Part Two of Shawn Dake’s river cruise aboard steamboat DELTA QUEEN
DAY 5, OCTOBER 12, 2007, PORT OF CLAY COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI
Talk about waking up and not knowing where you are. The Majestic America Line brochure says today’s call is Waverley Plantation; the daily program says Columbus, Mississippi; and outside the reality is we are tied next to a barge by a rather derelict looking field, dotted with rusting cranes and old equipment. Just ahead is a grain dock bearing the rather clever name “Tom Soya Grain Company” and identifying this as the Port Of Clay. The other two destination titles are not entirely wrong. It is just that they are rather distant from the boat and require a shore excursion or shuttle respectively. It matters not to me, as I’ve decided to take a day off from touring and stay on board, photographing the DELTA QUEEN while the majority of passengers are ashore. I start off with the Pilot House. While underway, this area remains off-limits, but on port days, tours are offered.
Of all the wonderful things on the DELTA QUEEN, the Pilot House is the only minor disappointment. I expected to see the big wheel that once was there, only to find that it had been removed more than a half century ago. The four rudders are steered by what amounts to a stick control. There are also bow and stern thrusters. Windows have been changed and the overall look is a combination of wheelhouse and kitchen, with a microwave oven, toaster and sink. A stereo played music by Ozzy Osbourne and The Who; not exactly riverboat sounds. Still, the view from up there was great. Open bridge wings project on either side allowing unobstructed panoramas fore and aft.
As I descended from on high, I stopped off for photos in each of the steamboat’s four major public rooms: The Texas Lounge, the Forward Cabin Lounge, the Betty Blake Library and the Orleans Room. The latter is located on the lowest passenger level, now called Main Deck, in the former Cargo Deck area. The aft end of this deck is given over to the galley, a crew mess and the engine room which is open for passenger visits. That became my next destination.
Upon entering, the eye is drawn to the aft bulkhead where a wood and brass plaque reads “Engines Built 1925 By C.H. Evans & Co. San Francisco. Three beautiful brass gauges are inscribed with “DELTA QUEEN, California Transportation Co.” Most of the Queen’s steam engine actually came from Scotland, although the Charles H. Evans Co. is credited with the design and installation once they got to California. The two water tube boilers are located far forward of the engine space and were bought new, but from World War I surplus dating back to 1919. The DELTA QUEEN’s engines are horizontal cross compound steam, with a high pressure cylinder of 26 inch diameter and a low pressure cylinder of 52 inch diameter, developing 2,000 horsepower. The 10 foot stroke drives a 10 ton Pitman Arm with a length of 40 feet, turning the 44 ton paddlewheel. Part of the machinery from the DELTA KING lives on aboard its twin sister. In 1954, a piston rod broke and lodged in the high-pressure cylinder, nearly ending the career of the DELTA QUEEN. When the engines were removed from the DELTA KING, fortunately, Fulton’s Shipyard at Antioch, California preserved the parts, which were purchased by the Greene Line. In 1980, when the DELTA QUEEN broke her steel paddle-wheel shaft the original from the DELTA KING was available as a replacement, and still remains turning today.
As for the DELTA KING, the boat is a hotel, restaurant and entertainment complex at Sacramento, California, beautifully restored, but without engines. Just before I left the extraordinary museum that is the engine room of the DELTA QUEEN, a call came down saying the Captain wanted plenty of steam. It seemed a strange request as it would be several hours before the boat sailed. As I walked outside the melodic sound of the steam whistle began blowing and blowing and did not stop. It turned out the DELTA QUEEN was sounding a mournful tribute to a frequent and popular river traveler who had passed away. What a wonderful way to be remembered, and another example of how much the passengers and crew of the DELTA QUEEN become family. Having a little extra time on my hands, I went ashore for a walk up old Mississippi Highway 50, in the heart of the south. Saw an amusing Halloween decoration reading “Happy Fall Y’all” and felt at home, in this place so different from where I come from. At noon, the DELTA QUEEN pushed off the bottom of the muddy riverbank and began steaming again. I enjoyed my light lunch of a fried oyster and shrimp “Poor Boy” sandwich and slice of Key Lime Pie. The afternoon passed quietly, sailing slowly between banks lined with pretty green trees. Passed through another set of locks named for Senator John C. Stennis. The afternoon lecture titled “Eyes Along The River” was a timely presentation on birds and wildlife, by my next door cabin neighbor Jim Williams. Jim is a steamboat fan that has served as a naturalist, riverlorian and is a staunch supporter of efforts to save the DELTA QUEEN. His talk was put to practical use soon after, as we were passing through some very scenic stretches of the waterway, filled with birds; osprey, heron, egrets, white pelicans and buzzards among others. It was a hot day, but on the shaded bow of the Cabin Deck it stayed comfortable. I made myself at home on the wooden swing suspended from the deck above, and sipped rum and cokes while trying to read, but the ever changing scenery was too pleasantly distracting to get very far. We passed a beautiful campground and later a houseboat anchored amongst the trees. This is billed as a “Fall Foliage Cruise” but with drought conditions across the south, until today few autumn colors were visible.
