by Sarah Squires
She's a U.S. veteran and ambassador. She's an historic figure who's traveled the world, taken regular people on adventures and shown foreign dignitaries the American heartland.
She's the last of her kind.
And while some people are fighting tooth and nail to keep the Delta Queen alive, some members of Congress are bent on burying her for good.
In 1966 the Safety at Sea Act prohibited wooden boats from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers. The Queen, with a steel hull and wooden superstructure carrying 174 passengers, began a tumultuous dance with Congress and federal regulations then that may be ending on a sour note in 2008.
Until now, the Delta Queen has been granted exemptions for the regulation to carry its passengers up and down the Mississippi, bringing tourists, dollars and river heritage. But Minnesota Representative Jim Oberstar, also chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has refused the request to continue that exemption.
Whether the reasons the boat might be getting the boot stem from safety or politics, 2008 will be her last year touring the river if an exemption isn't granted.
Many supporters of the Queen believe that politicians' resolve against the exemption has little to do with the threat of fire or danger for passengers. Rather, they believe that the heart of the issue lies with the Seafarers International Union, which represented steamboat employees until last year. The Queen's new owners, Majestic American Line, bought the Queen and cut the union from the steamboat.
Rep. Oberstar, who supported the exemption during a committee vote last year, has denied that a push for the steamboat union contract has had anything to do with his new position.
This isn't the first time the Queen's career has been put on the line. In 1970, she was nearly laid to rest due to the same lack of exemption. But hundreds of thousands of letters to Congress kept the boat afloat, and supporters are hoping for a repeat in her near-death experience this time.
Supporters also believe that the Safety at Sea Act is just that - for vessels at sea. They believe that wording was simply left out that should have exempted riverboats on the Mississippi because unlike ocean boats, riverboats are always near land.
Franz Neumeier, a German steamboat lover, has helped organize www.save-the-delta-queen.org, an online effort to glean an exemption from Congress. Supporters can learn more about how to help, as well as signing an online petition to keep the Queen alive.
reigning for 81 years
The Delta Queen was constructed alongside the Delta King from 1924 to 1927 and began her task for the California Transportation Company of San Francisco on the Delta Route.
The Queen began a new duty in 1940 as a receiving ship for naval reservists. They ended their service for the Navy in 1941 but rushed back to aid the military after Pearl Harbor as emergency hospital transportation. The Queen was discharged in the summer of 1946.
She was then bought by Captain Tom R. Greene of Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, Ohio, to be used on the Mississippi. She had to voyage through the Panama Canal in 1947 to get to her new post, arriving in New Orleans in May 1947. She went back into passenger service in 1948.
The Queen was originally designed as a luxury paddleboat to entice travelers from top-line railcars and automobiles. It was one of the most expensive steamboats ever built, with an $850,000 cost in the 1920s.
Hand-carved teakwood handrails circle the decks, colorful stained glass windows and Siamese ironwood floors still lure travelers onto the Queen today. In 1960 a 32-whistle steam calliope was added, along with a bell from the steamboat Mark Twain rode while he researched "Life on the Mississippi."
Over the years, many songs have been written in her honor; even Johnny Cash joined in with "Salute to the Delta Queen," a goodbye tune that helped gain support to save her in 1970.
But whether the people are singing loud enough this time is too soon to tell. Representative Steve Chabot, of Cincinnati, has pushed a stand-alone bill to grant the boat's exemption, but without committee support he'll need a majority of the House to sign it to even get it to a vote.
If the Delta Queen is docked for good, a line from Johnny Cash's "Salute" song will come true: "When you go," he sang during The Johnny Cash Show, "you'll take a lot of dreams."
Write to:Tim Walz
United States House of
1529 Longworth House
Washington, D.C. 20515-2301