By Shawn Dake. First published on MaritimeMatters in 2007.
The DELTA QUEEN is a symbol of America. That rather grand opening statement does not overstate the singular importance of this wonderful old riverboat. The last authentic wooden-structure steamboat, carrying overnight passengers, rightfully deserves her place as a National Historic Landmark, a designation which she has held since 1989. However, superlatives about her significance and longevity, as the DELTA QUEEN approaches her 81st birthday, tell only part of the story. The nearly universal sentiment among both passengers and crew is that being aboard the DELTA QUEEN is like being part of a family. The boat feels like home with its comfortable surroundings of wood, brass, stained glass and antique furnishings. If you have ever had the good fortune to fall in love at first sight, that is the feeling that comes over you in the first moments aboard. With some initial trepidation you come across the landing stage onto the bow, enter through a pair of old oak doors highlighted by the letters “D” and “Q” in stained glass and up a wood and brass staircase into a world in which you would love to stay for as long as is possible. Forever, perhaps? In the space of a few steps, you have left the world of the 21st Century with all its worry and uncertainty, and gone back in time to 1927. And it is a peaceful and cozy place to be.
All images copyright SHAWN J. DAKE, 2007
DAY ONE, OCTOBER 8, 2007, NASHVILLE TENNESSEE, CUMBERLAND RIVER
My story of the DELTA QUEEN begins on a very hot, autumn day in Nashville, Tennessee. Across the Cumberland River is the massive fortress of LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans football team. On the near shore, just below a log replica of historic Fort Nashborough and the skyscrapers of modern Nashville, rests a diminutive steamboat.
My first impression of the DELTA QUEEN is that she is much smaller than expected. In comparison to the cruise ships that I’m used to, she is downright tiny. With the paddlewheel included, the DELTA QUEEN is 285 feet long. The distance across her cambered decks is 60 feet. With a shallow draft of just 9 feet, and a flat bottom, the steamer is able to navigate several of the smaller American rivers, as we will be doing on this voyage. Today, the gross registered tonnage is recorded at 3,360, but prior to the addition in 1990 of a new, wider, outer hull around the original steel, her gross tonnage was only 1,650 tons. Original net tonnage was 589. Once settled in onboard, the size of the boat seems to grow, just as her ambiance grows on you as well. Embarkation is a smooth, painless process, consisting of simply showing a picture identification. The cruise ticket is handed in at the purser’s office, where a quick photo is snapped and a cruise card issued along with your dining table assignment. Rather than wait on a dock, passengers are allowed to come aboard beginning at noon and relax in the lounges or enjoy a light buffet lunch until their staterooms are available at 3pm. Urns of lemonade and ice tea were a welcome refreshment after the heat outside. While most passengers chose to strike up easy conversations with newfound friends, I decided to explore the vessel I had waited so long to see.
The magnificent grand staircase connecting the Forward Cabin Lounge with the Texas Lounge has always been the focal point of the boat. Brass fronted steps, wooden walls and banisters, filigreed railings, overhung by a crystal chandelier all vie for the eye’s attention. At the sweeping base of the stairs, the completely original purser’s office occupies the port side, while to starboard is the gift shop and counter, which once served as a barber shop. Just aft, in what was the original dining room and social hall, the central area is now known as the Betty Blake Library. Along the sides are 22 deluxe staterooms, each bearing the name of a state in addition to the room number, hence the riverboat origin of the name “State Rooms.” On the DELTA QUEEN today, there are seven categories of staterooms ranging from compact bunk bedded rooms to fairly spacious suites. The largest, #307 and #308 on the Sun Deck were created from the original Chief Engineer’s and Captain’s cabins respectively.