Somewhere along this section, the DELTA QUEEN passed the state line from Mississippi into Alabama. Approaching the Tom Bevill Lock and Dam the steam paddle-wheeler MONTGOMERY was visible off to port. Although raised on blocks out of the water, this old steam dredge is reportedly fully operational. A modern interpretation of an antebellum-style building stood beside it. The Tom Bevill Lock is one of the prettiest we have gone through, and also one of the last we will see on the Tenn-Tom Waterway. The spillway of the dam was releasing lots of water. As we lowered down, the bollards the DELTA QUEEN ties up to, float down with the boat, squeaking along their concrete tracks. As the giant gates opened a new panorama of river appeared, highlighted by the setting sun. Once the sun was gone, the evening cooled off quickly. It was time to come inside, relax in the cabin and catch up with the logbook entries before dinner. The dictionary definition of gastronomy is “the art or science of good eating.” Once again I continued my studies with a feast of cold sirloin and grated olives as an appetizer, followed by a tasty spinach and duck salad. The main course was an unusual marinated and fried Cornish game hen. Strawberry shortcake and vanilla ice cream made a fine dessert.
Cruise Director, Mike Gentry put on a great show tonight with his banjo playing and sing-a-longs that really got the audience’s toes a-tappin’ and hands a-clappin’. Away from the crowd, I walked around all three decks and watched the paddlewheel for awhile. The stars shown in the clear night, then suddenly fog shrouded the DELTA QUEEN in an eerie and mysterious haze. It was a night to experience the many moods of the river.
DAY 6, OCTOBER 13, 2007, CRUISING THE TENNESSEE-TOMBIGBEE WATERWAY AND THE BLACK WARRIOR RIVER
In the early morning, the fog still hung over the river but the tops of trees were becoming visible. The hardworking deck hands were out early, as they are everyday, swabbing the decks and wiping down the railings. Today will be the last full day of cruising before reaching the final destination of this journey. Yet in so many ways, quietly gliding over smooth water, between, but always close to the forest, and feeling the inner peace that only a river can provide, is the destination. This is a different side of America, one far removed from the nonsense of politicians and the blathering of news media. Removed from roadways and billboards and the distractions of our so-called normal, everyday lives. As I sit in a rocking chair on the bow of this riverboat, herself a relic, far removed from the modern age, I am in perfect harmony with the things that are good and right with this world. The book I am reading is a wonderful companion on this trip. ‘River-Horse’ by William Least Heat-Moon provides evocative images of traveling across America by boat. A small example: “River travel commonly makes this country appear as it ought to be… I could never really know America until I saw it from the bends and reaches of its flowing waters.” Part of the beauty of the DELTA QUEEN is found in what is physically aboard: the oak, mahogany, walnut and Oregon cedar wood-paneling, the teak railings and the Siamese ironbark floor of the Orleans Room, the coppered (not leaded) stained-glass windows, crystal chandeliers, the wonderful sound of the steam whistle and a million other small things. But the real beauty is in the sense of isolation and what’s not on board: no television, telephones or internet.
We have steamed past some lovely scenery today including some chalk white cliffs for a few miles along the right bank. After lunch, DELTA QUEEN made a sharp turn to port as we left the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and entered the mouth of the Black Warrior River-the last of our four rivers this trip. At the confluence, two bass fishermen must have been surprised to find a big steamboat coming at them, like a ghost from the past. Few cruises make their way into these waters. A little way up the Black Warrior, the smokestack was lowered as we passed under two bridges; a highway then a rail lift bridge. A ways further upstream, the DELTA QUEEN stopped by the riverbank to allow a six-barge tow of coal to pass. The downstream boat always has the right of way. As the towboat BILOXI passed, both boats exchanged whistle salutes.
