Losing the Delta Queen

by Nori Muster | August 13, 2007

This article is written , daughter of the man who helped save the Delta Queen 40 years ago. Nori maintains a web site dedicated to the boat and similar steamboats called steamboats.com to this very day. In a coincidence, she is also one of CruiseMates' editors' Paul Motters' dearest friends from childhood.

Steamboat historians around the world started the month with the sad news that our reigning monarch, the S.S. Delta Queen, has reached the end of her cruise ship career. She is one of the longest-running authentic paddle wheelers carrying overnight passengers on the Mississippi River, and for many years, the only boat of her kind offering overnight cruises. The eighty-one year old boat has finally fallen fell prey to unfair laws that lump her in with ocean-going cruise vessels, as the sword of her demise had been hanging over her head for more than forty years.

How Delta Queen Became a Registered National Historic Landmark

In May 1966, the Safety of Life at Sea Act (SOLAS) passed the U.S. House of Representatives and came before the Senate. The Act, if passed by both branches, would have forced the Delta Queen out of operation. Richard Simonton, owner and CEO of Greene Line Steamers, consulted with Maryland attorney William Kohler, then flew in his numbers man, Bill Muster, and Board Chairman E.J. Quinby.

They met in a Washington hotel to plan their strategy, then my father borrowed a typewriter from the desk clerk and stayed up all night typing Quinby's testimony. They were successful. Quinby offered convincing arguments on the floor of the Senate and the Delta Queen received an exemption from the law. However, the exemption was only for two years and based on the condition that Greene Line build a new boat to replace the Queen. The Delta Queen's tragic flaw: she is built of wood from the water up. The Safety at Sea Law stipulates that overnight passenger vessels must be made of steel.

My father had never seen the Delta Queen before that, so after the Senate meeting, he and Quinby drove to West Virgina, where the boat was due to dock that day. They parked on the riverbank and my father recalled how this incredible hulk of a machine came straight toward him out of the fog and blew its whistle. He was hooked. He loved that boat so much, he gave up everything to save her. Every two years through the rest of the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies, my father was back in Washington to ask for another exemption.

Congress gave the exemption every year easily and with honor, confident that the owners kept the boat in perfect condition and would take all precautions for passenger safety. Even after Greene Line later completed the Mississippi Queen (the boat they promised to build to replace the Delta Queen), Congress allowed the older boat to continue operating. It was only right, considering that it was a registered national landmark and a stunning relic of American history.

The only year Greene Line had problems was 1970, when Congressman Garmatz, head of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, demanded a bribe. My father refused to pay, so he and Betty Blake, the company's P.R. person, started a nationwide letter-writing campaign and petition drive. By year's end, an estimated 250,000 American citizens participated by contacting their government representatives, the media, or signing petitions.

Betty Blake was quite a publicity hound and coverage snowballed throughout 1970, thought to be the Queen's final year of operation. Covering the story were: CBS Evening News with Roger Mudd, the NBC network news, an ABC TV special ("This Land is Mine"), a CBS special ("America," featuring John Hartford); the Today Show, Life and Newsweek magazines, and a second-time front-page story in The New York Times.

Johnny Cash urged his ABC-TV audience to help save the Delta Queen and sang a song he wrote about her. An Oklahoma rock band called Carp wrote Save the Delta Queen and recorded it on the Epic label. Jazz musicians held a Dixieland funeral for the boat as it pulled into New Orleans for the last time. Congress pushed through the exemption at the end of 1970 and the boat was saved. The full story is posted at my website (steamboats.com/museum/deltaqueen3.html) At that time, the Washington Post and newspapers from nearly every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, covered the story. Three movies and documentaries resulted, including one by National Geographic.

Growing up with the stories - I was ten in 1966 - has left an indelible mark on my life. The first time our family went for a cruise was in 1967 and I continued to have summer vacations on the boat every year until I was fourteen. Since then, I have visited occasionally, including a cruise for my fortieth birthday, and the boat has always remained in my thoughts.

