Delta Queen Steamboat: Can She Return to the River Cruise Industry in 2014?

Although the American river cruise business is thriving, one of America's most revered paddlewheel steamboats, the Delta Queen, has been excluded from passenger services for the last five years. She has operated safely since she was built in 1927, but needs a Congressional exemption to operate because she is mostly constructed of wood from the water level up. The way American waterways are classified, safety at sea laws apply to the Delta Queen, even though she remains on the U.S. River System and never goes to sea. Unlike oceangoing vessels, she is always within a few yards of the shore.

The Delta Queen won a Congressional exemption in 1966 when Congress first passed safety at sea laws that would have put her out of business. Company president Bill Muster and vice-president Betty Blake made sure the Delta Queen got smoke detectors, sprinklers, fire retardant paint, a standard schedule of fire drills, and even a crew that includes on-board firefighters. Due to excellent safety standards, Congress renewed the original exemption of 1966 every few years for the next forty-two years.

But in 2008, for the first time, our U.S. Congress failed to pass the specific exemption that allowed Delta Queen to continue operations. Losing her sole means of financial support, the boat went to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to become a hotel. That did not work out as planned, and the city started to get disillusioned with the whole steamboat hotel idea.

So, just about that time an extensive grass-roots effort to reinstate the exemption started. Now, with the support of the U.S. Senate Delta Grassroots Caucus, the Senate may finally pass the Delta Queen bill. The Delta Grassroots Caucus is composed of states around the Mississippi Delta. See below for these senators' urgent appeals to support the Delta Queen.

Last fall, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1961 now the Delta Grassroots Caucus has asked the Senate to consider the identical version of bill, S. 1022. If S. 1022 passes, the president can then sign the exemption into law which will allow the Delta Queen to go back into full-time cruise passenger operation. Specifically, the bill will "amend title 46, United States Code, to extend the exemption from the fire-retardant materials construction requirement for vessels operating within the Boundary Line."

Bringing the Delta Queen back would lend authenticity to the American cruise business, provide jobs and contribute to the economy in all the river towns she visits, from Minnesota to Pennsylvania, Missouri and Louisiana. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Maritime Officers, and the Seafarers International Union all support the Delta Queen.

By the way—Delta Queen is currently the property of Xanterra, the same company that runs Windstar Cruises and just arranged to acquire the smaller Seabourn "triplets."

Messages of support from members of the U.S. Senate Delta Grassroots Caucus

On February 7, 2014, Senate Delta Caucus Director Lee Powell said, "It is time to act right now - the Delta Queen has an exemplary safety record . . . we are delighted that Senator Pryor and Senator Boozman are now co-sponsors of the Delta Queen bill along with many other Senate supporters from both parties."

"We encourage the Senate to pass the Delta Queen bill, S. 1022, as rapidly as possible because engineers and other steamboat experts have stated that the longer the boat sits as a floating hotel and does not travel, the more difficult and expensive it is to do the renovations, improvements and updates needed to get her back to cruising again," Powell said.

Senator Boozman said, "The Delta Queen is an iconic piece of our history. She's carried presidents and princesses up and down some of America's most beautiful inland waterways, including the Mississippi River where she spent considerable time trudging the river's muddy waters. All the while, she has maintained an excellent safety record."

Senator Pryor said, "I sponsored this bill, along with Senator Boozman and the other members of the Arkansas delegation, so we can get the Delta Queen back where she belongs—traveling on the MR&T. It's time for the Senate to take up and pass this bipartisan bill so the Delta Queen can resume her travels and bring much-needed dollars and jobs to the Delta."

Delta Caucus Vice Chairman and State Representative Mark McElroy of southeast Arkansas said, "The Delta Queen is an icon of the Delta, and the longer we wait to pass this bill the less chance we have of getting the boat back on the Mississippi."

Jay Webster, an engineer and steamboat expert with extensive knowledge of the Delta Queen, said, "This issue is urgent, because the Delta Queen has been docked as a floating hotel for five years in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and like any machine, the lack of travel by the steamboat creates the need for improvements and renovations to get her ready for overnight cruises again."

"The steamboat cannot resume her travels without Senate passage of the Delta Queen bill, and the longer the boat sits in one place the more expensive the needed renovations and improvements will be," Webster said.

A note to readers: the Congressional switchboard is (202) 224-3121. If you want the Senate to take action on the Delta Queen bill, S. 1022, call your two Senators now. Have their names ready so the switchboard operator can connect you. Look up two U.S. Senators here: senate.gov


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