Cruising all day gives me time to bring up some random thoughts that I have not mentioned before. The DELTA QUEEN has the greatest chairs! Wooden white rocking chairs are everywhere, metal chairs on the Texas Deck bow include some that recline and rock, and the swings on the forward Cabin Deck are simple (and simply) perfection. Watching the paddlewheel provides endless entertainment. The perspective is different from each of the four decks. As it has throughout the trip, it turns at 12 revolutions per minute. Speed is measured by RPM’s rather than miles-per-hour because the flow of the river affects the vessel so much depending if it is going with or against the current. For those that must know speeds, this cruise has probably averaged about five miles per hour. A civilized pace to see the world. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the light became even more fantastic. The glass surface of the water was a mirror for the trees towering skyward. Just another perfect day on the river.
Darkness, the chilly evening air and the promise of the Captain’s Champagne Reception finally lured me indoors. Dress aboard the DELTA QUEEN is usually casual but tonight suit and tie were requested. Met Captain Wilkinson and the officers and staff once again. I was quite well-served with several glasses of champagne, and arriving at the dinner table found yet another one waiting. Even without the generous libations, the dinner still would have been delicious. Lobster bisque, followed by Dungeness Crab with a shrimp salad with blue cheese dressing. My entree selection was a perfect slice of Prime Rib with baked potato. Tonight’s dessert was a “swan” filled with chocolate and whipped cream. The show once again was performed by Velda and Eric with music from the 1940’s and 50’s. Before going to bed, I went on deck and watched the pilot pick out the channel with the help of the searchlights.
DAY 7, OCTOBER 14, 2007, BLACK WARRIOR RIVER TO TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA
With our arrival time uncertain, I woke up at 3:30am and looked out the window to see the bright lights of a barge tow outside as we slowly crept by. Went back to sleep until daylight, and was pleased to find that we were still cruising. Went down to breakfast and enjoyed a bagel, egg and bacon sandwich along with grits and brown sugar from the buffet. At the Oliver Lock the DELTA QUEEN made one final ascent beyond the dam, then passed under a railroad bridge and a road bridge. At a spot that barely seemed big enough, the boat edged up to the bank of the river, tied off to a couple trees and at 9:00am, the cruise was over. We had reached Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The arrival was not without drama, as the cable from the kingpost to the landing stage got snagged in a Sycamore tree, threatening to break either branch or line. Against this rather steep hillside in a riverfront park, you would not know that you are in one of the most famous university towns in the south. Tuscaloosa is home to the University Of Alabama, Crimson Tide. Tuscaloosa was an Indian chief, and the name means Black Warrior.
Although the final landing is complete, the activities of this cruise are far from over. This morning’s “Historic Vessel Tour” showcased the alterations that have been made throughout the career of the DELTA QUEEN and pointed out some facts that would not have been known otherwise. The Cabin Deck has received the most extensive renovations from the original 1927 configuration, but even when changes have been made, most of them still date back to the conversion in 1947/48. The 1990 addition of a new, deeper, wider hull wrapped around the original, is one of the few major changes the boat has undergone in recent years. Like her passengers, the DELTA QUEEN’s bottom has widened in her later years. On a Sunday morning in Tuscaloosa, not too much is happening. I took a walk through downtown and saw only a few cars and almost no people. The DELTA QUEEN nestled along the river, was the prettiest attraction in my biased opinion. Had lunch on board; a salad, cheeseburger and slice of pumpkin pie. Perhaps because we hadn’t already spent enough time on the river, several other passengers and I decided to go on a river excursion aboard the BAMA BELLE, which was tied up just ahead of us. Mainly I wanted to get some more photos of the DELTA QUEEN from the river.
The cruise proved to be a nice outing, first sailing upriver, then back down as far as the dam, providing some beautiful views of our classic sternwheeler. In a grand gesture of Southern hospitality, a couple of fellow BAMA BELLE passengers offered to give me a tour of the University campus, which on a sunny day in a red convertible was a memorable treat. This cruise, voyage #DQ630, was supposed to have concluded at Birmingham, Alabama but due to low water in the river, Tuscaloosa was as far as it could go. The final night would be spent tied to the trees. As if to compensate, the sunset placed a golden glow on the sides of the DELTA QUEEN. As it sank lower, the downriver bridges were silhouetted and perfectly reflected in the surface of the water.
At the same time the calliope, bathed in colored lights gave out another fine performance. A passenger requested “Yankee Doodle” which after a few bars quickly segued into a rousing version of “Dixie” meant to appease the local fire department that was on board for a visit. It was a night to say goodbyes to the wonderful staff aboard the DELTA QUEEN, from the gift shop to the waiters and everyone else who made this cruise so memorable. Next, a final dinner in the Orleans Room where I would soon miss the fine food, but not the calories. Tonight I tried the baked Oysters Rockefeller, Salmon Wasabi and roast duck in barbecue sauce. Dessert was a very rich “S’mores Pie” made up of a heavy chocolate brownie with marshmallows and ice cream. After dinner I turned to the chores that are the inevitable ending of a cruise: packing the suitcase and placing it outside the cabin door. Went down one last time for the farewell show with all the entertainers and the band. A lovely rendition of the John Hartford song “Delta Queen Waltz” was a fitting finale. For me, a final walk around the darkened deck would be my personal finale to this memorable voyage.
