Delta Queen docks in Vicksburg with future in doubt|Queen steams into uncharted future

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The authentic Mississippi River steamboat that kept the packet era alive in Vicksburg left City Front at midnight, steaming into an uncertain future.

On what may be its final passage downriver to New Orleans, the Delta Queen stopped for a celebration and tribute, attended by Mayor Laurence Leyens and about 75 people — young, old and in-between — with cameras, lawn chairs and dogs on leashes.

“People come to Mississippi to see the river and to see the boats going up and down the river,” Leyens said from the deck of the American Queen, which is escorting the Delta Queen. “The tourism associated with these vessels has been very important to Vicksburg.”

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“The Delta Queen is the last authentic steam-powered passenger paddleboat in existence,” said Bill Weimuth, the boat’s resident historian, in an interview aboard the Delta Queen earlier in the afternoon. “Steam is the only thing that moves this boat, and that’s not very different from the way it’s been for two centuries here on the river.”

Wiemuth said the boat’s bell, forged in 1883 in Louisville, Ky., bears a connection with Mark Twain, the steamboat St. Louis and Twain’s riverboat days memorialized in “Life On the Mississippi.” “He listened to that bell ring,” Wiemuth said, gazing past it to the muddy waters of the Yazoo Canal.

For 60 years, the Delta Queen has steamed the Mississippi and inland rivers like the Ohio, the Tennessee and the Cumberland. In more recent years, it has been joined by the Mississippi Queen and American Queen, which are larger, have more modern power plants and meet today’s U.S. Coast Guard safety standards. All are owned by Majestic America Line, which also operates tours in the Northwest and Alaska.

The exemption from Congress under which the Delta Queen has operated has expired and Wiemuth’s future, like that of the entire crew, is unknown. Besides shutting down overnight cruises, the Delta Queen, along with all of Majestic America’s vessels, is expected to be sold and cease operations within the next week or two, he said. No information has been released about the new owners, the financial details of the sale or plans for the fleet’s future.

This trip down the Mississippi has been “heartbreaking,” but also very special, said onboard entertainer Laura Sable. In addition to lectures, parties and shore excursions, passengers on the cruise that ended Saturday in Memphis heard many renditions of the “Delta Queen Waltz” performed in the Texas Lounge by Sable, a 10-year veteran.

“Vicksburg is one of our favorite places to stop,” Sable said.

Under the 1966 Safety of Life at Seas Act, the Delta Queen may still make day trips — but had no overnight passengers when it left Vicksburg, perhaps for the last time. Wiemuth said crew members remain hopeful that Congress will still manage to pass an 11th-hour measure to keep the boat operating, though with the change in ownership a disruption of spring and summer cruises is probably inevitable.

“But even if an exemption is passed by the new Congress in January, with brochures to be printed and other marketing decisions, it would still be feasible to offer a fall cruise schedule,” he said.

At the City Front celebration, Suzanne Martinez of Tavares, Fla., carried a “Save the Queen” sign and passed out postcards of the Delta Queen with “” noted on the back. Martinez and her husband had been among the 170 passengers on the Queen’s final cruise from Cincinnati to Memphis, their 20th trip on the vessel, before disembarking when the most recent exemption expired Saturday. “I hope, but I also take it one step further and pray they will open their hearts and realize what they’ve got here.”

When fully booked, the Delta Queen carried 176 passengers, bedding down in staterooms literally named for states — Iowa, California, Texas and others. On the doors of some staterooms are brass plaques naming them for frequent, favorite or famous guests. One corner cabin is named for Princess Margaret, who was a passenger on the Delta Queen in 1986. Another is named for Jimmy Carter, who with his family took a cruise in 1979 — the only sitting president to do so.

Concerning safety, Wiemuth pointed out, “It was safe enough for a president.”

Lifelong Vicksburg residents Phil and Mary Jane Solomon took their 9-year-old grandson Blake to watch the tribute. “We wish they would find a way to keep it,” Mary Jane Solomon said. “It’s like another part of history that’s going away.”

The Delta Queen was originally scheduled to leave with the American Queen at 6 p.m. Monday, but because the larger vessel had blocked the city’s view of the Delta Queen during the day, the crew revised the schedule and kept the steamboat in Vicksburg until midnight.

“We wanted you to get a good look at her before she sailed down the river and around the bend, possibly into the pages of history,” Wiemuth told the crowd, just before the calliope was heard offering its final tribute to Vicksburg, with “You Are My Sunshine.”


Contact Pamela Hitchins at