I could not have been happier with my accommodations right in the middle of the Texas Deck, #218 on the starboard side. This mostly original cabin opens onto the deck through a narrow wooden door with a pair of windows on either side. The windows can slide down to open, or be covered by wooden shutters for privacy at night. The aft wall is of natural wood while the forward one opposite is painted white. Two brass fixtures in the ceiling, with adjustable slides, control the ventilation. There is an old wooden dresser, but no closets. Clothing can be hung from a Pullman type rack on the wall. Two antique, but superbly comfortable, high twin beds are on either side of a door to the rather spacious toilet and shower. Since this room would not have had private facilities as built, there is a step up of nearly a foot to enter the bathroom. I later learned these were built into the space that was once a dome over the social hall below. For once, I’m glad not to be tall, as at 5ft 8in my head touched the ceiling in the shower.
Outside the paddlewheel began slowly turning as the engines warmed up an hour prior to departure. Promptly at 6pm the DELTA QUEEN pulled away from the dock and turned around in the river. The hinged smokestack was lowered to facilitate passing under the first of many bridges we would encounter during the voyage. Aft on the Sun Deck, the famous steam calliope played a series of upbeat tunes through its collection of 32 steam whistles. An exciting atmosphere prevailed on this warm night as the boat began making its way down the Cumberland River. The big city of Nashville quickly gave way to more rural scenes along the riverbank, as the first day turned to night. Before long it was time to head down to dinner. I had wisely chosen the later of the two sittings, so as not to miss being on deck for departures. Early sitting is at 5:45pm, while the main dining begins at 7:15pm. Dinner is served in the Orleans Room located on the lowest passenger level, the Main Deck. This space was originally the cargo deck when the DELTA QUEEN was built. Tonight’s dinner was the first of many fine meals I would enjoy onboard. Among an excellent selection of dishes, I chose to start with an appetizer of Pacific grilled shrimp on a skewer. This was followed by a delicious salad with light raspberry dressing, goat cheese and hazelnuts. For my entree I enjoyed seared salmon over potatoes. To top it all off, dessert consisted of praline pecan ice cream and a wonderful slice of cheesecake. Before leaving home, I had heard mixed reports about the food onboard, but throughout the trip it remained at consistently high quality, rivaling that found on other luxury cruise lines. After dinner, the Orleans Room is transformed into a showroom. Tonight’s entertainment would be a welcome aboard show titled “Away We Go” and featuring all three of the entertainers along with the four-piece band. Afterwards I took a walk outside along the decks and conjured images of what it must have been like on the DELTA QUEEN when she was a night-boat on California’s Sacramento River in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I went back to my stateroom for a good night’s sleep; as happy as I have ever been after a first day aboard.
DAY 2, OCTOBER 9, 2007, DOVER, TENNESSEE, CUMBERLAND RIVER
Settling into the daily routine aboard the DELTA QUEEN comes quite easily. From the moment you open your cabin door in the morning, you are out on deck, in touch with nature. The sounds of birds along the shore and the paddlewheel churning are a wonderful way to greet the day. Down to the Orleans Room for breakfast which can be ordered from a menu or selected from an extensive buffet. About 8 o’clock this morning the DELTA QUEEN made a sharp turn to port and nudged herself up to the muddy river bank. Steam poured out of the sides of the bow as the capstan turned and the boom positioned the landing stage. Deck hands rushed ashore to tie the boat up to nearby trees. A grassy hill in a clearing would be the steamboat landing today at the little town of Dover, Tennessee.
Passengers trooped ashore to take part in one of two shore excursions offered, the “Land Between The Lakes” or the “Fort Donelson National Military Park.” I selected the latter, which takes visitors through a battlefield that was a turning point in the Civil War. The fort was a Confederate earthworks with cannons directed toward the Cumberland River from which six Union gunboats made their approach. Although initially beaten back both by land and on the river, the Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant eventually prevailed. On February 16, 1862, Grant earned a nickname by demanding “Unconditional Surrender” of the Confederate troops, then under the command of Simon B. Buckner. On this cruise, purchasing shore excursions is essential if one wants to do any touring. In these small towns and at riverbank landing sites there is no other means of transportation available.
