A decade-long legislative effort to help return the Delta Queen Steamboat to America's waterways was completed Tuesday with the signature of President Donald Trump to a measure that renews the vessel's exemption from the 1966 Safety at Sea Act.
The new law should allow the Delta Queen to return to operation within the next couple of years, including stops again in Chattanooga, after repairs to the 91-year-old steamboat are complete.
"Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in American steamboat history," said Leah Ann Ingram, vice president and chief operating officer of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. "This was the first big step in returning the Delta Queen to the waterways, where she belongs. The response we have seen from previous passengers and supporters has been overwhelming. We look forward to working with the United States Coast Guard to move the renovations forward."
The Delta Queen operated along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers through most of the past century before relocating to Chattanooga in 2009 as a stationary, overnight riverfront hotel. After being moored at the downtown waterfront in Chattanooga for six years, the aging Delta Queen was hauled in 2015 to Houma, Louisiana, where it is now docked.
Cornel Martin, president and chief executive of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., said last month the boat owners are planning to make $10 million to $12 million in renovations to return the boat back to making overnight river trips.
"Most of the upgrades will be internal, including the boat's mechanical systems, but the look and feel will always be that of an authentic 1927 steamboat," Martin said in a statement Tuesday. "Preserving the historical integrity of our beloved Queen is very important to us. Well-appointed furnishings and décor will offer a more comfortable experience while preserving the nostalgic touches her passengers expect."
One of the most significant upgrades will be replacing the boilers, which are original to the boat and were manufactured in 1919. The generators, steam line, heating and air, plumbing and galley will also be replaced. Common areas and staterooms will see various cosmetic updates.
When renovations are complete, likely in 2020, themed voyages will resume along the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Kanawha, Arkansas and Illinois rivers, Martin said. The Delta Queen will travel the same routes as she did before her hiatus, with a few additions. The boat will offer three-night, five-night and seven-night cruises.
"We look forward to once again sharing her rich history with our passengers and history enthusiasts throughout America's Heartland and Deep South," Martin said.
In 1966, Congress passed the Safety at Sea Law that would have put the Delta Queen out of business because of its wooden structure and potential fire hazard. But to preserve the historic riverboat, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, Congress granted nine exemption for the Delta Queen to the Safety at Sea Law to allow the inland waterway vessel to stay in operation.
In 2008, the Delta Queen was forced to retire from overnight cruise service when her Congressional Exemption from the 1966 law expired. The owners of the Delta Queen contend the law was intended to prohibit ocean-bound vessels from carrying overnight passengers unless completely made of noncombustible materials.
Trump's signature for another exemption for the Delta Queen will allow the riverboat today to remain in overnight cruise service through 2028.