Sengupta: Chattanooga and the future of the Delta Queen

Sengupta: Chattanooga and the future of the Delta Queen

January 19th, 2014 By Narayan Sengupta in Opinion Columns

The Delta Queen

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Editor's Note: The Delta Queen remains in Chattanooga under a temporary agreement with the city while the owners pursue a sale. The U.S. House of Representatives has acted to allow the paddle boat to return to the river system, but the U.S. Senate has taken no action.

In March, Chattanooga may evict the Delta Queen, a stunningly beautiful steam paddle boat/hotel that floats gently on the Tennessee River at Coolidge Park. The ship is a National Historic Landmark, and the last American riverboat with overnight guest rooms. Her views of Chattanooga by night or day are the finest in the city and nothing short of spectacular.

She was built in Scotland in 1925-26, taken apart, shipped across the Atlantic and then reassembled in Stockton, Calif. Measuring 285 feet by 60 feet, she, and her brother Delta King were the largest, most expensive and most luxurious paddle boats in the world -- ever. At $875,000 a pop, they certainly earned their "Million Dollar Steamer" nicknames. From 1927 on, they each made more than 4,500 cruises, all without mishap, carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers in the process.

Delta Queen was retro before retro was cool. Her design evokes the 1880s. In the Roaring '20s, she plied California's coastal waters as a freighter with room for well-heeled tourists. She survived the Great Depression, wharf worker's strikes, new regulations and more.

During WWII, the U.S, Navy took Delta Queen over, named her YFB-56, painted her navy gray and made her a troop transport in San Francisco Bay. Notably, she transported wounded Pearl Harbor men and once ferried 3,200 men in a single voyage. Post-war she resumed civilian service and the name Delta Queen. In 1947, she was bought at auction for $46,250 by the Greene family and moved to Cincinnati. The Greens included Mary Greene, the family matriarch and one of the first women to become a licensed river pilot. Mary lived on board, and, in 1949, died on board; now her ghost reportedly haunts the ship.

Since 2009, the ship has called Chattanooga home and has functioned as an 88-room hotel that sleeps 176. Guests from across the country occupy the interior and exterior common areas. Those not admiring the views of Chattanooga's booming North Shore or busy in happy conversation are engaged in books, puzzles and board games.

Delta Queen has brass fittings, wood paneling, chandeliers and elegant period furniture. Her promenade decks have rocking chairs, bench swings and many tables. The famed mahogany Grand Staircase has art-deco brass flanks. Rooms have king, queen, bunk or twin beds. All have carpeting, wood furniture and paneling, private bathrooms, sinks, large mirrors and many pillows. Her lovely staterooms add giant windows and Tiffany stained-glass panels.

Above the waterline, the ship has four decks, the bridge (with two flying wings) and the single-smoke stack. The main deck has the dining room, which was once used for freight and is still covered in its original exotic Thai ironwood. Above are three passenger decks. The crew quarters, engine room and boilers are below the waterline.

The engine room is neatly organized. The machinery is a mix of 1920s to 2010s, if counting the electronics up on the bridge. Speaking of which, the view from up there, perhaps 50 feet above water-level, is phenomenal. At the bow is a steam-whistle and a big brass bell.

Celebrities, including President Herbert Hoover, and later President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter have stayed on board. So have senators, Vanderbilts and movie stars. If you want drama: the ship had a murder back in the 1920s that involved gambling, a pretty woman, the chef and the ship's butcher. Never get into a knife fight with a butcher. The chef lost.

Now this grand old lady, the ONLY riverboat left in the nation for overnight passengers is to be shunned, due to the short-sightedness of Chattanooga's mayor and the normally enlightened minds of those who steer her.

Delta Queen's fate is anyone's guess at this point. Yes, the most expensive, beautiful paddleboat ever could turn into a derelict hulk, get scrapped or move to another city. Or she could remain a fine hotel beloved by all who enjoy Chattanooga's greatness, and remain part of our nation's grand cultural legacy for decades to come.

Write Chattanooga Mayor Andy Burke at mayor@chattanooga.gov and tell him to help save Delta Queen.

Narayan Sengupta, of Atlanta, has been a frequent visitor to Chattanooga for more than 40 years.