published Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Chattanooga: All hail to the Queen

by Elizabeth Ryan

In the gray light of morning, as the Delta Queen made her way through the Tennessee River Gorge, people already were lined up waiting.

Cars pulled over to the side of the road. People stood on their backyard decks. A group of Baylor School students gathered on a balcony, and men in hard hats stopped working at the former U.S. Pipe and Foundry Co. site to watch her go by.

Accompanied by the playful shrieks of the boat’s calliope, the Delta Queen arrived in Chattanooga around noon Wednesday, welcomed by fans from around the country and members of her new hometown crowd.

“We are embarking on Chattanooga’s second golden age,” said Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who took a short tour of the boat. “I just want to say to the Delta Queen, ‘Welcome Home.’ We were waiting for you.”

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A National Historic Landmark, the Delta Queen now will be docked permanently at Coolidge Park, where it soon will open as a boutique waterfront hotel.

Her sister vessel, the Delta King, has been a hotel in Sacramento, Calif., since 1988. Chattanooga Water Taxi Co. owner Harry Phillips, who leased the Delta Queen from its owners, said it will offer a unique experience to visitors.

“The coolest thing about the vessel is that you’ve got so many people that adore her, and there’s been yet to be one person who’s had a chance to walk on her that doesn’t walk off of her without feeling a new attachment,” he said. “In Chattanooga, we’re going to give it that home, and we hope to have her as long as God lets us have her.”

The lease on the boat is conditional, however. If the boat receives a U.S. congressional exemption from the Safety at Sea Act and a buyer comes forward to operate it as an overnight passenger vessel, the lease will be terminated, Mr. Phillips said. In the meantime, Mr. Phillips said he plans to clean and polish the boat but preserve it as is.

Rooms at the new Delta Queen Hotel will range in price from $89 for a bunkbed cabin with a bathroom to $175 for the best suites, some of which have clawfoot bathtubs, according to Sydney Slome, co-owner of Delta Queen LLC.

“I feel that we have something very interesting to sell, which is romance,” Mr. Slome said. “I want to make it very romantic, which means there will be lots of entertainment of that era.

“I hope because we don’t have TVs in the room; we don’t have telephones or modern conveniences ... My feeling is people will communicate (with each other),” he said. “It’s more going to be like a retreat for people.”

As a full-scale tourist attraction, the hotel also will have plenty of public access, including guided tours and dinner theater, Dixieland entertainment in the Texas Lounge and Bar and a gourmet brunch on Sundays.

Mr. Slome said his Delta Queen Web site received more than 2,000 hits on Tuesday, mostly from former passengers who wanted to book trips.

Michael and Rita Jones, of Cincinnati, said they’ll return for a visit after being steamboaters on the Delta Queen since 1993.

“We’re sad on the one hand to see that she’s no longer running as she was intended to do, but we also know that she’s better off being used on a daily basis as opposed to when she was in New Orleans and tied up and nobody on board and mold starting to grow,” he said.

Sally Muse, of Knoxville, took her appreciation one step further. Ms. Muse, whose father, Fred A. Barrow, was the chief engineer on the boat in the 1950s, came onboard Wednesday with her sister Carolyn May, of Abingdon, Va., and immediately wrapped Mr. Phillips in a hug.

“This is what you need,” she said. “We love you. We appreciate you.”

  • Video: Historic Queen
    Delta Queen historians Bill Wiemuth and Karen “Toots” Maloy talk about the past and future of the Delta Queen steamboat that arrived in Chattanooga Wednesday.
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