For the last 60 years, one of the most beautiful sights in the cruise industry has been plying the Mississippi. The 1926-built, 174-passenger Delta Queen is a true American classic, with a bright red paddlewheel on the stern, handsome wooden interiors complete with a grand staircase, tiffany-style windows, a steam calliope cheerily playing from the top deck, and an ambience more akin to a cozy bed and breakfast than a cruise ship. With her fluttering American flags set proudly against passing river towns, she is a wonderful symbol of Americana and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
But now, political trouble may stop this grand matriarch of the rivers. For the last 40 years, the Delta Queen, which operated from 1926 until after World War II in California, has sailed under a special exemption from international standards for Safety of Life at Sea, otherwise known as SOLAS. Because her wooden superstructure doesn't meet current fire standards, Congress has passed exemptions six times to keep her at sea.
With the vessel's current exemption ending in one year, Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota and Senator Inouye of Hawaii have suddenly voiced objections and refused to let another exemption reach the House or Senate floor for a vote. They claim their concerns are purely safety related, but many believe that union politics are behind this change of heart.
New Ownership, New Challenges?
For many years, Delta Queen has been crewed by the Seafarer's International Union (SIU). When Seattle-based Majestic America Line (part of a cruise company that also owns Windstar Cruises) bought the ship in 2006, it changed crews and operated the boat without members of SIU. With a non-union crew now onboard, word came out that Rep. Oberstar would not let an exemption leave his Transportation committee, despite his voting in favor of the exemption in a committee vote last year.
Sen. Inouye of Hawaii has also stood by Rep. Oberstar. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sen. Inouye has been one of the biggest supporters of the SIU over the last decade. It was Sen. Inouye who sponsored legislation in the late 1990's to allow American Classic Voyages to re-flag the Nieuw Amsterdam to the United States in exchange for building two U.S.-flagged ships, all under SIU contracts. Later, when AMCV went bankrupt, Inouye was behind the deal that allowed Norwegian Cruise Line to resurrect the failed AMCV deal and operate its ships in Hawaii under the U.S. flag, again with an SIU crew.
According to the New York Times, the SIU has even told Majestic America Line that the union could "help change" Rep. Oberstar's position, seemingly in exchange for the SIU being allowed back on all the vessels of Majestic America Line.
Back to Safety Issues
In the meantime, Delta Queen's supporters argue the ship has operated safely for 80 years; fire patrols constantly protect the small vessel, and detectors and sprinklers further help safeguard its passengers. Majestic America Line has made further improvements in the ship's safety since buying her, including considerably reducing the amount of combustible material, or fire load, in the ship, and installing two separate types of fire detectors and two different types of fixed suppression systems.
Most importantly, however, Delta Queen is never more than a few minutes from land should anything happen. Her ramp, or stage, allows the boat to literally nudge up against the shore side, throw the ramp down and allow passengers to walk off onto any riverbank. (This isn't just an emergency procedure -- this is how Mississippi riverboat passengers routinely go ashore. Even tying up to a tree is a common event on the Mississippi.)
Majestic America is clear in its position, saying in a statement, "The Delta Queen is currently at the highest level of fire protection and fire safety standards than it has ever been in its 80-year history ... There is absolutely no valid reason why this valuable piece of American history should not be allowed to continue to safely operate while providing meaningful learning experiences and enjoyment to passengers for years to come."
With word over the boat's uncertain fate spreading, a ground swell of support for extending the exemption has started to grow. An online petition at www.save-the-delta-queen.org has been started, and the press has been paying attention to the story, evidenced by last month's aforementioned New York Times piece. In an effort to keep Delta Queen alive, Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio hopes to attract 218 cosponsors to allow him to introduce stand-alone legislation to keep the exemption going for another 10 years and even sponsored a "Save the Delta Queen" rally in Cincinnati at the end of October.
Recently retired President of Majestic America Line said, "We're ecstatic. The Delta Queen is a beloved American treasure and one of the finest steamboats ever built." The company added, "The support of steamboat enthusiasts such as those members of steamboats.org and save-the-delta-queen.org has been tremendous and we very much value their efforts."
In 1970, the Delta Queen's luck almost ran out when it looked like her exemption wouldn't be renewed. Again, a massive letter writing campaign to Congress helped turn the tide at the last minute, and the Delta Queen has since operated with hardly any voice of protest.
To lose the Delta Queen now would be a terrible shame. Her charm and beauty have captivated thousands over the years, including three U.S. Presidents. Few vessels can match her ambience and her history, which includes service in the Navy during WWII in San Francisco Bay as a troopship. Readers can participate in the effort by writing letters to Congress.
--by Ben Lyons, Cruise Critic contributor
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Saving Delta Queen?
November 5, 2007