The Delta Queen has traveled countless miles up the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers. She has ferried passengers from San Francisco, transported wounded soldiers from Pearl Harbor and lulled cruise guests to sleep at night.
Art Linkletter, B.B. King, Tammy Wynette and the Amazing Kreskin walked her decks. Former President Jimmy Carter stayed in Room 340.
Staff Photo by Margaret Fenton
Harry Phillips of Chattanooga spreads his arms on the bow of the Delta Queen while it is docked in Florence, Ala., Monday evening.
And on Wednesday afternoon, all that history will come to a halt when the Queen, the last traditional river steamboat, makes her final stop in Chattanooga.
“We are onboard for the end of a piece of American history,” said Bill Wiemuth, a historian who helped record the boat's last journey. “We all hope that's not the case, of course.”
Last fall, the 83-year-old vessel lost her exemption from the Safety at Sea Act, a 1966 law prohibiting wooden vessels from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers. Her supporters feared she would rot in a New Orleans shipyard until Chattanooga Water and Taxi Co. owner Harry Phillips offered her a new future as a waterfront hotel.
There is a chance that the riverboat will get another extension to keep plying the waters, but that’s up to the U.S. Congress.
“We hope this exemption that we need still gets done,” Mr. Wiemuth said. “We hope a new buyer comes along who wants to run her as a cruise line. But we also realize those are big hopes.”
The boat departed from New Orleans last week, traveling through the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile Bay and up the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway toward Tennessee. Among the handful of crew members scrubbing and grooming her for the Chattanooga debut is retired music teacher Barbara Hameister, who traded one last trip for a can of Brasso and a cleaning cloth.
“It's just been a whole different aspect to everything,” said Ms. Hameister, of Blanchester, Ohio, who has taken 48 trips on the boat as a passenger. “When you're on your hands and knees, shining the grand staircase, you really feel intimate with the Delta Queen.”
In 1926 — at a time when steamboats only cost about $60,000 to build — the California Transportation Co. spent about $1 million to make the Delta Queen the “ultimate luxury experience,” according to Mr. Wiemuth. The costly furnishings included crystal chandeliers, Tiffany-style stained-glass windows and flourishes such as the grand staircase, whose curved mahogany railings are adorned with Art Deco brasswork.
Karen “Toots” Maloy, from Clearcreek Hollow, Ark., has been working aboard the Delta Queen since the mid-1970s and seems to be as much of a fixture as the Calliope steam organ or the whistle.
She wears a black Greek sailor’s hat that she bought at a haberdashery in New Orleans, a black long-sleeved shirt with the company logo on it and Delta Queen earrings — gold silhouettes of the boat or red paddle wheels. She calls herself a “riverlorian,” a term she coined to describe her role as the expert on all things Delta Queen and which seems to sum up how many of the boat’s fans feel.
“The Delta Queen has a way of piercing your soul,” she said. “Her timbers just vibrate with her heartbeat and this is something that you don't have to talk about, you don't have to get across to somebody, all you have to do is live aboard her, take a cruise.”
Those who have felt the embrace seem to come back over and over again, bonding with each other in the absence of modern distractions such as cell phones and television.
“I always laugh because my family is not big huggers and I only have one son and he lives away,” said JoAnn Schoen, from Corydon, Ind., who has used every vacation day for the past eight years to ride the Delta Queen. “I get more hugs when I'm on here than I get in the whole rest of the year all put together.”
And nobody seems to be able to talk about saying good-bye to that life without crying.
“I have had a very happy life,” Ms. Maloy said. “It's been the best. I can't do anything else. I don't want to do anything else. Why go backwards? Stop when you're at the top.”
Still, most Delta Queens supporters and crew were relieved the boat would be preserved in its original condition and well cared for in its new life.
“We've been seeing a lot of blue herons, the river birds that forecast good fortune,” Ms. Hameister said. “I think the souls of old river pilots are supposed to be a blue heron and we've been seeing quite a few of them.
“And even the way the boat's acting, it just feels like she's OK with this. And if she can be OK with this, we can, too.”