Delta Queen to resume cruising Mississippi River

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 5, 2015

ROYALTY: The Delta Queen passes under the Old Hwy 80 bridge Saturday on her way to New Orleans for a $5 million upgrade. She is being pushed by the J.W. Herron tug.

ROYALTY: The Delta Queen passes under the Old Hwy 80 bridge Saturday on her way to New Orleans for a $5 million upgrade. She is being pushed by the J.W. Herron tug.

A treasure of American river travel is again heading to ports-of-call on the rivers of the nation’s heartland.

The Delta Queen humbly made her way her under the Mississippi River Bridges at Vicksburg Saturday, being pushed by the J.W. Herron tug. The Queen is en route to New Orleans for a $5 million upgrade that will see the 1927 sternwheel steamboat again carrying passengers on overnight cruises.

A bill before Congress would allow the vessel to cruise the nation’s waterways again.

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“That law is before the House, and we hope to get it passed before the end of the year and get her running in 2016,” Cornel Martin, president of Delta Queen Steamboat Company said.

In 1966, Congress passed the Safety of Life at Sea Act, which prohibits most wooden boats from carrying passengers overnight. The Delta Queen through a series of exemptions was allowed to continue operations until 2008. She then became a floating dockside hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Martin has a strong personal connection to the vessel and a passion for the preservation of history that compelled him to seek legislation to once again put the Delta Queen in service.

“My connection dates back to 1993 when the Delta Queen went for her exemption and she almost lost it. Following that the CEO at the time decided to bring on somebody fulltime who could work with Congress, the Coast Guard, ports, mayors and cities and keep them tuned up on the need for the exemption. And make sure that when it came to renew the exemption in 1997, we wouldn’t have an issue. That was my job.

“Of course I handled all their government relations all the way up to 2004,” Martin said. “Then I came back in 2012 and partnered with the folks who were running her as a dockside hotel in Chattanooga, and started working with them to cue up the legislation again. We actually purchased the vessel on Feb. 17, and I’m one of the owners along with several other folks. We purchased the vessel, and now we’re taking her to Louisiana to start remodeling and getting her back into shape to start cruising again in 2016.”

Completed in 1927, the Delta Queen ran a route through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta until 1940. During World War II, the vessel and its twin the Delta King, were pressed into service by the U.S. Navy, and painted battleship gray. In 1947, the Delta Queen was sold as war surplus to the Greene family from Cincinnati, Ohio. She was tugged through the Panama Canal to New Orleans to be used as a cruise ship on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Once upgrades are complete the vessel will once again cruise the same routes she did for 60 years.

“She’ll run pretty much the same itinerary she ran before, from New Orleans to Galveston to Mobile on the Intracoastal Waterway.” Martin said. “Up to St. Paul, Minnesota on the Mississippi, to Pittsburgh on the Ohio, to Chattanooga and Nashville on the Tennessee and Cumberland and up to Tulsa, Oklahoma on the Arkansas River.

“She’ll be doing her regular stops in Vicksburg as she always has. She would stop in Vicksburg pretty much every trip between New Orleans to Memphis, and she’ll also do round trips from New Orleans to Vicksburg and those are 7-day itineraries,” Martin said. “Vicksburg will be one of her regular stops coming to and leaving from New Orleans.”

Martin has high hopes the bill before Congress will pass, but said there’s always a Plan B.

“If the law doesn’t pass we’ll have to look at other options, but the Delta Queen belongs on the river and she needs to be cruising again to give people the opportunity to see America from the decks of an American steamboat,” Martin said.