More than 1,000 rare and historical items from the Delta Queen's construction in 1924 were unveiled Friday onboard the steamship, which was packed with passengers.
The items were dropped off unexpectedly by a North Georgia woman a few weeks ago.
"These are items we thought were destroyed," said Mike Williams, who was the boat's captain from 1999 to 2006. "To have these artifacts is a magical experience. We are like kids in a candy store."
The Delta Queen is now a floating hotel docked at Coolidge Park, and Williams is staying on the steamboat this weekend along with 100 other former passengers and crew.
The historical items - which include some of the earliest photographs of the ship, blueprints, tools used in its construction and even roller skates used by workers when it was being built in Stockton, Calif. - was owned by Jim Burns, the boat's chief engineer and chief of construction.
A friend of the Burns family, June Antim, inherited the artifacts years ago and wanted to donate them to the Delta Queen Preservation Foundation before she moved from the area, said Justin Stickland, sales and event director for the Delta Queen Hotel.
"She said she wanted to give them to someone who would appreciate them," Stickland said.
The Delta Queen was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and was a fixture on the Mississippi River until 2008 when Congress declined to renew the steamboat's exemption from a law prohibiting wooden structures from carrying 50 or more passengers overnight on the nation's waterways.
The ship docked in Chattanooga in 2009, but many loyal to the boat said they still hope to see it return to work as a passenger ship.
Mary Charlton, who worked as a ship historian and lived onboard for three years, came from Ohio for the weekend reunion of longtime passengers and crew and said she hopes the exhibition of artifacts will draw more people to the boat.
She and many others are volunteering to polish brass and do other work around the boat while they're in town.
"This vessel has a soul," she said. "She is something very special, and she calls who she wants."
Leah Ann Ingram, who operates the hotel and helped found the Delta Queen Preservation Foundation with her husband, Randy, said they plan to display some items in the hotel as soon as possible.
First, they plan to hire someone to document the artifacts, she said.
"We will do all we can to make sure the items are well cared for and tended to in the future," Ingram said in a statement. "These items assist in telling the story of the Delta Queen as well as the man behind her construction."