At 12:30pm, the DELTA QUEEN drew in her lines and began paddling downriver, passing under the big guns of Fort Donelson, giving a perspective much the same as it must have been from the ironclads, 145 years earlier. It is fascinating to stand at the stern and watch the paddlewheel produce a trail of “camel humps” on the water. By afternoon, the river widened into Lake Barkley as we entered the state of Kentucky. Off to starboard, we passed the “Castle On The Cumberland,” an impressive structure that in reality is the Kentucky State Penitentiary. There is always something interesting to see outside, but on the interior of the DELTA QUEEN activities continue. Today featured a shore tour talk followed by a “Discovery Guide Presentation” and a Captain’s Tea which provided the first chance to get acquainted with our Captain, Larry Wilkinson. Every afternoon there is music and cocktails available in the Texas Lounge. By nightfall, the DELTA QUEEN was transiting a man-made waterway, used as a shortcut to the Tennessee River. Tonight’s dinner surpassed even the very fine meal of last evening. I went with an all-seafood theme starting with Coconut shrimp with mango sauce, followed by a salad with spicy jumbo prawns, and for the main course a delicious lobster tail. Dessert was served in a tall glass filled with chocolate mousse and raspberries. As usual, Showtime followed dinner with a performance titled “River Of Song” with singers Velda Avis Jones and Eric James Hadley accompanied by the Bobby Durham quartet. After the 9:15pm nightly show, there is a small “Moonlight Buffet” served at 10:15pm in the Forward Cabin Lounge. With an already full stomach and tonight’s theme of more Seafood, I could not face another bite. For night owls, entertainment continues with dancing in the Orleans Room and cocktails available in the Texas Lounge. For the majority of DELTA QUEEN passengers, they seem to prefer a policy of “early to bed, early to rise” and I saw no reason to contradict them.
DAY 3, OCTOBER 10, 2007, SAVANNAH, TENNESSEE, TENNESSE RIVER
Woke up to thick fog along the Tennessee River. As the day warmed, it cleared above but still lay low along the water, making for a beautiful sight. The river was like glass as we slid along its surface. On this trip, our Discovery Guide is Travis Vasconcelos, a true blue steamboat and calliope buff, with great knowledge and talents for both. The Discovery Guides were formerly called Riverlorians which seems to me, a much more appropriate and poetic term. This morning Travis gave an excellent lecture on the history of the DELTA QUEEN and her sister, the DELTA KING. For those that aren’t familiar with the fascinating story of these two boats, I’ll recap a few of the highlights. Both vessels were planned and constructed between 1924 and 1927 for the California Transportation Company. The steel hull and other components were built in Scotland by William Denny & Brothers shipyard at Dumbarton. After assembly, they were dismantled, the pieces numbered and shipped by freighter to California. There, at Stockton, the boats began to take shape. Four decks of wooden superstructure were added to the reassembled steel. A 28 foot diameter, 19 foot wide paddlewheel weighing 44 tons with 28 buckets was fabricated from soft fir. Destined to travel between the cities of Sacramento and San Francisco, these twins were the most luxurious steamboats on America’s river systems. The DELTA QUEEN was constructed at a cost of over $875,000 and was known as the “million dollar boat.” She left San Francisco on her maiden voyage, June 2, 1927. After only 13 years on the Sacramento River her commercial career ended on September 29, 1940. During World War II, the DELTA QUEEN was reclassified as a Yard Ferry Boat; YFB-56 being a less glamorous designation than Queen. Along with the DELTA KING and the Southern California steamers CATALINA and CABRILLO, she ferried troops from bases throughout the San Francisco Bay area.
