The End for Delta Queen?

May 3, 2008

What a week for nostalgia. As it has every year, the 82-year-old original sternwheeler Delta Queen has berthed in Louisville, Kentucky, for the Run for the Roses ... otherwise known as The Kentucky Derby, being held today. What's more, on Wednesday, April 30th, the Queen also won the annual Great Steamboat Race against its 32-year rival, the 94-year-old Belle of Louisville.

This might well be the last time.

The old boat, an American icon, has been operating for the last 40 years under an exemption by the U.S. Congress -- allowing Delta Queen to carry overnight guests on the rivers -- which ends in November of this year. So far, Congress has declined to vote in a new exemption for the boat, citing safety concerns because of its wooden superstructure.

"This boat is perfectly safe," says Franz Neumeier, a passionate advocate for the exemption and editor of the Web site "The hull is actually metal, the boat sails close to land at all times, and after all, it has received the exemption eight times before."

A vote on the House floor on April 23 failed to get the needed majority to re-grant Delta Queen's exemption. Its continuation's main proponent, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), was opposed by Rep. James Oberstar (D- Minn), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who believes it's time to let the old girl rest. The biggest fear is that there will be a fire aboard and lives will be lost.

There are, however, petition drives all over Delta Queen's historic routes, including one circulating today at the Kentucky Derby. Louisville's Mayor, Jerry Abramson, is also urging everyone to write their congressperson on behalf of the Delta Queen.

There is a very, very slim possibility that Delta Queen will survive to carry overnight guests through the heartland's rivers for another 10 years, but Cruise Critic was informed earlier this week of another wrinkle: Ambassadors International Group, parent company of Delta Queen's owners (Majestic America Line) has put the company and its seven ships up for sale. An investor conference call is scheduled for Tuesday, May 6, to outline the terms of the sale. Will that make a difference? We'll keep you posted.

--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic Contributor