New Lease on Life

Delta Queen sold to investor group
that seeks to put her back on the river

The vessel will undergo rehab for overnight cruising

(March 2015)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

A long-awaited move that could send the Delta Queen back onto America’s inland waterways occurred Feb. 16 when TAC Cruise, a division of Xanterra Holding Corp., sold the vessel to an investor group headed by Cornel Martin of New Orleans. For the past six years, the Queen has been moored on the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., where it has operated as a floating hotel. In March, the vessel will sail to a Louisiana shipyard to be renovated for service, pending the outcome of a congressional exemption of the 1966 Safety of the Sea law to allow it to once again ply the Ohio River and other waterways. The law forbids oceangoing vessels with wooden hulls from carrying overnight passengers. The forced docking of the vessel was also tied to a labor union dispute that embroiled the Delta Queen in congressional politics.

Delta Queen

Photo by Don Ward

After six years of operating as a floating hotel in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., the Delta Queen has new owners who plan to sail the Delta Queen to New Orleans in March to be renovated in hopes it will soon cruise again on America’s waterways.

The new owners are hopeful that the exemption will pass soon. Should the exemption pass, it is likely that the Delta Queen will once again be making regular stops in Madison, Ind.
“My partners and I are thrilled to be taking this critical first step toward the preservation and restoration of this important piece of American and river history,” said Martin, president and CEO of Delta Queen Steamboat Co. “We look forward to the day when the Delta Queen will once again be able to ply America’s waterways and allow passengers to relive the experiences of Mark Twain and his unique cast of river characters from the decks of a true 1927 steamboat.”
During purchase negotiations last year, Martin met with several cities – including Cincinnati and St. Louis – that expressed interest in homeporting the Delta Queen. Cincinnati previously homeported the vessel, but Martin said interest among city leaders in taking the vessel back was tepid. St. Louis, meanwhile, showed intense interest, he said.

Cornel Martin

Cornel Martin

The legendary Delta Queen began service as an overnight passenger vessel in 1927, carrying passengers, cargo and automobiles between Sacramento, Calif., and San Francisco. After a brief period of service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, the vessel was sold as war surplus to Capt. Tom Greene, owner of the Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati. From 1946 to 2008, the Delta Queen operated as an overnight cruise vessel along many of the prominent river and waterways running through America’s heartland, including the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland and Arkansas rivers. The vessel was ordered off the river in 2009 when a congressional exemption expired that allowed it to ferry passengers on overnight trips.
It was taken to Chattanooga and tied up at a downtown park along the Tennessee River and operated as a dockside hotel.
In a telephone interview, Martin said he expects it will take upwards of $7 million to renovate the vessel to return it to the river for overnight voyages. He said he will need to replace the World War II era boilers, the steamline, generators and electrical panels. Upgrades are also needed for the hotel facilities and historic wood trim.
“Our goal is to have the Delta Queen return to cruising America’s waterways in 2016 following extensive mechanical and hotel renovations,” Martin said.
Many steamboat enthusiasts in the Madison area have been watching eagerly the recent developments in hopes the Delta Queen will be sailing once again.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” said Kathie Petkovic, a devoted steamboat lover and owner of Madison’s Riverboat Inn, where several Delta Queen memorabilia items are displayed. “It would be great to see the Delta Queen stopping in Madison again and to have this historic steamboat visiting our National Historic District. Steamboats are what put this town on the national map.”
“This is great news,” said steamboat fan Jo Ann Schoen, a Corydon, Ind. resident who frequently visits Madison and has taken several cruises aboard the vessel and others. “I don’t see this story being picked up by local media, but I think it should be shouted from the roof tops!”­
The Delta Queen is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is classified as a National Historic Landmark. The vessel has recently been designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a National Treasure.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: Don@RoundAbout.bz.

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