Delta Queen prepares to depart Chattanooga's shores, but she may return one day (video)

Leah Ann Ingram points to the Delta Queen's paddle wheel Tuesday at Coolidge Park. Preparations on the riverboat have been underway to prepare it for its departure on Sunday.

She'll go every place she's always gone, and that includes Chattanooga."

The historic Delta Queen, the last of a rare breed, on Sunday will finally depart the Scenic City's shores for New Orleans, where she'll be transformed back into an overnight passenger vessel in the hope that by 2016 she will once again ply America's waterways.

"We're prepping for departure," said Leah Ann Ingram, vice president, chief operating officer and part owner of the newly created Delta Queen Steamboat Co.

The Queen may one day return to Chattanooga, if only for a brief visit. But the days of the Queen's status as a Chattanooga landmark, forever moored to its pier at Coolidge Park, are at an end. Come Monday, those hoping to catch sight of the red paddlewheel or the graceful bow will see only a rusted rail rising above a bare pier.

If you go

* What: Follow the Delta Queen out of Chattanooga onboard the Southern Belle * When: Sunday at 2:30 p.m. * Cost: $25 per ticket, available at 423-499-9977 Source: Delta Queen Steamboat Co.

photo Leah Ann Ingram points to the Delta Queen's paddle wheel Tuesday at Coolidge Park. Preparations on the riverboat have been underway to prepare it for its departure on Sunday.

Delta Queen timeline

* 1924 -- Construction begins on Delta Queen in Dumbarton, Scotland * May 1927 -- Delta Queen and sister ship Delta King christened * June 1927 -- Both boats begin service between Sacramento and the San Joaquin River Delta * October 1940 -- Delta Queen begins service for the Navy in a variety of roles * June 1945 -- Delta Queen takes newly created United Nations delegates on tour of New York City * December 1947 -- Delta Queen bought by Cincinnati businessman for use on the Mississippi River System * 1966 -- Safety of the Sea law, designed to forbid oceangoing vessels with wooden hulls from carrying overnight passengers, inadvertently affects the Delta Queen * 1976 -- Delta Queen bought by Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of New York * 1986 -- Delta Queen begins sailing out of New Orleans * 2006 -- Majestic America buys Delta Queen, decides not to renew contract with Seafarers Union * 2007 -- Exemption to Safety of the Sea Law not renewed, allegedly blocked by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota * 2008 -- Delta Queen completes last voyage, docks in Chattanooga for use as a hotel and bar * 2013 -- Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke attempts to evict Delta Queen * February 2014 -- An ice storm cripples the Delta Queen, and the boat stops taking visitors * June 2014 -- A group of investors led by businessman Cornel Martin seals deal to buy boat, return it to duty * Dec. 2014 -- Two Senate Democrats block a 15-year exemption to Safety of the Sea law that previously sailed through the U.S. House * Feb. 2015 -- New Orleans businessman Cornel Martin buys Delta Queen from TAC Cruise, a division of Xanterra Holding Corp. * March 2015 -- Delta Queen set to leave Chattanooga by tugboat Sources:, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, news reports

photo The Delta Queen is docked at Coolidge Park in this file photo.

"She'll go every place she's always gone, and that includes Chattanooga," Ingram said. "But only for a 24-hour turnaround."

When she's ready, the Delta Queen will carry 176 passengers and 120 crew members in relative luxury, Ingram said, offering a more intimate alternative to an ocean cruise without the risk of getting seasick.

The Queen's exit marks a turning point in the journey to refit her for service, a journey that thus far has been beset by political intrigue and backroom wrangling. The battle to save the Delta Queen from rotting away in the heart of Chattanooga ultimately involved two of the three branches of the federal government, city officials across the U.S. heartland and a spirited group of steamboat enthusiasts. And it's not over yet.

The cost of restoring her to a full-service, Mark Twain-era steamboat is high: $5 million and a congressional exemption to the 1966 Safety of the Sea law that the boat's owners hope to push through this year. The exemption failed in 2014 after senators used a move called a "hold" to effectively strangle the bill.

But though the Queen's time in Chattanooga was at times marred by political and business disputes, it was also Chattanooga that saved her from the scrap heap in 2008. Local businessman Harry Phillips brought the boat here after she lost her previous exemption to the Safety of the Sea law, a legal development that forced her to forego overnight passenger service on the open water.

So she waited. Her owners moored her at Coolidge Park, where she served as a boutique hotel, restaurant and bar. Meanwhile, thousands of former guests began forming groups aimed at saving the Delta Queen, with some even volunteering to polish the brass, mend curtains or grease the gigantic pistons that power the wooden wheel.

Without the millions of dollars flowing in from passenger service, maintenance became a problem. Her leather chairs cracked, her paint peeled, her floors buckled. After a freak ice storm in 2014 froze her pipes, the boat's former owners shut her down while shopping for a buyer.

Her new owner, New Orleans businessman Cornel Martin, led a group that in February purchased the Queen for a undisclosed sum from TAC Cruise, a division of Xanterra Holding Corp. Martin plans to do more than give her a fresh coat of paint and fix the water damage. Workers will replace or rejuvenate everything from her ancient World War I-era boilers to the woodwork adorning the upstairs bar. To do that, he has to take her away.

"We had the best service, five stars, and we'll have that again," said Lloyd Camel, who has served as the Queen's hotel manager for years and now is its guardian.

She never really belonged to Chattanooga. The hallways in the crew quarters below the water level are named for New Orleans streets. The back of the boat is painted to list Cincinnati, Ohio, as her home port. Cincinnati voters have even named the Queen the top historic landmark in that city, despite it not having visited Ohio for years.

With the imminent passage -- her owners hope -- of a 15-year exemption to the Safety of the Sea law this year, it's more likely that she'll return from whence she came, according to Ingram.

"Cincinnati definitely wants their boat back," she said, though she noted that there is also interest in Baton Rouge, La., St. Louis, Mo., and New Orleans.

There's good reason for that interest. The Delta Queen is scheduled to start offering three-, four- and five-day trips in 2016 for around $350 per night -- the price includes everything except alcohol and shore tours -- and could bring in an estimated $20 million per year in revenue to the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.

For her home port city, that translates into about 300 jobs, $13 million in direct economic impact, plus another $30 million to $40 million in indirect impact, Ingram said.

She's also one of a kind. Though there are other riverboats, and even other riverboats with paddlewheels and backup diesel engines, the Delta Queen is the last boat of its type in the world that moves using only a paddlewheel, Ingram said.

The big condition to the passage of the Safety of the Sea law's exemption is that her owners replace 10 percent of her wood structure every year with a more fireproof material that satisfies the spirit of the law, which they'll have to do without destroying the historic character that makes her unique. And she is unique. The Delta Queen is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is classified as a National Historic Landmark and was recently designated as a National Treasure of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The trip to a shipyard just outside of New Orleans could take anywhere from nine to 14 days, depending on how fast the Mississippi River is flowing, Ingram said. Workers have taken the historic paintings down from her walls and encased them in bubble wrap for the journey. A captain and two engineers will ride with her during the journey in case something goes wrong. Her existing paddlewheel will be cut up and sold for souvenirs.

For those nursing nostalgia, Ingram chartered the Southern Belle to ride alongside the Queen on Sunday during her tug-assisted journey under the Market Street Bridge and downriver through Moccasin Bend to Williams Island. Then the boats will exchange whistle blows, balloons will be released, and the Queen will continue her journey.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or with tips and documents.