Let us here observe a preemptive moment of silence. Let us look down the river, watch for her smoke from around the bend, and reflect on History with a capital "H." We are entering the last act of a play that only one actress can still perform, and soon she'll be gone too.
The story is this: The great stern-wheel steamship Delta Queen, built in 1927 and once the namesake of the Delta Queen Steamship Company, has operated since 1966 under a special Congressional exemption to Coast Guard fire-safety standards. The problem is her superstructure, a wedding cake of oak, cedar, teakwood, mahogany, and ironwood -- lovely to look at, delightful to know, but banned utterly by the powers that be, who fear conflagration on the high seas. That latter un-reality -- the fact that Delta Queen never does sail on the high seas, but instead stays within about a mile of land at all times (and often considerably closer) -- probably swayed some lawmakers to sign on to her six previous extensions, but this time the fear-based community won out. Before it broke for its August recess, the U.S. Congress decided not to extend Delta Queen's exemption again, meaning that 2008 will be her final year as an overnight vessel.
Majestic America Line (tel. 800/434-1232; www.majesticamericaline.com), current owner of Delta Queen and five other, more modern-built stern-wheelers, enlisted members of Congress from most of the states visited by the great ship, but in the end the numbers were against them.
"We are incredibly disappointed by this decision," said Joe Ueberroth, president and CEO of Majestic America's parent company, Ambassadors International, "but we are extremely grateful to those who worked tirelessly on behalf of the Delta Queen to preserve her place on the Mississippi River. . . . This includes many congressional leaders such as Congressman Lacy Clay (D-MO), who gathered the support of so many of his colleagues, thousands of loyal guests, our hard-working travel partners, and Delta Queen enthusiasts like www.steamboats.org. We appreciate their efforts and we will continue to keep them involved as we plan the best way to honor the Delta Queen."
Delta Queen's steel hull was built in Scotland in the mid-1920, then brought over to California, where American craftsmen fashioned her ornate wooden superstructure and interiors. Along with her sister-ship, Delta King, she was launched in 1927 and began overnight service between San Francisco and Sacramento. Built at the then exorbitant price of $1 million, she was known for her fine interiors. During WWII, the government took her over, painted her gray, and used her to ferry troops around San Francisco Bay. In 1949 Capt. Tom Greene bought her, literally packed her in a big box, and towed her to New Orleans, making her the first and only steamboat to ever transit the Panama Canal.
In recent decades she's sailed a million miles on the Upper and Lower Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Black Warrior, and Cumberland rivers, as well as the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. In 1970, she was recognized as the last operational steam paddlewheeler with overnight accommodations plying America's rivers, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1989 she was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior, and in 2004 she was inducted into the National Maritime Hall of Fame.
Delta Queen is the real deal: Nothing seems contrived or fake, because it isn't. Her antiques are her decor, not just elements dropped in to add authenticity and hominess. With her giant paddle wheel, boxy shape, encircling decks, and forward landing stage, she looks both perfectly in sync with her river home and perfectly out of place -- a relic from a long-gone time, when everything moved more slowly and opulence was the vogue.
Inside, Delta Queen looks more like an upscale southern home or warm B&B than a typical cruise ship, boasting rich wooden interiors, overstuffed couches, and antiques everywhere. Her 87 cabins, which range in size from tight upper-and-lower-berth arrangements to plush rooms with queen-size beds, are done up with stained-glass windows and acres of wood paneling, and almost all open up directly onto the Promenade decks, with chairs and rockers just outside. Just as charmingly, the cabins -- and their occupants -- do without telephones and TVs, helping to ensure an out-of-time experience. Running lengthwise along Cabin Deck, with cabins to port and starboard, the Betty Blake Library is full of historical exhibits, and was named for the woman who lobbied Congress for years to secure Delta Queen's continued career. Just forward of the library, the Cabin Lounge is graced with fluted columns and potted plants. The much-photographed grand staircase, with its wooden railings and shiny brass steps, rises to the Victorian-style Texas Lounge, with its bar, popcorn machine, and daytime games. The ship's one dining room was once a freight deck, and features tin ceilings and a nearly indestructible ironwood floor.
Music aboard is provided by a steam calliope dating to 1897, and the ship's bell is the very same one that sounded landings for the steamboat Mark Twain rode downriver in 1883. Below decks, passengers can still visit the engine room, where slow, heaving Pitman arms turn the thrashing red wooden paddle wheel. Everything here is monitored by spotless brass fittings and gauges -- a little touch of Jules Verne in the thoroughly modern, computerized cruise business.
The exemption that Congress refused to extend will expire in November 2008, and Majestic America has announced its decision to retire the ship at that time. The remaining fifteen months of her active life will be spent in celebration.
"A journey on board the Delta Queen is a true American experience, providing guests with an authentic glimpse of our country's culture and a time in our history when steamboats ruled the rivers," said Majestic America President David A. Giersdorf in a press release. "We will make every sailing in 2008 a special event, allowing every guest, like so many before, the opportunity to share in the Delta Queen's legacy and honor the last chapter in her service on the river."
Twenty-four departures are set for 2008, of which some will be exclusively for previous Delta Queen guests. The line is also planning special commemorative events and gifts to mark the vessel's farewell season. Beyond her retirement date, no decisions have yet been made. Safety requirements mandate that she will no longer be able to accept overnight passengers, but all other options are on the table. In consideration of her distinguished history, we expect a little more than the current occupation of her sister-ship, Delta King (www.deltaking.com), which soldiers on as a floating hotel, restaurant, and event space, permanently moored in Sacramento, California.
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