Following the war, the DELTA KING and DELTA QUEEN were offered up for auction and attracted the attention of Tom Greene, head of the Greene Line steamers, a company going back to 1890, and well-known on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. After tendering an unsuccessful bid for the DELTA KING, Tom Greene successfully purchased the DELTA QUEEN on November 20, 1946 for $46,250. Moving a steamboat from California to the Mississippi River is easier said than done. The flat-bottomed DELTA QUEEN, designed for smooth river passages, embarked on the most harrowing voyage of her long career as the tug OSAGE towed her out into the Pacific Ocean, southward through Central America, becoming the only paddlewheel steamboat to transit the Panama Canal and finally arriving safely at New Orleans. From there, the steamer sailed to her new homeport of Cincinnati, Ohio. The transformation from a California night-boat to a Mississippi luxury steamboat took place at the Dravo Shipyard near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On June 30, 1948 the DELTA QUEEN started her second “maiden voyage” roundtrip from Cincinnati to Cairo, Illinois, beginning a new career carrying vacationers through the rivers of America. Happily, she is still engaged in this career today, continuing a long tradition of genuine steamboat travel. It is a fascinating sensation to be sitting in the Texas Lounge listening to a talk about the DELTA QUEEN’s story, while being able to touch that history in the bulkhead or the leather seat right next to you. It’s truly amazing to be aboard a boat like this, that still exists, so long after her era has passed.
Up on deck, passengers were invited to touch another bit of history by playing the steam calliope, one of only 14 left in the world. The “Steam & Iron Piano” on the DELTA QUEEN was built back in 1869 and later salvaged from the sunken steamboat WATER QUEEN, before ending up in a circus and the hands of a private collector. In 1959, E.J. Quimby purchased the calliope for $3,000 and brought it aboard the DELTA QUEEN. I joined in the fun and picked out a short tune, thereby achieving membership in the order of “Vox Calliopus” and allowing me to play calliope on any river in the world. I have the certificate to prove it. Shortly after noon we passed under the Milo Lemert Bridge and the DELTA QUEEN nudged onto the left bank of the river with a noticeable bump. Once again, the steam winch did its work and we tied off to two trees in what turned out to be the port for Savannah, Tennessee. Several local residents greeted the steamer, some dressed in antebellum costumes.
A replica of Shiloh Church, which lent it’s name to one of the largest battles of the Civil War.
The tour today would be a poignant visit to the battlefields of Shiloh National Military Park. Here in 1862, during two days of fierce fighting, 24,000 men would be killed, wounded or missing. Today, the land is peaceful, looking much like it did then, with thick forests opening into grassy meadows. Just as the bus was departing, a beautiful mother deer and fawn romped across a clearing, helping to lift the prevailing aura of sadness that Shiloh still inspires. On the drive back to the steamboat landing, I was able to get some great aerial photos of the DELTA QUEEN from high on the bridge. A local band was at the landing to see us off; their playing of John Prine’s song “Paradise” entirely appropriate for the occasion. At 6pm we cast off, sailing into a spectacular sunset over the Tennessee River.
The lingering twilight made it difficult to come back inside, but yet another meal beckoned. I hate to keep saying that each dinner surpassed the previous, but again, this one did. I started with a delicious appetizer of trout and a bowl of corn and crab chowder. A pear salad led to a perfect beef tenderloin steak with shrimp scampi. For dessert I sampled the very sweet bread pudding with raisons, that the DELTA QUEEN is known for. A variation of this dessert is available every evening. There was an entertainment show offered, but this was upstaged by the spectacle outside as the boat passed through the huge Pickwick Lock, the first of many on this cruise. The lock is 600 feet long and this particular one lifted us 55 feet, and into another facet of the river cruising experience.
