A year after it was towed away from Coolidge Park in downtown Chattanooga and anchored in Houma, La., not much has changed for the historic Delta Queen steamboat.
It's still moored in swampy canal in Houma while its owners await an act of Congress to allow the 89-year-old vessel to carry overnight passengers again. That has to happen before they'll invest $10 million to repair it.
"Everything really hinges on that Congressional [action]," said Cornel Martin, the president and CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.
The upper portion of the steel-hulled boat is primarily wood. That's why it hasn't given a cruise since 2008, when it lost an exemption to the 1966 Safety at Sea Act that prohibits wooden ships of a certain size from carrying passengers on overnight trips.
The Delta Queen's backers have taken their case to Congress — but say they face opposition from American Cruise Lines, a competing steamboat company that's spent tens of thousands of dollars on lobbyists to keep the Delta Queen docked.
In the meantime, the boat sits.
"It hasn't moved an inch," said Phil Stang, the mayor of Kimmswick, Mo., a tourist town of 158 residents on the Mississippi River half an hour's drive from St. Louis.
Kimmswick was selected in September, with fanfare, as the new home port for the Delta Queen — once the old paddle-wheel steamboat starts carrying passengers again on overnight trips to more than more than 80 ports, including New Orleans, Nashville, Tenn., and Pittsburgh, Penn.
Basing the Delta Queen in Kimmswick would create more than 170 jobs and bring in more than $36.4 million annually to the St. Louis region, the Delta Queen's owners and officials in Missouri said when Kimmswick was chosen.
Restaurant, dock being readied
With that in mind, Kimmswick is moving forward — even as the Delta Queen sits anchored.
"The property where it will reside and dock has been purchased by the Jefferson County Port Authority in conjunction with the city of Kimmswick," Mayor Stang said.
Also, Delta Queen Port of Call Restaurant is under construction in an old log cabin-style building in Kimmswick.
"It's being worked on as we speak," Stang said recently.
Martin said the restaurant will serve the same food as the Delta Queen, and key employees have already been hired, including a chef who recently served Martin's family selections from the menu.
"It blew me away, and I'm from the New Orleans area," Martin said.
Mayor Stang and his wife visited the Delta Queen in January in Houma, which is about an hour southwest of New Orleans, since the Stangs were nearby, anyway, because the couple had just taken a Caribbean cruise.
The boat looked good — though a little dirty on the outside, Stang said.
"The cosmetics are a continuing process down there, it's in the middle of a swamp," he said. "I did personally spit on finger and make a big line on the side of it to see how difficult it would to be to clean it off, and I could do it with my finger. It basically needs to be powerwashed."
Missouri politicians back Delta Queen
Stang said both of Missouri's U.S. Senators support the exemption that would let the Delta Queen carry passengers again. The exemption also has the support, he said, of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative whose members include some 70 mayors from Minneapolis to New Orleans, including Stang.
"There's a caucus within in the Senate and the House of both Republicans and Democrats that are similarly pushing a variety of legislation to support projects on the Mississippi," Stang said, including the exemption for the Delta Queen.
Kimmswick residents are excited about the prospect of the Delta Queen coming, the mayor said.
"I'm an incurable optimist," Stang said. "I dot my i's and cross my t's, but I'm also totally optimistic about everything."
Martin has long history with the Delta Queen. He worked with a previous owner that hired him in 1993 to make sure the boat never lost its exemption to the Safety At Sea Act. The exemption was renewed nine times, Martin said, with the last renewal being a 10-year exemption that lasted until 2008 when it expired due to what Martin calls a political oversight.
Martin says the Safety at Sea Act was meant for ocean-going vessels, several of which made headlines in the '50s and '60s when passengers died. The best-known example was the S.S. Yarmouth Castle, an American steamship that caught on fire and sank in 1965 en route from Miami to Nassau, Bahamas, resulting in the death of 90 of its 552 passengers and crew.
Fire's not a concern for the Delta Queen, Martin said, since it has a "modern and efficient sprinkler system" with 1,200 sprinkler heads throughout the boat and sensors in "every compartment, every closet, every room in the vessel."
"She's certainly safer than a lot of large hotels — and she's never further than 100 yards from shore," he said. "She operated for 80 years safely."
Martin said he's spent most of his time recently in Washington, D.C., to lobby to renew the Delta Queen's exemption. The biggest opponent, he said, has been American Cruise Lines, which he said has paid "six figures" to a lobbying firm to fight the Delta Queen's proposed exemption.
American Cruise Lines has a modern paddlewheeler that cruises the Mississippi and two more Mississippi paddlewheelers under construction. It also has two paddlewheelers on the Columbia River and a handful of coastal cruise ships. The Guilford, Conn.,-based business didn't respond to an email from the Times Free Press asking about its lobbying efforts regarding the Delta Queen.
Martin says he's got financing lined up for what he said are the $10 million worth of repairs the Delta Queen needs.
Martin believes the exemption will be approved for the steamship that was built in 1927 in Stockton, Calif. where it served as an overnight car and passenger ferry between Sacramento and San Francisco.
During WWII, the Delta Queen was pressed into military service, including as sleeping quarters for workers fabricating a giant cable net — 50 feet deep and five miles wide — meant to snag Japanese subs that might try to sneak into the San Francisco Bay.
In 1947, it began some 60 years' of service as an overnight cruiser on the U.S.'s inland waterways.
"She's still got a lot of life left in her, and she tells the story of our history," Martin said. "It's a part of America that we don't have to let pass away. We're not ready to give up, yet."
The Delta Queen spent about six years as a floating boutique hotel in Chattanooga. But it had a hard winter before it left; high water levels in the Tennessee River on several occasions submerged its dock and gangway, and the hotel, restaurant and bar were closed to the public. Mayor Andy Berke pushed to have it removed for obstructing the view in Coolidge Park.
When the steamboat starts to cruise again, it will make stop in Chattanooga, Martin said.
"Absolutely," he said. "Chattanooga played a pivotal role in saving the Delta Queen. She'll definitely be back there."