The Delta Queen is dead in the water, its bar closed, its decks manned by plumbers and carpenters who are working against time as the clock ticks down toward the boat's last month in Chattanooga.
The bitter winter cold, which played havoc with plumbing all over the Scenic City in January and February, took a gruesome toll on the floating hotel. Single-digit temperatures split pipes and ruined historic wood trim on all decks of the 87-year-old landmark, which was named a National Treasure by the National Trust in September 2013.
"The boat was never built to sustain cold weather for that long of a period of time," said Leah Ann Ingram, general manager of the Delta Queen, which since 1927 has logged more than two million miles and carried half a million passengers.
With the 2008 expiration of the Delta Queen's Congressional exemption to a Coast Guard rule that forbids boats with wooden structures from carrying more than 50 passengers on overnight trips, the floating hotel has remained moored in front of Coolidge Park in Chattanooga in what have become unfriendly waters.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke sought to boot the boat shortly after he took office in 2013 for nonpayment of rent and to clean up the shoreline, according to a spokesman, but the city has periodically extended the lease in response to requests from Delta Queen owner Xanterra Parks and Resorts.
There's no way to predict how long it will take to repair the Queen or how much it will cost, Ingram said, because of the difficulty involved in repairing a historic structure, and because crews are still running into damage.
Simply finding the leaks in the first place was a challenge. Ingram had to track down the Delta Queen's former captain, who previously oversaw the installation of the boat's sprinkler system in the 1990s, to help isolate and fix broken pipes and damaged panels on the boat. That alone took three weeks.
Even today, workers -- including craftsmen brought in to recreate the historic tongue-in-groove wood design that prevailed just before the Great Depression -- continue to find leaks and other issues, she said, which pushes back the completion date and pushes up repair costs.
"It could be next week, it could be two weeks, it could be a month. It just depends on what the crew finds," Ingram said.
The timeline could be a problem, because the broken boat will have to find a new home if owner Xanterra is unable to renew its lease with the city. That lease now is set to expire on March 31, the city has said. If the lease is not renewed, the Delta Queen may be towed away to be overhauled at another location.
Ingram doesn't understand the city's efforts to eject the American icon from Chattanooga's waterfront.
The city of Memphis actually took out a $9 million HUD section 108 loan to help refurbish a similar riverboat called the American Queen, which is bringing in millions of dollars in additional tax and tourist revenue, Ingram said.
"You would think, if Memphis could do that for American Queen, why could Chattanooga not do that for Delta Queen?," Ingram said.
Currently, there's intense interest in the Delta Queen from St. Louis, Louisville, New Orleans, and even from a group of businessmen in Cincinnati who have vowed to buy the boat once the U.S. Senate passes its version of a House bill that would allow it to again carry passengers overnight, Ingram said.
In Xanterra's latest letter to Chattanooga officials, in which it requested an extension to March 31, the company said that a sale was "imminent," but that the process had taken longer than expected, said Lacie Stone, communication director for the city.
Xanterra did not respond to requests for comment.
The Senate bill, which was sent to committee on May 22, 2013, amid Congressional squabbling about the debt ceiling, regained its second wind when it picked up two new cosponsors on Jan. 28 -- Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Sen. Mary Pryor, D-Ark., who will join a bipartisan group of their fellow senators from Louisiana, Ohio and Mississippi.
"There is absolutely a chance, there is a huge chance that it will pass before our lease runs out," said Ingram, who personally lobbied the members of Arkansas' delegation.
Both Arkansas senators were swayed by the prospect of the economic impact that the Delta Queen would bring to small Arkansas towns, Ingram said. She estimates that if the Delta Queen were based out of Chattanooga, the potential economic impact for the Scenic City alone could be $10 million per year.
"Memphis saw that this was a huge piece of business for them, so really we've modeled our whole project after what the American Queen did with Memphis," she said. "You have folks getting off our vessel, using hotels, attractions, the airport, heading home, then you have people coming in. It's not about fighting with the mayor, it's about saving American history. Let's do what's good for the Delta Queen."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6315.
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, ...