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Delta Queen Visit

Tramping with Capt. Gabe
on the S.S. Delta Queen

Vevay celebrates boat’s surprise visit

By Barbara Fluegeman
Contributing Writer

VEVAY, Ind. (June 1999) – The town of Vevay, Ind., was in for a surprise visit from a special guest on Wednesday, May 5: The S.S. Delta Queen made her first landing at the small southern Indiana community in 26 years.

Delta Queen

Photo by Don Ward

The Delta Queen passenger ship is
a frequent visitor to Madison’s
riverfront. But on this particular
voyage, she made a surprise stop in
Vevay, 15 miles upriver. It was her
first stop there in 26 years.

Vevay was chosen for the honor by virtue of a unique itinerary designed to celebrate the 30th career anniversary of one of her masters, Capt. Gabe Chengery.
“He indulged his longtime desire to offer 19th century ‘tramping’ cruises, stopping wherever – and whenever – the whim arose,” Lucette Brehm, public relations coordinator of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., explained.
Billed as “Capt. Gabe’s Tramping Cruises,” the unannounced landings of America’s oldest overnight passenger steamer began during the 1998 cruising season and proved so popular with both the DQ’s crew and passengers that they have been continued into the present season.
The DQ’s 1973 landing at Vevay was in conjunction with that year’s Swiss Wine Festival.
“They took us on a cruise to Markland Dam and back,” passenger Mabel Wolf recalled. “I think the fare was maybe 50 cents. It was great!”
Also putting in an appearance that weekend were the S.S. Belle of Louisville and the former Vevay/Ghent, Ky., ferry, the Martha A. Graham.
Commissioned in 1924 and completed in 1927, the DQ in part owes her longevity to the extraordinary vision of Capt. Tom Rea Greene of Cincinnati. The DQ and her sister ship, the Delta King, started life as packet boats on California’s Sacramento River, operating between San Francisco and Stockton, Calif. Hull plates and other steelwork were fabricated in Glasgow, Scotland, while machinery was engineered nearby in Dumbarten. Metalwork for their sternwheels was forged in Germany.
Both vessels weathered the financial ruin of the Great Depression, only to be sold and laid up in 1940 after completion of a new highway between her trade cities.
But plans were soon afloat to return the Delta King to service on the Mississippi River. Accordingly, the DK was enclosed in a crate prior to transshipment, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, changed those plans. Both vessels were immediately commandeered by the U.S. Navy for use as personnel transports. At war’s end they were turned over to the U.S. Maritime Commission, which in 1946 sold them at auction.
Capt. Greene, president of Cincinnati’s Greene Line Steamers, turned in the high bid for the Delta Queen and crated her up for shipment to New Orleans.
However, the DQ made the trip alone; the Delta King stayed behind in Sacramento, where she still reigns as a popular tourist attraction. So far the DQ is the only river boat ever to have transited the Panama Canal. By virtue of that trip, she also holds the record for the longest steamboat voyage.
After a British cruise ship burned at sea in 1965, the U.S. Congress passed the Safety at Sea Law that outlawed vessels with wooden superstructures from carrying overnight passengers.

Delta Queen and Delta King

Photo provided

In this photo dating from 1928
when they were new, the Delta
Queen (left) and Delta King dock
together in Stockton, Calif. The
sternwheels were originally
enclosed on both vessels.

“But they forgot about the Delta Queen,” Capt. Clarke C. ‘Doc’ Hawley, one of the boat’s masters, explained. “She’s a riverboat, and we’re in sight of land all the time. Luckily, the American public did not let them forget her for very long.”
Today, she operates under a series of exemptions from the 1966 law. In 1970 she was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1989 was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Her safety record is unblemished, although she has had her share of mishaps. Virginia Bennett, then assistant purser, was aboard the DQ on her first trip on the upper Mississippi in 1954 when the boat experienced engine trouble.
She was laid up for 11 days, a trying time for the crew, since it was soon discovered that one of her passengers was a pyromaniac who managed to set fire to the boat three times. To top things off, a parked car on the levee jumped out of gear one morning and rolled into the river, striking the DQ on its way down and causing some structural damage.
Richard Stewart, then-purser of Greene Line Steamers, wrote home to his parents from New Orleans in late March 1964 that the boat had been caught in the tidal wave from the Alaskan earthquake.
“It picked up the DQ and slammed it against the wharf like it was a johnboat,” he wrote.
Capt Lexie Palmore, the first female to pilot the boat full-time, was standing her first watch at the helm in the spring of 1978 when she was literally given a baptism of fire.
“We were caught in a raging thunderstorm, and the boat was struck by lightning,” she recalled. “It was a real Murphy’s Law of a trip.”
Although her tramping itinerary is kept a closely guarded secret from passengers, the Switzerland Co. Welcome Center was contacted by the DQ’s home office in New Orleans to plan special events to welcome her.
May 5 was declared Capt. Gabe Chengery Day, and the Vevay town council presented him with a key to the city. Passengers were entertained with free concerts at the Historic Hoosier Theater by Bill and Stacia Wiseman and the Switzerland Co. High School choir.
The DQ treated everyone to a calliope recital, which was followed by music from Switzerland County High School’s nationally acclaimed marching band at the new Paul Ogle Riverfront Park. All students from both grade schools were bused to Vevay’s ferry landing, bringing an estimated 2,000 well-wishers to the waterfront.
“Everyone had a wonderful time,” said Ann Mulligan, director of the Welcome Center. “We have worked so long and so hard to encourage tourism here, and it’s gratifying to see it becoming a reality. The Delta Queen landed in Vevay during National Tourism Week, and we couldn’t have found a better example.”

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