Delta Queen owners troll for local support

By Brett Dunlap

and Paul Lapann

Special to the Times

PARKERSBURG — If the U.S. House of Representatives passes a bill this summer, the Delta Queen could be traveling on American rivers again next summer, according to the vessel’s owners.

Cornel Martin, president and CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, and Leah Ann Ingram, the chief operating officer for the company, on Thursday told the Wood County Rotary Club and the Wood County Commission what was needed to get the Delta Queen operating again and how this would benefit the Mid-Ohio Valley.

“We keep pushing Congress to get permission to cruise again,” said Martin. He envisions the historic Delta Queen, which was built in 1927, stopping at 80 U.S. ports as it travels the nation’s rivers.

But first, the House of Representatives must pass H.B. 619, which would exempt old vessels that only operate within inland waterways from the non-combustible materials requirement in the Safety of Life at Sea Act from 1966. The Delta Queen’s exemption to the maritime law expired in 2008, preventing the vessel from operating.

Martin said the Delta Queen Steamboat Company is seeking an exemption through 2028.

In April, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would provide the Delta Queen with an exemption. Martin was unsure when the House of Representatives would vote on its exemption bill.

All three of West Virginia’s members in the House of Representatives are in favor of H.B. 619, said Ingram, a native of Spencer. Not all members of Ohio’s congressional delegation, those in the northern part of the state, have supported the bill, she said.

When back operating, the Delta Queen would make stops in Parkersburg and Marietta, said Martin.

Mark Lewis, president and CEO of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he is excited from a tourism standpoint to have the Delta Queen back traveling on the rivers. Lewis said he wrote a letter to former Sen. Jay Rockefeller several years ago asking him to support returning the Delta Queen to the waterways, along with talking to West Virginia’s congressional delegation about the issue.

The Delta Queen would bring people to town, Lewis said. Traveling on the Delta Queen is a great way to experience the rivers and the history of the towns and cities along them, he said.

The riverboat is docked in Houma, La., awaiting a full restoration, Martin said. When the exemption is approved by Congress, work can begin on replacing the vessel’s boilers, generators and electrical/air-conditioning systems, he said.

It will cost at least $10 million to get the Delta Queen back in service, Martin said.

Plans call for the Delta Queen’s homeport to be Kimmswick, Mo., along the Mississippi River.

As part of the maritime law exemption, the Delta Queen’s owners would have to reduce combustible areas of the vessel each year. The steamboat has a wooden superstructure and double steel hull. It has received additional safety measures and renovations over the years, Martin said.

“The Delta Queen tells America’s stories about the towns along the rivers,” Martin said. “We are anxious to get back going again.”

From 2008 to 2014, the Delta Queen served as a dockside hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In 2015, a group of investors, including Martin and Ingram, bought the steamboat and had it moved to Louisiana.

Over the years, the Delta Queen has required a special exemption from Congress to be able to carry overnight passengers. It had that exemption from 1968 until 2008 which was approved nine times.

In 2006, the riverboat changed owners and they allowed the exemption to lapse in 2008, which led it to becoming a dockside hotel, Martin said.

The Delta Queen Steamboat Company has been working to get the exemption put back in place to allow them to do overnight cruises, Martin said.

The Wood County commissioners voiced their support Thursday for the Delta Queen effort.

Commissioner Jimmy Colombo said, “We would love to see it back.”

“We are looking forward to coming back here,” Martin said. “The boat will bring visitors from all over the country and all over the world right here to learn about these communities and their histories.”