My father died of cancer in 1989. Knowing that he had only months to live, in 1988 he arranged to donate his Save the Delta Queen documents to the Cincinnati Historical Society. It was the boat's homeport when Greene Line owned her, and her presence was important to the history of the city. My dad hired me to compile his papers for the archive, which involved months of sorting through dozens of cardboard boxes that he kept in the attic of his office. He and I worked together to pick out the most important documents relevant to the history. I even made trips to the UCLA law library to photocopy pages from the Congressional Record. The collection includes correspondence, news articles, and letters to and from legislators. I recall my father looking through the documents and stating that if he had it to do over, he would never write a letter that was longer than one concise page.

The documents have been on file at the Cincinnati Museum since 1989; an index to the documents has been online at Steamboats.com since 1998. The reason I first registered the domain name Steamboats.com was to post my father's papers. Steamboats are my hobby and the Delta Queen and her twin, the Delta King, are my favorite ships. Every year or two I travel to Old Town Sacramento to see the Delta King and have stayed onboard a number of times. The Delta King was brought back from the brink of death in the 1990s to become a great asset to Old Town Sacramento.

The two boats were fabricated on the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland in 1926, and shipped to Stockton, California, for final assembly. For nearly twenty years they ran between San Francisco and Sacramento, passing each other daily. During World War II they were drafted into the U.S. Navy fleet to carry and care for wounded soldiers in San Francisco Bay. In 1947, the boats were decommissioned. The Delta King remained in California, but the Delta Queen was sold in an auction to Tom Greene, then owner of Greene Line Steamers. He arranged to tow the boat five thousand miles from San Francisco, through the Panama Canal, into the Gulf of Mexico, and to the Mississippi River.

In 1958, Richard Simonton, a California businessman (my father's boss), bought a controlling interest in Greene Line Steamers to save the company from bankruptcy. Simonton used his Hollywood connections to increase the boat's popularity. He arranged to get the captain on "What's My Line," a 1950s TV game show, and "Queen for a Day," another show, offered cruises on the Delta Queen for prizes. Simonton quickly turned the company around, got it in the black, and everything went along fine until 1966, when the Safety at Sea problems started.

All the history and intrigue about the boat has shaped my worldview. My father used to come home from his Delta Queen related business trips with amazing stories; like the time he met a Mafia-like strongman who gave him a choice between accepting a new union on the boat or a concrete overcoat and dip in the river. Another amazing tale was when the English witch, psychic, astrologer, and prolific author, Sybil Leek cursed everyone on the boat for revealing her alleged romantic affair with one of the pilots. The curse worried my father, so he bought a book about the occult to study up on it. The boat reached into every corner of my father's life for ten years and he had to resign three times. He had a strong bond with the boat, and it might have been some sort of destiny. My dad was born in 1926, the same year as the boats, and our first house in Los Angeles, where he ultimately came to work for the Greene Line, was built in Dixie Canyon.

With all its crazy ins and outs, the most astonishing story was the one about the dishonest congressman. I grew up knowing that people in high places were sometimes less than honest. In August 1977, Garmatz was indicted on bribery charges, but the charges were dropped because the Congressman had cancer and not much time left to live. By that time, my father had already stopped working for Greene Line Steamers and the battle had been won, so he didn't care. He felt sorry for the old guy. It is ironic that if he had gone to trial, it would have been in a courthouse named after him in his home state of Maryland.

The Save the Delta Queen campaign and the assassination of John F. Kennedy were probably the two most formative events of my early childhood. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I learned early on to recognize when a situation is not what it seems. Rep. Garmatz and his cronies at the Coast Guard said the Delta Queen was unfit and that's why they would have to put her out of business. Garmatz even drew a pair of skull and cross bones on a piece of legislation, then threatened members of Congress that the blood would be on their hands if the Delta Queen ever sank. I have posted a copy of his drawings at my web site (https://steamboats.com/museum/deltaqueengarmatz2.html).

My dad and his adventure saving the boat taught me that the world is unfair sometimes, but that you have to fight back fair. The Save the Delta Queen campaign was as much a struggle to save the boat (and the company) as it was my father's way of expressing his revenge against a dishonest politician. He was angry, but channeled it into something that was ultimately rewarding for him and the boat. His efforts bought the boat what now amounts to a thirty-eight year reprieve.

