. They request citizen actions in the form of letters and phone calls to federal legislators to continue that exemption from SOLAS regulations.

Senator George Voinovich of Ohio will be introducing a “Save the Delta Queen” bill before the Senate. Since this did not get anywhere in the Congress, supporters of the Delta Queen are lobbying Senators to get them behind this bill.

Charles Greene, member of the Greene family formerly owned Greene Line Steamers, including the Delta Queen and numerous other steamboats, has sent an open letter to the US Congress. This is what he has to say:

Delta Queen Stateroom

Dear Members of Congress,

My name is Charles Greene. My dad, Robert Greene, was ferried off to his WWII troop ship in San Francisco Bay aboard the Delta Queen, which then returned loaded with wounded troops. My dad came back from the war. Far too many did not.

In 1947, my grandfather’s cousin, TomGreene, bought the Delta Queen, had her towed from California to Cincinnati, and put her into operation carrying passengers up and down the Mississippi River and its tributaries just as steamboats had done for more than 100 years.

Today the Delta Queen is the only remaining genuine steamboat carrying overnight passengers on our inland waterways. On her travels, she brings much-needed tourist revenue to many river towns, which will now be needed all the more after the devastating effects of the recent floods on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

Yet now some members of Congress want to put her out of business because she doesn’t comply with a provision of a law that was never intended for riverboats.

The Delta Queen survived being towed through the Panama Canal without incident, and has served honorably and faithfully for more than 80 years without any serious safety incidents. The Delta Queen survived the recession that followed the attacks of 9-11, and Hurricane Katrina (although her then-owners did not). She is surviving $140/bbl oil.

But there is a good chance that the Delta Queen cannot survive her most lethal challenge to date: the inaction of Congress. Without an exemption to legal restrictions due to her wooden superstructure, this will be her last season.

To some in Congress the facts do not matter. They care only about the letter of a misapplied law. So to all of you I ask this question: Come July 4th, just what the hell are we celebrating?

Charles Greene
Lewisburg, KY

This is a transcript of Rep. Oberstar’s argument (in normal type) to dry-dock the Delta Queen, with rebuttals by Mr. Greene (italics).

Apr 27, 2008

Mr. Speaker,

I enormously respect the distinguished and amiable gentleman from Ohio, the weight-lifting champ of the House gym. When he walks on the floor, the weights quiver and shake in awe of his appearance.

He has been an advocate for the Delta Queen even back to last fall when I was in the Bethesda Naval Hospital for an operation to correct a long-standing injury to my neck. He sent a sheet cake with the Delta Queen emblazoned upon it to remind me of his diligence and of his enthusiasm for the Delta Queen. I could only eat one slice of it, but I assured him that the staff at the hospital, who had no idea what the Delta Queen was all about, appreciated this sheet cake from the very distinguished and caring gentleman from the State of Ohio.

But labor has nothing to do with this issue. I haven’t heard from a single person in any labor union about this matter.

What Rep. Oberstar doesn’t explain is why he totally changed his mind since just last year when he voted in favor of the Delta Queen exemption. And he has never explained how it comes that Majestic America Line is claiming the Union issue being the only reason for his opposition.

The Delta Queen was built in 1926 and carried 174 passengers, 88 state rooms. It has extensive wood superstructure. It has extensive wood interior and furniture, and for those reasons, the Coast Guard will not certify this vessel.

Simply not true. The Coast Guard has certified the Delta Queen numerous times in the past and just weeks ago. Citing a DQ crew member: “We passed our annual Coast Guard Inspection on Tuesday [April 15, 2008] and received our new COI. The inspector was very impressed with the crew during the Fire and Abandon Ship drills.”

Opposition is clear. The combustible construction of the vessel presents an unacceptable fire risk that cannot be mitigated by the addition of fire-suppression measures, says the Coast Guard. As such, the Coast Guard’s position remains unchanged. The Delta Queen should be prohibited from operating with overnight passengers. Since May 28, 1936, the United States has required that passenger vessels be constructed essentially of fire retardant material. In the interest of maritime safety, the Coast Guard, continuing their quote, has consistently opposed legislation to prolong the service of the Delta Queen. A vessel constructed of wood operating in the overnight passenger trade presents an unacceptable fire risk to its passengers and crew. It goes on at great length.