DAY 4, OCTOBER 11, 2007, CRUISING THE TENNESSEE-TOMBIGBEE WATERWAY
Started the day in a lock, after ending yesterday in one. The Jaime L. Whitten Lock would lower the DELTA QUEEN 84 feet to begin a course down the 234 mile long artificial waterway, popularly known as the Tenn-Tom, connecting the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers, eventually providing a link all the way to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile, Alabama, although our course would change before then. The locks of the Tenn-Tom create an elevation change of 341 feet. After a hearty breakfast of hot cakes, sausage and tea, we entered the G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery Lock, this one lowering us another 30 feet. This would remain the pattern throughout the next two days; beautiful scenery interspersed with a series of locks and dams constantly lowering the DELTA QUEEN closer to sea level. This morning the Texas Lounge was filled to capacity for the continuation of Discovery Guide Travis presentation on “Our National Treasure: The DELTA QUEEN-Part II.” Lecture does not seem to be the correct word to describe his animated style of storytelling. Passengers learned about the more recent history, the last 38 years, in the life of the steamboat they are traveling on. The DELTA QUEEN has gone through a series of operators since Letha Greene sold the Greene Line to Overseas National Airways in 1969, ending 79 years of family ownership. Four years later, the line was renamed the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. Construction had started on an all-steel riverboat, the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN, which would be the first new steamboat built in nearly 50 years, since the DELTA QUEEN herself. Lacking funds to complete the new steamer, the company was again sold, this time to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. Subsequent owner’s included Sam Zell and Bob Lurie whose Chicago-based Equity Group Investments acquired control of the outstanding stock in 1985. After investments that included adding four new boats and American Hawaii Cruises operations in Hawaii, Sam Zell restyled the company into the ill-fated American Classic Voyages. On October 18, 2001, the company declared bankruptcy. Hospitality group, Delaware North, bought the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and restarted operations in May, 2002. Their ownership was short-lived. In April, 2006 the company was sold to Newport Beach based Ambassadors International, Inc. They combined the two riverboats of the American West Steamboat Company with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company to form Majestic America Line. As the DELTA QUEEN continues quietly sailing along America’s waterways, it is living steam boating history.
Many famous people have chosen to travel aboard. Perhaps the biggest publicity boost came when the President of the United States and his family made took a cruise. In August, 1979, Jimmy Carter occupied stateroom #340 aft on the Sun Deck above the paddlewheel. This was one of two original deluxe rooms during the California era. For this voyage the DELTA QUEEN used the code name “Steamboat One.” In 1986, British royalty was represented by Princess Margaret, who sailed in stateroom #119, aft on the Cabin Deck, today one of four Category “A” Vista Suites. Even the waters we are currently sailing represent a connection to DELTA QUEEN history. Although usually thought of as a Mississippi and Ohio riverboat, the DELTA QUEEN has offered trips on a wide variety of inland rivers, first cruising on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in 1992. A clanging triangle announced one of the most fun events of the cruise, an “Old Fashioned Picnic Lunch” in the dining room. Waiters scurried along rows of tables covered with red and white checkered tablecloths serving our family-style feast. Fried catfish, chicken, barbecued ribs, corn on the cob, cornbread, pumpkin and pecan pie washed down with fresh lemonade or ice tea made for a delicious, if overly-filling meal. This full day of river cruising actually kept passengers as busy as any day in port. Brilliant sunshine made it a great day to be outdoors. On the bow of the Texas Deck, a party for repeat passengers was open to everyone. Free Mai Tai’s, (an interesting choice of beverage since we are in the state of Mississippi,) and banjo music set the mood.
Passengers aboard this cruise seem to be a very loyal group as evidenced by both the number of previous cruises taken and the number of years they’ve been doing it. One gentleman began sailing with Greene Line Steamers in 1938 aboard the GORDON C. GREENE. Another woman, Jill Eliel, had sailed aboard the DELTA QUEEN on one of the boat’s last California voyages in 1940. She was 16 years old when she went with a girlfriend and her family from Sacramento to San Francisco. Now 83, she initially did not realize that this was the same boat she had traveled on in her youth. When you think about it, it is a miracle that the DELTA QUEEN is still sailing on another waterway, far from her birthplace, and still going strong after 80 years of service. Throughout the rest of the day, we continued on a southward course through a series of locks and dams, often sharing space with large yachts that were relocating to Florida for the winter. At dinner, the overeating binge continued with asparagus soup, followed by clams and scallops, an entree of lamb in mustard sauce with mint jelly and a dessert of German Chocolate cake. After dinner, it was back outdoors to the Texas Deck for a lesson in navigating steamboats at night. The DELTA QUEEN’s high-powered searchlights illuminated the river banks. As if the timing was planned, a very large barge tow came around the bend and went to the far shore so DELTA QUEEN could pass safely. A light fog on the water rose vertically in columns, looking like ghostly apparitions. Another evening musical performance and then it was off to bed and dreams of river days, past and present.
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.