Delta Queen fans watch Congress

Times file photo The Delta Queen steams beneath the Williamstown Bridge following a visit to Marietta in 2005.

By Sam Shawver

Special to the Times

For many years the sound of calliope music would lure crowds to the banks of the Ohio River where they welcomed the Delta Queen excursion steamboat to Marietta.

But in 2008 the vessel made its last stop in the Pioneer City, due to a federal maritime regulation that forced the 1920s-era vessel into retirement.

Now, thanks to pressure from the public, including many Delta Queen fans, Congress is reportedly close to approving legislation to help put the steamship back on the waters of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

“The best thing people can do now is just pick up the phone to call their congressional representatives and urge them to vote for this legislation,” said Vicki Webster with the Cincinnati-based Save the Delta Queen organization.

She noted the U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill, HR 619, that would allow the Delta Queen to operate under a special congressional exemption to the 1966 Safety of Life at Sea Law.

Legislation approving a new exemption for the boat was passed by the U.S. Senate on April 4.

The 1966 law prohibits any vessel carrying more than 50 passengers from operating out of a United States port if, like the Delta Queen, the boat is primarily built of wood.

The 88-room Delta Queen, which had plied the Ohio and Mississippi waters since 1948, was originally granted a waiver from the Safety of Life at Sea legislation and continued overnight passenger service on the rivers through 2008.

But the exemption expired and was not renewed that year, so the Delta Queen was retired to a mooring in Chattanooga, Tenn., where it operated as a floating hotel until 2014.

Ohio 1st District Congressman Steve Chabot, who introduced the House resolution in January, hopes to soon bring the measure to the floor for a vote.

The resolution has 22 co-sponsors, including Ohio 6th District Congressman Bill Johnson of Marietta.

“I am hopeful we will see the Delta Queen on the water again soon. After years of attempts, I believe it is going to happen,” he said.

“I am a co-sponsor of legislation that is currently pending in the U.S. House that matches legislation that just passed the Senate,” Johnson added. “The Delta Queen is part of American history, and restoring it to operational status will create jobs and spur tourism and economic growth.”

The measure is currently under consideration by the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, according to Ben Keeler, Johnson’s communications director.

Webster said efforts to obtain an exemption allowing the Delta Queen to return to passenger service on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers has been in the works for the last 10 years.

“I think it’s finally going to happen, although we can’t make any assumptions about how the House will vote,” she said, adding that’s why the public should continue to urge representatives to vote for the measure.

Jeff Spear, president of the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, said he feels somewhat optimistic that Congress will allow an exemption for the steamship.

“Like the proverbial Phoenix, she’ll be back,” he said.

Spear noted the Delta Queen was originally built in California 1926, along with the identical Delta King, to make passenger runs between Sacramento and San Francisco. Cost of construction was nearly $1 million.

“During World War II they were used as ferry boats for troops that were headed out to sea,” he added.

In 1948 the Delta Queen was brought to Cincinnati by Capt. Tom Greene who operated the Greene Line of steamships along the Ohio River. The Greene Line continued operation of the vessel through the late 1960s. A new owner changed the Greene Line name to the Delta Queen Steamboat Company.

The steamboat operation changed hands several times between 1969 and 2008 when the vessel lost its Safety of Life at Sea Law exemption.

“If (HR 619) passes, she’d be the oldest overnight excursion steamboat on the river,” Spear noted. “The boat does need some work, including a new boiler system, but there’s a good group of people working on it now.”

One requirement of the House legislation currently under consideration is that the boat’s wooden decking be replaced, 10 percent at a time, over a period of years.

Returning the excursion boat to the rivers would be a definite plus for the Marietta area’s economy and tourism, according to Jeri Knowlton, executive director of the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“This town really identifies with its river heritage, and our citizens enjoy seeing the river queens,” she said. “Everybody rolls out the red carpet for the passengers when they visit here.”