Betty Blake was another good sport. I remember her joking after the fact that someone in her office had labeled a file folder "Garmatz Bribe" and stuffed it with paper. Betty's father was Senator Blake of Kentucky, a long-term incumbent. She grew up on the campaign trail with her family and she knew how things got done in Washington. She was instrumental in planning the Save the Delta Queen strategy; she was especially good at getting the media to make her point. In the lobby of the Delta Queen, she set up a petition that was on a roll of newsprint. In every town where the boat stopped throughout 1970, she invited the throngs of town's people aboard to sign the petition. When the roll was filled with signatures and pleas to save the boat, she brought it to Washington and unfurled it on the steps of the Capitol building. A picture can speak a thousand words, and that one surely did. She was brilliant and a good representative and friend of the boat.

It is painful to have to witness the end of the Delta Queen's life as a river boat. It is as though she has received a death sentence in her golden years. She will be sorely missed by many. My father once told me that boats die and that it can be as sad as losing a person. His words ring in my ears now. The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if someone failed to grease the right palm, or if there is some new law (in particular, the international treaty, SOLAS) that has prevented our legislators from granting this year's exception.

Whatever the reason for this tragic milestone, the Delta Queen enters her final season in 2008. Where are Betty and my father? I shake my head and remember that both died in the 1980s. But we need them now if anything is to be done! The Save the Delta Queen campaign did not invent and implement itself, but it did not take a lot of people, either. It was just two people from Greene Line, plus a cadre motivated legislators like Rep. Leonora K. Sullivan of Missouri, the boat's patron saint, who traveled on the boat and campaigned side by side with Betty and my dad.

Majestic America Line, the current owners, announced August 1 that despite tremendous efforts by the company, the U.S. Congress has decided that the Delta Queen should not continue operating on America's rivers beyond 2008. Although Majestic has only owned the boat for about a year, it has fallen to them to preserve the Delta Queen's legacy and place in American history.

Majestic notes that the Delta Queen was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 (my dad's and Betty Blake's doing), then in 1989, she was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior, and finally, she was inducted into the National Maritime Hall of Fame in 2004.

Majestic further noted that the ship is rich with art and antiques, such as original Tiffany-style stained glass windows, hardwood paneling, brass fittings, the only Siamese ironwood floor aboard a steamboat, a much-photographed Grand Staircase, and a ship's bell that sounded out landings for the steamboat that Mark Twain rode down river in 1883.

The ship also has an 1897 steam calliope, thanks to Richard Simonton and E.J. Quinby. After acquiring the Delta Queen in 1958, Simonton sent Quinby to locate a steam calliope over the protests of the Greene family, who worried that the loud noise would be offensive to people living along the shore. By April of that year, Quinby tracked one down. It had been aboard the Island Queen steamboat, which sank in 1936. The boat's calliopist, "Crazy Ray," retrieved the instrument and it passed along to a circus couple, who then offered it to Greene Line Steamers for $1,000. By June, Quinby made a $100 down payment. Greene Lines purchased it in 1959 and installed it on the boat in 1960.

David A. Giersdorf, President, Majestic America Line, said, "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." He promised: "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."

Majestic is planning special commemorative events and cruises, and commemorative gifts that will mark the farewell season. With just twenty-four cruises planned in 2008, passengers are encouraged to book early. For more information, go to DeltaQueen.com, MajesticAmericaLine.com, or call the reservation line at (800) 434-1232.

In an August 1, 2007 press release, Majestic American thanked the people in Washington who tried to save the boat this year: Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) Congressman Brian Baird (D-WA) Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-LA) Congressman Don Young (R-AK) Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) Congressman Gene Taylor (D-MS) Congressman John Tanner (D-TN) Congressman Kenny Hulshof (R-MO) Congressman Lacy Clay (D-MO) Congressman Marion Berry (D-AR) Congressman Richard Baker (R-LA) Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI) Congressman Roy Blunt (R-MO) Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH) Congressman Timothy Walz (D-MN) Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO) Congressman Zack Wamp (R-TN) Congresswoman Bettie McCollum (D-MN) Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R-OH) Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO) Senator David Vitter (R-LA) Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA)


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