We’ve seen such a letter from a high-ranking Coast Guard officer, true. But nevertheless the Coast Guard has always issued certificates of inspection for the Delta Queen testifying her safety and compliance with the regulations while the Coast Guard could easily have refused the certificate in case the Delta Queen was not safe.

The Delta Queen can operate in daytime but not at night.

The Delta Queen's paddle wheel
The Delta Queen's paddle wheel

In the operation of the trade on the Mississippi River, the worst disaster in history occurred, fire onboard a paddle wheeler. Yes, in the 19th century, but 1,700 people died 100 yards from shore.

Mr. Oberstar obviously is referring to the Sultana disaster of 1865. That fire was caused by a boiler explosion, something absolutely untinkable as of today. At that time due to a lack of safety standards steamboats had an average lifetime of 3-5 years and boiler explosions were relatively common. The Delta Queen now is 82 years old and never had any major incidents in her whole lifetime. The Sultana could carry 376 persons, including crew, about double than the Delta Queen today. But the ruthless captain of the Sultana overloaded the boat with the incredible number of more than 1,700 passengers, mainly Civil War soldiers on their way back home. If it makes any sense to compare the Sultana with the Delta Queen, then we also have to compare the Titanic with modern cruise ships and stop (at least) all Alaska cruises immediately.

On March 22 of this year, of this year, the Delta Queen had a fire in the generating room requiring the use of their fixed C02 extinguishing system. Fortunately, no one was injured. The generator shorted, caused flames to shoot out the generator end.

Isn’t that just an example how safe the Delta Queen in fact is and how well her safety appliances are working? The fire detection and extinguishing systems acted exactly as designed and did their job flawlessly. By the way: According to our sources, the fire was caused by a generator overspeed, not a short. And the fire was contained to the generator space, which is basically a metal room within the boiler room. No wood even close to it.

Earlier this month, the Queen of the West, this April, a similar paddle wheel operated by the very same company that owns and operates the Delta Queen had a fire in the engine room, required evacuation of 177 passengers and crew. Three crew members were treated for smoke inhalation.

What does the Queen of the West have to do with the Delta Queen? She is an all-steel boat with a hydraulic-driven paddlewheel; no wooden superstructure, no steam.

Last year, in May, the Empress of the North, another excursion vessel operated by the same company owning the Delta Queen, ran aground in southeast Alaska, evacuating over 200 passengers and crew; fourth grounding of that vessel in less than 4 years.

Again, what does this have to do with the Delta Queen? And very important: The Queen of the West as well as the Empress of the North are of course Coast Guard certified vessels, the navigational crew of both boats of course are holding an appropriate license issued by the Coast Guard.

Now I can understand those who live along the Mississippi River, which starts nearly in my district all the way down to the Gulf, but friends, we would never stand for limiting safety on a 747 aircraft.

a) what does a 747 airplane have to do with a steamboat?

b) nobody is talking about limiting the safety on the Delta Queen. The Delta Queen is safer than she’s ever been and absolutely up to modern standards and beyond.

And over a decade ago, a foreign airline was trying to remove over-wing exits from a 747.

Trying to remove over-wing exits in fact reduces safety on a 747. Renewing the Delta Queen’s exemption does not reduce safety but maintains the level of safety she had over the last at least 40 years since she is running under these exemptions from a law that was never made for riverboats but for sea-going passenger vessels. Remember: Great Lakes ships are exempt from this law by default; riverboats had just been forgotten about to exempt by default in that law.

Congressman Bill Clinger, Pennsylvania’s ranking Republican on the Committee on Aviation stopped them from doing that. We stopped the FAA from allowing that risk to safety. We should stop this risk to safety here. Fire at night is terrifying. Oppose the amendment.

EDITOR’S NOTE: My appreciation for City Councilor Deanna McLaughlin for her comprehensive newsletter on the Delta Queen.


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