Saving the Queen

Delta Queen loses another bid
that would allow it to operate

Rallies are scheduled to build support
for historic vessel

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(June 2008) – For years, residents along the Ohio River have listened for the sound of a familiar calliope to indicate the legendary Delta Queen, with her beautiful red sternwheel, was nearing their towns. Unfortunately, however, a defeat in the U.S. House of Representatives of an exemption that would have allowed the historic steamboat to continue operating may end Delta Queen trips up the Ohio River.

Delta Queen

Photo by Don Ward

The Delta Queen makes a stop in
in early May, a day after
winning the steamboat race at the
Kentucky Derby Festival in Louisville.

On April 24, a House rules committee voted 9-4 against allowing the amendment to the Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill to reach the House floor. U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, used a parliamentary maneuver to bring the amendment to a floor vote, but lawmakers defeated the measure by a vote of 208-195. U.S. Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., voted for the extension.
Chabot blamed labor unions and partisan politics for the vote rejecting the amendment that could have kept the Delta Queen from having to end its overnight cruise packages.
The Queen must cease her long-distance voyages in November 2008 unless an exemption can be obtained from a federal law forbidding wooden superstructures on vessels that carry 50 or more passengers on overnight trips, according to Majestic America Line, which owns the boat.
The historic riverboat has been operating with a special Congressional exemption from the federal Safety at Sea Act since 1968, an exemption that has been renewed eight times. The safety act bans the use of wooden vessels for overnight cruises. Backers of the exemption claim the Delta Queen deserves special treatment because of its historical significance and recently upgraded fire-safety systems. With the exemption scheduled to expire on Nov. 1, local Congressional members pushed for an extension for months.
U.S. Rep James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, blocked the exemption from reaching the House floor for a vote. In previous years, and as recently as last year, Oberstar has voted at least twice to support the Queen’s exemption.
Some of the opposition to the exemption had been blamed on a labor dispute involving Majestic America Line, the company that bought the Delta Queen in 2006.
The company did not renew a collective bargaining agreement with the Seafarers International Union.after taking over management of the Delta Queen.
The Seafarers union previously represented most Delta Queen workers. The union had supported the exemption in the past, but now opposes it, says Joseph McCarthy, general counsel for Ambassadors International, which owns Majestic America Line.
A statement on the union’s website adamantly denies that it “could or would” guarantee approval of the waiver. The statement said the union makes “every effort to assist our contracted companies” and potentially could “present a persuasive argument” concerning the exemption because of its safety expertise.
During an interview in May when the Delta Queen made a stop in Madison, Ind., Co-Captain Buford Wilson, who has worked on the iconic steamboat for 27 years, said the entire company is involved in trying to save the Delta Queen from forced retirement. “We are doing everything we can,” he said. Wilkinson feels that public support will help save the Queen. “She’ll keep running,” he said.
Willkinson, who resides in Vicksburg, Miss., when he is not aboard the Delta Queen, started as a deckhand and worked his way up to captain. Paul Thoeney, of Franklin, La., shares the responsibilities of piloting the treasured ship.
Sherrin and Ken Kraus, of Hanover Beach, Ind., were on hand when the Delta Queen made its stop in Madison. They have taken two cruises aboard the Delta Queen and have planned to be on one of her final voyages in October.
“The tradition of the Delta Queen is important to people who live on the river,” said Sherrin. “It is terrible that she may be forced to retire.”
Betsy Coradine, of Indian Harbour, Fla., also stood at the riverfront in support of the Delta Queen when she docked in Madison. “The politicians don’t understand the tradition and culture that surrounds the steamboat,” she said. “She’s one of a kind; it doesn’t cost them anything to vote in support of her.”
Built in 1926, the Delta Queen is registered as a National Historic Landmark and is the last of thousands of operational steam-powered stern-wheelers that used to be seen traveling the rivers in the United States. She was inducted into the National Maritime Hall of Fame in 2004.
A veteran of World War II and the only steamboat to transit the Panama Canal, the Delta Queen has been host to three U.S. presidents and a princess. Numerous celebrities and other dignitaries have graced her hand-crafted decks and stately rooms.
She can accommodate up to 176 passengers on her four luxurious decks, and for years has been a beloved fixture along the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Black Warrior and Cumberland rivers.
Though its decks and superstructure are wood, its hull is steel. The boat’s state-of-the-art fire safety system can instantly pinpoint any problem and is monitored 24 hours a day.
Numerous rallies have been planned in support of the Delta Queen along the Ohio River. On May 26, a rally was held in Madison.

• For more information about efforts to save the Delta Queen, visit: www.save-the-delta-queen.org.

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