Vicksburg to wave for Delta Queen’s last hurrah

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 31, 2008

When the Delta Queen, “a big part of our history,” docks in Vicksburg on Nov. 3, the steamboat will be met with hoopla that quite possibly will signal the 82-year-old’s last visit to the city.

“Its loss will definitely have an impact,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens. “It adds to the nostalgia and historic appeal of the city for our visitors and for tourism. Its loss will definitely have an impact.

“It’s another one of those quality-of-life things that we don’t like to see change,” he said, adding, “The boat is a big part of our history.”

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The boat’s future is sandwiched between parent company plans to sell Majestic America Line, which operates the Delta Queen and other heartland riverboats, and a U.S. congressman who has vowed to block further exemptions from the 1966 Safety of Life at Seas Act, which the boat needs to continue overnight cruises.

Queen facts

88 staterooms, all with outside view 174-passenger capacity Crew of 80 • Length — 285 feet Width — 60 feet 4 teak decks Tiffany-style stained-glass windows 1897 steam-powered calliope salvaged from a sunken steamboat Has cruised with Presidents Hoover, Truman and Carter

The boat’s farewell tour, which Majestic is calling the 2008 Delta Queen Tribute Event, will see the Delta Queen stop at Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez en route to New Orleans and retirement.

The stop in Vicksburg, on Nov. 3, will see  Leyens and others board the boat for a tribute and celebration.

“We definitely plan to participate and make a big deal out of it,” Leyens said. “We don’t want to see it disappear quietly. We intend to be very active in the goodbye party and in the public awareness needs.”

The on-deck celebration will include musical selections from the steam-powered calliope and an onboard band, historical commentary, introduction of the captain and a presentation and proclamation from the city, which Leyens said were still being planned.

Without congressional action extending the boat’s exemption from Safety of Life at Seas Act regulations, the Delta Queen will have ceased overnight cruises two days earlier.

Vanessa Bloy, director of public relations for Majestic America Line, confirmed Thursday that “Majestic America Line is for sale. But depending on the outcome of the sale we’re still focusing on the continuing effort to get congressional exemption from the Safety at Seas act and continue our overnight cruises.”

The law in question was passed in 1966. It prohibits a vessel with a wooden superstructure such as the Delta Queen’s from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers.

The Delta Queen has operated with a series of exemptions from SOLAS, but congressional efforts to renew it past Nov. 1 have stalled.

After Congress reconvenes Sept. 8, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, plans to introduce a new bill to continue the Delta Queen’s exemption, a spokesman in his Washington, D.C., office confirmed, but no specifics on his plans were available.

Delta Queen cruises have operated largely in Ohio and Tennessee rivers since Hurrican Katrina roared ashore three years ago, curtailing the Delta Queen and its sister boats from plying the muddy waters of the Mississippi and other rivers.

Vicki Webster, head of the Cincinnati-based Save the Delta Queen Campaign, said her group is thrilled with Voinovich’s support.

“His eyes lit up when he was approached,” she said. “He knows the Delta Queen. He loves the Delta Queen and he assured us he would file legislation when Congress reconvenes after Labor Day.”

Webster said the fight boils down not to safety or politics but to labor. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, introduced a bill in October to extend the exemption, she said, but that legislation remains in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where chair James Oberstar of Minnesota refuses to release it, Webster said. Oberstar’s district, which includes Duluth, is heavily represented by the Seafarer’s International Union, she added. “The union wants all of these boats and ships unionized. The crews do not. They think they are often better off without the union.”

On Majestic America’s Web site, chairman Joe Ueberroth wrote, “When we look at the circumstances surrounding the Delta Queen, it symbolizes what is wrong in America. I ask myself, what has America come to when unions are actively fighting against American jobs? What has America become when our politicians are not fighting to protect our history and traditions? What has our Congress evolved to when committee chairs are so powerful that they, at their sole discretion, will not let legislation that has passed 9 times even reach the floor for a vote?”

Webster said the SIU is attempting to control the issue through the Delta Queen.

“In essence, the Delta Queen is being held hostage” Webster said. “It’s like blowing up the faces on Mount Rushmore because of a dispute between National Park Service employees and the workers who run their snack bar.”

Jim Berard, director of communication for the Oberstar’s committee, said the congressman’s concern is safety.

“The chairman has spoken with the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard does not feel that the Delta Queen should continue to get an exemption because of safety concerns,” Berard said. “His entire career has been built on the issue of safety, and he does not feel it would be in the best interests of safety to continue the exemption.”

Congressional exemption from SOLAS was first granted in 1968 and has been renewed nine times, mostly without opposition. The only exception was in 1970, when Maryland Rep.  Edward Garmatz, then chair of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, repeatedly blocked exemption bills introduced in his committee. The Delta Queen eventually was  rescued by an addendum to a minor Senate measure, which was then sent through the House Judiciary Committee.

That 1970 fight eventually involved letter-writing campaigns, Johnny Cash’s singing about the Delta Queen and editorials from across the nation.

“That’s what we’re going to have to do again,” Webster said. “It’s never been a partisan issue, because it isn’t. It’s never been about safety. There are more safety features on the Delta Queen than the law requires.”

A timeline

1924-1927—Built for $1 million and launched on the Sacramento River with her identical twin, the Delta King

June 1, 1927—Sept. 29, 1940 — Cruised between San Francisco and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta October 1940-October 1941 — Leased by the U.S. Navy for receiving and ferrying naval reservists in San Francisco Bay area Fall 1941 — Along with Delta King, sold to Isbrandsten Steamship Co. of New York, intended to be towed to the East Coast through the Panama Canal for Hudson River cruises December 1941 — After Pearl Harbor, rushed back into naval duty, along with Delta King, as emergency troop hospital transports April-June, 1945 — Carried founding United Nations delegates from 51 nations on sightseeing tours around San Francisco Bay 1946 — Auctioned by the U.S. Maritime Commission to Cincinnati’s Greene Line Steamers for $46,250 April 19,1947 — Insured by Lloyd’s of London and packed in watertight shipping, traversed the Panama Canal en route to New Orleans, arriving May 18 after 19 days covering 5,261 miles of open sea June 21, 1948 — Resumed passenger service, steaming the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers 1966 — Nearly put out of service by the Safety of Life at Sea Law because of her wooden superstructure 1970 — Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but nearly put out of service again because of SOLAS; President Nixon signs another exemption Dec. 31 April 1976 — Sold to Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of New York •1989 — Declared a National Historic Landmark October 2001— Parent company American Classical Voyages filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Aug. 26, 2002 — Resumed service under new ownership, Delaware North Companies, Inc. 2006 — Purchased by Ambassadors International, which forms Majestic America Line 2007 — Majestic America Line announced the Delta Queen will permanently cease operations at the end of the 2008 season