Grassroots effort attempts to keep ‘American icon’ afloat|[11/25/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 25, 2007

The “grand ole lady” that has sailed the Mississippi River for decades — with hundreds of dockings here in the River City — might not continue her travels after 2008. It’s a threat that has plagued the sternwheel since 1966, when the Safety of Life at Sea Act was passed, prohibiting vessels with wooden superstructures to carry 50 or more passengers.

An announcement made in August by Majestic America Line, the company that runs the Delta Queen, along with two other steamboats, Mississippi Queen and American Queen, seemingly admitted the inevitable defeat.

“The U.S. Congress has decided that the Delta Queen should not continue operating on America’s rivers beyond 2008,” the release said. “Majestic America Line is committed to providing this American treasure with a proper and well-deserved send-off, and will spend the Delta Queen’s 2008 farewell season celebrating this historic landmark with the communities and people who hold her storied tradition of sailing the waterways of the United States so dear.” But, passengers and onlookers, many who have grown up watching — and hearing — the Delta Queen steam through river towns, such as Vicksburg, are taking an active stand to make sure the 81-year-old passenger boat keeps her home on the water. Thousands of petitions have been signed and letters to congressmen have been rampant, according to Capt. Paul Theony, who has led the vessel through inland waters for about nine years. He was in Vicksburg Wednesday as the Delta Queen made its last docking here for the year.

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“A lot of passengers — even on the trip here — are going into towns and getting petitions signed. They’re taking this very seriously,” he said. “It’s now in the hands of the general public.”

The public outcry is not only being heard in the way of letters and signatures, but also pins, hats and T-shirts that plead, “Save the Delta Queen.”

“We need to keep her on the river,” said Ginnie Rhynders, a passenger from upstate New York, who Wednesday was taking her 14th trip on the Delta Queen with her husband, Ralph Rhynders. The two donned “Save the Delta Queen” pins and T-shirts that read, “Soot Happens,” with a picture of the vessel and a dark cloud of smoke rising from its stacks.

“We’re trying to spread the word,” Ginnie Rhynders said.

Bill Seratt, executive director for the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, for years, the Delta Queen has brought visitors to Vicksburg. Many passengers have visited the Vicksburg National Military Park, toured historic homes and strolled Washington Street while the boat sat docked at City Front time and time again. And, although Vicksburg will continue to be a docking port for the Mississippi Queen and American Queen, the Delta Queen will be missed if decommissioned, he said.

“A lot of people have done a lot to save the Delta Queen. It’s a sad story that they are going to take her out of service,” he said. “It’s an American icon. It’s a story unto itself.”

The 174-passenger boat, built in 1926, if not exempt from the provisions of SOLSA, is scheduled to make its last journey in November 2008 — unless Congress can rise to the occasion to save the Queen. And, like the Rhynders, Len and Sandy Lepper of Bowling Green, Ohio, are hopeful they can continue their trips “anytime we can afford it.” So far, they have made 12 voyages on the Delta Queen. Combined, they have made 23 trips on the three steamboats. But, the Delta Queen is their favorite, they said.

“It’s a piece of legend — a piece of history,” Len Lepper said. “It’s the friendliest of the three boats.”

The steamer, a National Historic Landmark, has a steel hull with a wooden superstructure.

Congress decided more than 40 years ago to provide a special exemption from the SOLSA law for the historic Delta Queen. Congress had extended the exemption about six times, but has taken a firmer stance about retiring the boat this time.

Theony contends, however, that safety has never been an issue and, because of its inland voyages, believes the vessel doesn’t fit the criteria outlined in the SOLSA restrictions.

“This boat never goes at sea, and we’re always able to push out to the bank. It wouldn’t be like we’re stranded,” he said.

Upgrades have also been made in the past 20 years to protect its structure from fire.

“We have a fire detector that has a monitor that tells what room or space (is on fire). We have a crew that is always on duty. If an alarm goes off, they’re notified and sent to the room or space,” he said. “With that aspect alone, nothing could happen.”

Ginny Rhynders said she believes the boat is safer than the wood-framed home where she and her husband live.

“It’s so safe. I’ve never felt unsafe,” she said of the boat, which they refer to as their second home.

The Delta Queen’s allure — from its calliope that plays tunes upon arrivals and departures to its red sternwheel — is the main reason people are determined to keep the floating museum active as an overnight passenger boat.

“She is a part of history — she touches people’s lives, as well as local economies,” Theony said. “Even people who never could be passengers, who would stop whatever they were doing — I saw a woman once stop hanging up her wash and tell everybody (the Delta Queen was coming). It touches so many people’s lives.”

For Capt. Larry Wilkinson, a Vicksburg native and 1981 graduate of Vicksburg High School, the Delta Queen has become his home away from home — one that he said will be greatly missed if it’s taken off the water.

“It would be a shame to see her go. A lot of people enjoy her,” he said.

Although some potential passengers might make alternate travel plans because of the flag Congress has raised on the Delta Queen, the Rhynderses have made their choice clear.

“This is the one we want to be on,” Ginny Rhynders said.

Further, her husband said, “This is the one we want to stay on.”