The Delta Queen is moored in Houma, La., awaiting an Act of Congress and a renovation that will allow it to once again cruise the inland waterways. (Photo by Frank McCormack)
December 21, 2015
By Frank McCormack
Moored among the crewboats and shipyards lining the canals that feed into the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Houma, La., is a last-of-its-kind, near 90-year-old vessel that hearkens back to a simpler, slower-paced life on the river: the steam powered paddlewheeler Delta Queen.
The Delta Queen, which has spent most of its life as an overnight cruise vessel on the inland waterways, most recently served as a dockside hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., beginning in 2009. The Delta Queen’s current owners, led by Cornel Martin and operating as the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, bought the vessel in February 2015 and moved it to Houma, where it’s awaiting a major overhaul and an act of Congress necessary for it to return to service.
A Brief History Of A Long Journey
The Delta Queen’s journey has been as long and winding as the inland rivers the vessel has traveled for most of its life. The boilers aboard the Delta Queen were built in 1919, originally intended for a World War I destroyer that was never built because the war ended.
“They were sold as war surplus to the California Transportation Company. They bought four boilers from the destroyer and put two in the Delta Queen and two in the Delta King,” said Martin, president and chief executive of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. “They’re riveted and almost 100 years old.”
The steel panels for the Delta Queen’s hull were fabricated in Scotland and shipped to California, where the vessel was built in Stockton in 1927. The Delta Queen first served as an overnight ferry boat for automobiles, cargo and passengers between Sacramento and San Francisco, Calif. The paddlewheeler’s first voyage with passengers came on June 2, 1927.
“It was pressed into service in World War II, painted battleship gray and became a ferry boat ferrying soldiers from the docks in San Francisco to ships anchored in the harbor,” Martin said. “It’s said she carried the first wounded soldiers from ships anchored in the harbor that had come in from the Pearl Harbor attacks.”
At the conclusion of World War II, the Delta Queen also hosted the first meeting of the group that would become the United Nations, Martin said.
After the war, Greene Line Steamers purchased the Delta Queen as war surplus and towed the vessel from San Francisco through the Panama Canal to New Orleans, La. After a refit at Dravo Shipyard in Pittsburgh, Pa., the Delta Queen—measuring 285 by 60 feet with room for 176 passengers and 80 crew members—began service as an overnight cruising vessel on the nation’s inland waterways beginning in 1947 and continuing for more than 60 years.
Operations aboard the Delta Queen became tenuous in 1966 when Congress passed the Safety at Sea Act, aimed at preventing fires aboard wooden, foreign-flagged passenger vessels calling on U.S. ports. The law required vessels carrying more than 50 overnight passengers in U.S. waters to be constructed completely of noncombustible materials.
“There were a number of fires in the ‘50s. One in particular was the Yarmouth Castle [in 1965] where about 90 people were killed in a fire while the ship was out at sea,” Martin said. “Unfortunately, nobody thought of the little Delta Queen that was steaming up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.”
Though built on a steel hull, much of the Delta Queen’s upper decks were classically wooden. Congress approved an exemption in 1966, which allowed the Delta Queen to continue operating on the inland waterways, but the exemption had to be renewed every two years.
“It was subsequently renewed nine times over the years until it expired in 2008,” Martin said.
Martin said a political oversight by the Delta Queen’s 2008 owners led to Congress not even considering the renewal of the exemption. Out of service as a cruising vessel, the Delta Queen was soon sold to Xanterra Cruise, which oversaw its transition to a dockside hotel in Chattanooga.
Randy and Leah Ann Ingram took over operations of the Delta Queen in 2010 and contacted Martin in September 2012 regarding efforts to renew the vessel’s exemption and return it to overnight cruising. Martin had previously worked for the Delta Queen’s parent company in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“I was hired in ’93 to make sure she never lost her exemption,” Martin said. “In ’98 as I was working on the Hill to get the exemption renewed; we were able to convince folks to give us a 10-year exemption. That gave her an exemption from November 1998 to November 2008.”
Martin was serving as president and chief executive of the Waterways Council Inc. in 2008 when the Delta Queen’s exemption expired.
“[The Ingrams] had been trying for two years since they took over the hotel in 2010,” Martin said. “That’s how I got reconnected. Eventually we formed DQSC LLC. I’m president and chief executive officer of the company and a third owner.”
Planning And Waiting
The Delta Queen came close to getting its much-needed exemption to the Safety at Sea Act in 2013.
“In September 2013, the House Transportation Committee passed legislation that would renew the exemption, with only one dissenting vote. A week later, the full House passed it with better than a two-thirds majority,” Martin said.
The bill then moved to the Senate for final approval, but the Senate failed to take up the measure prior to the end of the session in December 2014. New bills have already filed in the House (H.R. 1248) and the Senate (S. 1717).
“With Congress, you never know when that might happen. It might be this December, it might be next December, or anywhere in between,” Martin said. “Hopefully we can get it done sooner rather than later.”
Meanwhile, in March and April of this year, the company had the historic steamer towed from Chattanooga to Houma to await restoration.
The Delta Queen’s owners already have financing lined up to restore the vessel, once the exemption is approved. Martin estimates the restoration to cost about $5 million, with $3.8 million for marine repairs and the balance restoring the hotel.
The main engines are in good condition, but the Delta Queen’s boilers will have to be replaced. Martin hopes to be able to install the new boilers by way of the Delta Queen’s smokestack housing.
“We’re hoping the boilers will be small enough that we can get them through the smokestack housing. Otherwise we’re going to have to blow this part of the vessel out and come in through the side,” he said.
The Delta Queen incurred some roof damage to its wheelhouse from the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, which passed through the area in October. There is some wood restoration to be done, along with updating the vessel’s air conditioning system, galley, electronics and generators. The aesthetics, though, are largely intact. For instance, the Delta Queen’s calliope is still in place astern.
Martin anticipates repair work will be done by a shipyard in the Houma or Morgan City areas, with repairs completed within six to eight months of the start date.
Once approved for operation and restored to its former glory, the Delta Queen will once again offer cruises on all the nation’s largest inland waterways, including the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kanawha and Illinois rivers, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. In the meantime, it remains moored—under guard—in Houma.
“Here she is, biding her time, waiting on Congress to wake up and move the legislation forward,” Martin said. “It really is in their hands. If they’ll let her cruise again, we’ll make it happen.”