The Waiting Game

Congressional exemption holding up
potential sale of Delta Queen

Madison area riverboat fans
hoping to see boat sail again

(October 2014) – Kathie Petkovic has long had a fascination with riverboats. Since taking her first ride on the Delta Queen in 1999, she has been hooked on a nostalgic part of America’s river history.

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She went on a Civil War cruise aboard the Delta Queen and “I fell in love with the river,” she said. She took along her parents and a friend, and it was “the first time I had ever been on a paddlewheel boat. We booked two more trips that summer.”
Part of the experience lies in the friends you meet, said Petkovic, who moved to Madison, Ind., from Florida in the 1990s. The adventure was “nothing like a big cruise ship,” which she has been on before.

Delta Queen

Photo by Don Ward

The Delta Queen is moored on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tenn., where until this year it had been operating as a floating hotel.

She said it’s amazing how things change, “when you slow down to 4 mph. Life goes too fast. Steam boatin’ was an easier time. I love traveling that way on the American waterways.”
Petkovic believes “steamboats were a significant part of the growth of America.” Since she has gotten older, “older things have become more important to me.”
She now owns the Riverboat Inn in Madison, where 20 riverboat paintings are scattered throughout the lobby. All 50 plus-rooms have a steamboat painting in them, she said.
Madison has long been a docking point for riverboats cruising the Ohio River. In the past, the Delta Queen could be seen regularly on the river, tunes from its steam calliope filling the air.
It is one riverboat about which many Madison area residents care deeply. The Delta Queen’s history is intertwined with the town’s rich riverboat heritage.  
The Delta Queen was fabricated from 1924-1927 on the River Clyde at the William Denny & Brothers Ltd in California and Dumbarton, Scotland, and assembled at Banner Island Shipyard in Stockton, Calif. The Delta Queen had a twin, the Delta King, and both boats ran for the California Transportation Co. of San Francisco. They took up regular service on June 1, 1927, and ran for 13 years.


The riverboat has a long colorful history of service. During World War II, it was used by the U.S. Navy as a receiving ship for naval reservists. When the United States officially entered the war, the Delta Queen and its twin were rushed into Navy service as emergency hospital transports.
The Delta Queen took a legendary voyage through the Panama Canal on April 19, 1947. After 29 days, she had covered 5,261 miles of open sea.
The riverboat, which has had many owners over the years, used to be a regular visitor to Madison’s riverbank. She was decommissioned from cruising in 2008 when an exemption to U.S. Coast Guard rule, the 1960 Safety of Lives at Sea Act, expired. This rule had allowed her to ply U.S. inland waterways.
In 2009, the riverboat was taken to Chattanooga, Tenn., where it is docked and, until last year, operated as a floating stationary hotel on the banks of the Tennessee River. Many, like Cincinnati resident Katie Blackburn, would like to see the Delta Queen sail the Ohio River again.
“There’s a group of people that are trying to get it back out on the water,” said Blackburn, who is also friends with Petkovic. She encourages residents of other states to support Senate Bill 1022, which, if passed, would again allow the boat to sail on inland waterways. The bill has been stalled in committee for more than a year.
Phillip Johnson, an assistant engineer on board the Belle of Louisville, has been helping to keep the boilers fired up on the Delta Queen in recent months while a group of potential buyers, led by investor Cornel Martin of Thibodaux, La., tries to raise the capital needed to purchase the vessel and put her back into service on America’s inland waterways. Johnson says the city of St. Louis is “very interested” in homeporting the boat on its shores, from where it would base its cruises. The group also approached the city of Cincinnati, where the Delta Queen previously had been homeported for many years. But Cincinnati city officials did not express much interest, Johnson said.
But the hang up on the purchase of the boat continues to be the exemption that is stalled in Congress.
“It’s like the chicken or the egg,” Johnson said during a September interview. “Most of the money has been raised, but the remaining investors are waiting to see if the exemption passes before they will invest.”
He added that the legislation has a good chance of passing before the end of the year. “We are all hopeful,” he said.
Blackburn, meanwhile, says visitors to the boat are easily impressed. “Once you walk on board and she gets her bucket boards (claws) in you, you’re hooked,” she said.
Much of Blackburn’s interest in the Delta Queen can be attributed to her mother. “My mother knew Tom Green who brought the Delta Queen to Cincinnati. We used to ride the streetcars in town; we had free passes to ride because of my grandfather. We would go down to the river and watch the boats come and go.”
Although Blackburn was still very young at this time she knew, “mom had a fascination with the boat. She collected a lot of stuff.”
Blackburn said her mother always talked about the Island Queen and the Delta Queen. People would ride the Island Queen up to Coney Island. From hearing the stories and being around the riverboats, “I just got to the point where I really wanted to take a ride on a boat,” said Blackburn.
She worked and saved enough money to take a three-day weekend with a co-worker aboard the Delta Queen in 1973. Her interest accelerated in the ’90s, and she met one of her closest friends on the American Queen. Now both are retired and have been on all the boats that the Delta Queen Co. owned at one time.
“I love to stop at all of the little towns,” said Blackburn. “The people are just very friendly.”
She was made aware of the history that surrounds such cruises when on a cruise near Smithland, Ky. It was this location in which Indians on the Trail of Tears wintered, but Blackburn found out that the actual story differed from what is taught in history books.
“On a boat, you go different places and hear the history of the places. You can put faces with dates and names. It all comes together.”    
After spending two to three days on a riverboat, “Everybody falls in love with it,” said Petkovic.

Editor Don Ward contributed to this story.

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