DAY 8, OCTOBER 15, 2007, TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA
Rolled out of bed before sunrise and had a shower. Stepping outside the cabin door, I breathed in the brisk, clean, air of dawn. Touched the leaves of the overhanging trees as I walked forward on the Texas Deck to get a feel for the upcoming day. The weather during this week was picture perfect. Today, for the first time, clouds were building up, threatening rain. A good match for my own mood which held a mixture of sadness at having to leave this wonderful old vessel that has been my home for a week, and the trepidation of airline travel. Enjoyed a full breakfast in the dining room with an apple pastry, bacon, sausage, an omelet, tea and orange juice. On most cruise ships, the final morning feels like they are trying to throw you out. Not so, on the DELTA QUEEN. The high level of service remained intact. In fact, many of the crew seemed sorry to see us go, and I was certainly sorry to be leaving. Back to the stateroom to pick up the carry-on bags, then it was time to go.
Along the deck, through the doors of the Texas Lounge, down the Grand Staircase, across the Forward Cabin Lounge, descending the narrower set of brass stairs onto the Main Deck bow and across the landing stage, just like at every stop along the way, only this disembarkation was the final one. Buses were standing by, along with our luggage, ready for the hour or so drive northeast to Birmingham. Along the way it began to rain. Bad weather to the west had shut down Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport snarling air travel. A long day of security lines, sitting in airports and dealing with always charming airline personnel, made me long for a time when transportation was much more civilized. A time like it must have been in 1927. Or a time like it was just hours ago, for me. The DELTA QUEEN is that time capsule. It is a necessary part of life in America.
“No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the Congress is in session.” – Mark Twain
The DELTA QUEEN has survived many things during the nine decades of her existence. But the biggest threat to her continued operation has always been the United States Congress. Ironically, they also have the power to save her. Without Congressional legislation, the DELTA QUEEN will cease cruising in November, 2008. A brief bit of background is in order regarding Public Law 89-777, the 1966 Safety Of Life At Sea or SOLAS act. In 1965, the vintage cruise liner YARMOUTH CASTLE burned and sank at sea. That vessel had a wooden superstructure. The SOLAS bill banned wooden superstructures on overnight vessels carrying more than 50 passengers. Although designed to prevent disasters on the high seas, the broad language also affected riverboats like the DELTA QUEEN which were never far from shore. Although exemptions were initially granted, the deadline for the DELTA QUEEN to stop sailing was November 2, 1970. One particularly belligerent Congressional representative blocked 25 bills introduced to save the DELTA QUEEN. The proud boat made her “Farewell Forever” voyage down the length of the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans. In the following month, a frenzy of activity led to a clever Missouri Senator quietly attaching a rider to a little-noticed bill to reimburse a postal employee about $900 in moving expenses. The bill, with the amendment to give the DELTA QUEEN an extension to 1973, passed and President Nixon signed it on December 31, 1970. The steamer was saved. Since then, extensions have rather routinely been granted. Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself and in 2007 a very similar scenario to that of 37 years before began playing out. In this case Representative James Oberstar from Minnesota and Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, both Chairmen of their respective Transportation Committees, are thwarting all efforts to present exemption legislation before Congress. While both claim that fire safety is their only motivation, they hold close ties to the Seafarers International Union which until 2006 represented the majority of the steamboat’s employees. Majestic America Line now operates their boats with non-union personnel. The DELTA QUEEN does have a wooden superstructure and nothing, other than destroying the integrity of the boat can change that.
However, the issue of fire safety is addressed better onboard this boat than possibly any other vessel afloat. Fire retardant paint is used throughout, sprinklers cover all areas, every cabin has individual smoke detectors, the majority of cabin doors open directly to the exterior and most importantly, the boat is rarely more than a few yards from shore and with its flat-bottom can be easily beached in the event of an emergency. Representative Steve Chabot of Cincinnati, Ohio, has introduced a stand alone bill to save the DELTA QUEEN, H.R. 3852. Additional co-sponsors and much public support will be needed to gain passage. Information on the current political efforts can be found at www.save-the-delta-queen.org. The DELTA QUEEN has survived the Great Depression, the Second World War, an ocean voyage, and bankruptcies, so supporters hope that she can once again survive this Congress.
