A sad goodbye

Delta Queen bids farewell to Madison

Time runs out for Congress
to extend steamboat exemption


(November 2008)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

The Delta Queen steamboat on Oct. 23 made what could be its last stop ever in Madison, Ind., drawing a large crowd of supporters who turned up at the Ohio River to wave goodbye as she departed. The steamboat stopped on Monday for two hours on its way to Cincinnati, then made another brief layover on its way downriver.
The sight of the vessel pulling away and sailing downstream was sad to the many supporters standing on the banks of the Ohio River who came to pay their final respects.
The only way the steamboat will ever return to Madison is if Congress grants an extension of a safety exemption that it has enjoyed nine times over the past 40 years. The current Safety of Seas Act exemption is set to expire Nov. 1. The act bars wooden ships from overnight cruises. The law was created to affect ocean-going vessels that have wood above the water line, but it has been applied to riverboats. The Delta Queen has a steel hull and underwent a recent safety upgrade, but those factors have not yet proved successful in earning another exemption.

Delta Queen

Photo by Don Ward

The historic Delta Queen docks
in Madison in late October
during its final voyage.

After several failed attempts this year to obtain an exemption through Congress, the issue likely won’t come up for consideration until at least January 2009. Some say the exemption is a victim of a congressional fight over union vs. non-union labor. When Majestic American Line bought the steamboat company in 2006, it did not recognize the Seafarers International Union, so the steamboats are operating with a non-union crew. That has prompted several pro-union lawmakers to block or defeat measures in Congress that would have extended the Delta Queen’s exemption.
Meanwhile, the Majestic American Line has not booked any cruises for next year, and the vessel will likely be permanently docked after this voyage, according to Capt. John Dugger. The Majestic American Line has had its fleet of six East and West Coast steamboats for sale for some time and is still in negotiations with one company to purchase and operate the Delta Queen for day trips.
The Delta Queen is one of three steamboats the company has operated in the Midwest. The others are the Mississippi Queen and American Queen. The Delta Queen has been operating since 1927. The company’s other three West Coast steamboats already have been tied up for the winter.
On Monday, Oct. 20, Dugger and his wife, Janice, visited their friend, Kathie Petkovic, who manages the Riverboat Inn in Madison. The couple became friends with Petkovic and her parents during their many cruises aboard the Delta Queen. Petkovic paid tribute by having Dugger photographed with a plaque in his honor that hangs outside of one of the motel rooms. He also signed a relic of the Delta Queen that hangs on the wall of the deck at the motel – a piece of wood from the paddlewheel that was given to Petkovic this year.

John Dugger

Photo by Don Ward

Delta Queen Captain John Dugger
poses with wife Janice (left) and
Riverboat Inn manager Kathie
Petkovic (right) during an
Oct. 20 visit.

The Duggers were with Petkovic the first time she visited Madison while on a steamboat cruise. It was on that stop that Petkovic fell in love with Madison and eventually returned there to negotiate the purchase and later manage the motel.
“It’s a beautiful town, and one of the favorite stops for our passengers,” said Dugger, 63, who was substituting as captain on the cruise for Capt. Paul Thoeny, who was on vacation. Dugger is from Collierville, Miss., and has been with the steamboat company for eight years, mostly aboard the American Queen. He says he will continue working for a barge company after the steamboat docks for good. Other crew members will have to look for new jobs.
Dugger said most of the 170 passengers aboard the steamboat reserved so they could specifically be a part of the last cruise. There was also 65 crew members aboard.
“It’s been hard for our crew because they know they may be out of a job unless another company buys Majestic soon,” he said. “The people in all of the towns have been great and have come out to greet us. There is a lot of support.”
John Nicoles and wife, Mary Dial, of Oakland, Calif., were among the passengers on the final cruise. They said they made specific reservations to be on the steamboat’s last voyage and were making their first trip through the Midwest. They said every town along the river has shown support.
“You can definitely tell that this cruise is much different from the rest,” Nicoles said. “That’s all everybody on board talks about. The crew is worried about their job security and there is a general sadness about it all. Some are very emotional about it. It’s definitely not a celebratory mood on board.”

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


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