published Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Delta Queen to sail away: A few details remain, but this piece of floating history is as good as gone

  • photo
    The Delta Queen, a wood-bottomed riverboat, has been docked at Coolidge Park.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Poll
Are you sorry to see the Delta Queen go?

TIMELINE

* 1924 — Construction begins on Delta Queen in Dumbarton, Scotland

* May 1927 — Delta Queen and sister ship Delta King christened

* June 1927 — Both boats begin service between Sacramento and the San Joaquin River Delta

* October 1940 — Delta Queen begins service for the Navy in a variety of roles

* June 1945 — Delta Queen takes newly created United Nations delegates on tour of New York City

* December 1947 — Delta Queen bought by Cincinnati businessman for use on the Mississippi River System

* 1966 — Safety of the Sea law, designed to forbid oceangoing vessels with wooden hulls from carrying overnight passengers, inadvertently affects the Delta Queen

* 1976 — Delta Queen bought by Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of New York

* 1986 — Delta Queen begins sailing out of New Orleans

* 2006 — Majestic America buys Delta Queen, decides not to renew contract with Seafarers Union

* 2007 — Exemption to Safety of the Sea Law not renewed, allegedly blocked by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota

* 2008 — Delta Queen completes last voyage, docks in Chattanooga for use as a hotel and bar

* 2013 — Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke attempts to evict Delta Queen

* February 2014 — An ice storm cripples the Delta Queen, and the boat stops taking visitors

* June 2014 — A group of investors led by businessman Cornel Martin seals deal to buy boat, return it to duty

Source: Steamboats.org, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, news reports

The wood frame of the Delta Queen steamboat creaks and groans as the old lady tugs passively against her moorings. Weather and time have taken their toll on the silent relic, which sits lashed to a storm-damaged quay along Chattanooga's Coolidge Park. Workers have long since battened down her hatches and blocked off her decks.

The only sign of life is a fairly believable scarecrow, cobbled together using an old hat, a pair of boots and a duct-taped Dickies uniform. It sits in the shade with a fire ax across its lap to dissuade intruders.

But the once-stately chunk of floating history soon could return to glory, if a purchase of the 87-year-old river legend clears its last hurdle: an act by the U.S. Senate to allow her to transport passengers over the water.

Businessman Cornel Martin is leading a group of investors through the last stages of buying the Delta Queen for an undisclosed sum before moving her to dry dock for an estimated $6 million to $7 million in repairs. He plans to replace the steam line, generators and air conditioning, as well as a set of boilers that dates back to 1919.

"All we're trying to do is bring the Delta Queen back and get her up and running again, because she's a national treasure, and she's unique, and she's the only way to experience America's rivers on an authentic 1927 steam paddle wheel," Martin said.

Reached by phone on his way back from Washington, D.C., Martin is confident that the Queen will again reign supreme on America's rivers come spring 2015, if the Senate lifts a restriction this summer as expected. After a season of repairs, she'll once again sail up and down the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers, offering tourists a chance at a Prohibition-era adventure that for the last half-decade has remained out of reach.

"When people think Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, they think Delta Queen," Martin said. "There's a lot of nostalgia."

In Cincinnati, voters recently nominated the Delta Queen as the top historic landmark in the city, according to the Cincinnati Preservation Association. More than 16,000 votes were cast, and the Queen's ascent to the No. 1 spot surprised Paul Muller, executive director of the association.

"It was kind of ironic," Muller said, given that the boat hasn't graced Cincinnati's shores since it sailed away for the last time in 2008. "I guess it's the romance of the river and that time. It is a national historic landmark, so from that standpoint it qualifies. But we were surprised."

The boat hasn't received the same outpouring of support at its current home base in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke tried to evict the Queen shortly after he took office in 2013 for nonpayment of rent and to clean up the shoreline -- charges that manager Leah Ann Ingram questioned. Bob Doak, CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, said two dozen influential citizens had criticized the boat for "blocking the view" at a location that was never designed to become its permanent home.

But the mayor softened his tone after the Queen was declared a National Treasure by the National Trust, agreeing to several deadline extensions while current owner Xanterra Parks and Resorts negotiated the sale, and even floating the idea of it remaining in Chattanooga.

"The city looks forward to working with the new owners on a permanent home for the vessel, whether that is here in Chattanooga or if they decide to move her," said Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for the city.

But the Queen will likely find her next mooring in either St. Louis or Cincinnati.

Cincinnati was her home from 1936 to 1986, before she moved down to New Orleans, said Martin, who formerly served as vice president of corporate affairs for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. At its height, the cruise line boasted $200 million in revenues and 2,500 employees, and operated 165 ports in 38 states.

That all fell apart in 2007 amid a dispute between the Seafarers labor union and then-owner Majestic America.

The labor dispute spilled over into Congress, which must periodically act to exempt the Delta Queen from a law forbidding boats with wooden superstructures from carrying 50 or more guests on overnight trips. The exemption stalled -- allegedly blocked by the late U.S. Rep Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat -- and never again recovered sufficient steam to return the Queen to overnight service. Until now.

Now the final bill sponsored by Sen. Sharrod Brown, D-Ohio, is pending in the Senate with six co-sponsors, having passed the U.S. House by a two-thirds majority. Martin is pressing to get it passed by summer to get the Queen into a shipyard by October and have it back in the water in April.

"We need 51 votes, and we're pretty confident that we'll get there," Martin said. "The unions are very supportive at this point. A lot of the crew that worked on the boat before are very anxious to come back on. Some of those crew members date back to the '80s and '90s when I was there. We're anxious to get 'em back."

The purchase agreement is signed. The deposit is down. Get ready to say goodbye, Chattanooga.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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