The National Historic Landmark designation reads in part “This site possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States Of America.” By this measure, in my opinion it would be anti-American to oppose the preservation of the DELTA QUEEN in her present operational condition. Of course, support from her owners is absolutely essential if the boat is to continue to operate. To clarify the position of Majestic America Line, I recently conducted a telephone interview with Joseph G. McCarthy, Vice-President-Corporate Development, General Counsel for Ambassadors International. In August, 2007 the company announced the retirement of the DELTA QUEEN, effective November, 2008, due to a failure to secure legislation to renew the SOLAS exemption. Regarding that, he stated “We believed with everything in our power, and have invested substantial time, money and effort, and were essentially told it would not happen. We were being actively denied by chairmen on both the Senate and House sides. With Congressman Chabot introducing stand alone legislation, someone like that was needed to champion the cause. Otherwise it is equivalent to tilting at windmills.” I then specifically asked, if legislation does pass to allow the DELTA QUEEN to operate beyond November, 2008, is it Majestic America Line’s position that they would continue to operate the boat? His one word answer was “Absolutely.” So as this is written the future of the DELTA QUEEN is once again in doubt and in the hands of politicians, many of whom know very little about this boat and what she means to her passengers and to American history. It should be mandatory that all members of Congress take a cruise on America’s rivers aboard the DELTA QUEEN. They would see a side of America they had never seen before and learn what those of us who have traveled aboard already know. The DELTA QUEEN is a symbol of America, part of our heritage, and a great way to take a vacation. If I may borrow the title of Letha Greene’s book about her years with the Greene Line, to close this story, “Long Live The Delta Queen”.
In the three years since this story was written events have not been kind to river cruising. Since 2008, overnight passenger service has vanished from America’s inland waterways, for the first time since steamboat service began in 1811. Amid financial difficulties, Majestic America Line decided to voluntarily terminate all of their cruise operations on the Mississsippi and Columbia rivers and along the Alaskan coast. Among the Mississippi steamboats the magnificent AMERICAN QUEEN was seized by the Maritime Administration and never sailed again. In 2010 the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN, built in 1975, was sold for scrap after the gutted and the decaying boat had spent her final years laid up at New Orleans. Congress never did grant the exemption to keep the DELTA QUEEN in service. Despite pledging support during his presidential campaign President Obama had no interest in pushing legislation to save the DELTA QUEEN. It probably would not have mattered by that point anyway as there was no viable company left to run the old steamboat. The DELTA QUEEN disembarked her final contingent of passengers on October 31, 2008. The distinguished steamboat had served for 81 years first in California, then during the second World War transporting troops around San Francisco Bay, and for 60 years (1948-2008) providing pleasure to countless numbers of passengers and crew on the rivers of the Midwest, East and South. After her final voyage, the DELTA QUEEN proceeded to New Orleans to be laid up. Unwanted steamboats can deteriorate quickly or fall victim to vandalism, but good fortune was once again with her. On February 4, 2009, the DELTA QUEEN sailed away from New Orleans under her own power. The route took her along the Gulf Coast, then up the Mobile River to the Tombigbee Waterway, then finally up the Tennessee River to her destination. Fortunately, the boat has found a home at least for the present in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it is being maintained in operational condition as a hotel. Mr. Harry Phillips, owner of Chattanooga Water Taxi and Fat Cat Ferry, agreed to act as “caretaker” for the old steamboat. Her mooring is along the North Shore at Coolidge Park in the heart of Chattanooga’s vibrant waterfront. Much like the DELTA KING, her charming sister in Sacramento, California, the DELTA QUEEN will still welcome visitors in her new stationary role at a floating hotel. They are both survivors from another era, when life was simpler and steamboats were a vibrant part of the American fabric. With horrible economic conditions, no current operator and an indifferent, even belligerent group of politicians in Washington, D.C., there is little hope that the DELTA QUEEN will ever see a return to overnight service on the rivers of America. Still, she lives on and is being operated as closely as possible to the way it was when still sailing. Sadly, passengers can not experience the throbbing of her engines or the spinning of the bright red paddlewheel, but other than that, the wonderful ambiance the boat exudes is still there. Even some of the original riverboat entertainers return from time to time. The DELTA QUEEN has logged more the two million miles and has welcomed over a half million passengers during her charmed career. This is simply another phase of her ongoing history which hopefully will continue for many decades to come.
Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years. A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary. A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs. Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America. With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.