Chattanooga: River boat royalty

Chattanooga: River boat royalty

April 14th, 2009 by Andy Johns in Local Regional News

A paddlewheel boat ends its long run ferrying passengers to become a hotel permanently moored at a historic waterfront.

The story should sound familiar to many Chattanoogans, but this riverboat adventure took place 20 years ago and 2,400 miles away from where the Delta Queen is docked at Coolidge Park.

"They look very similar," said Bill Wiemuth, a spokesman for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., who has spent nights on the Queen and its brother, the Delta King. "They were built as identical twins."

Docked in Sacramento, Calif., the Delta King shares more than a family resemblance with its Tennessee sister, according to hotel staff. Both boats were christened on the same day in May 1927, and a piston arm and paddlewheel shaft on the Queen were scavenged from the King.

The King and Queen both started their lives wheeling up and down the Sacramento River in California before being drafted into the U.S. Navy as net tenders, troop transports and hospital ships in San Francisco Bay, according to Sacramento-based Delta King Hotel Co.

"When we first opened, we had quite a few people who had ridden the boat and people who were on the boat in the war tell us their stories," said Charlie Coyne, general manager of the Delta King.

SEPARATE PATHS

From there, the stories of the boats diverge like the wake behind their massive paddlewheels. After the war, the Queen was sold and brought east to travel the Mississippi River, while the King's engines were removed for parts for the Queen, according to the hotel staff. Powerless, the King sat rotting and sank a few times, including an 18-month stay at the bottom of San Francisco Bay.

"That boat had a hard career," Mr. Wiemuth said.

In 1984, the King was resurrected from the bay and towed from San Francisco to Sacramento, where it was renovated over the next five years, according to the hotel company. In 1989, the staterooms were opened up, turning pairs of original rooms into new single rooms and converting the old engine room into a swanky Captain's Quarters Suite.

Over the years, the King has picked up a murder mystery dinner show, two dinner theater shows and a wine school, according to Mr. Coyne.

"It makes us, I think, synonymous with entertainment and sophisticated food and wine," he said.

While Mr. Coyne and the Queen's project manager, Chattanoogan Harry Phillips, said there are plenty of differences between the two situations, Mr. Phillips said local residents can learn a little about the Queen's potential by looking at the King's success.

"It really is a unique opportunity for both coastlines," Mr. Phillips said.

"JEWEL" ON THE WATER

The King hosts weddings and special events in addition to overnight guests, according to the company's Web site.

Mike Testa, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the boat a "jewel" and said its event facilities remain popular with locals and conventioneers while tourists flock to the staterooms.

"It fits very well into how we market Sacramento," he said.

Liz Brenner, a spokeswoman for the Old Sacramento Historic District, said the King's lease requires management to pay the city 1 percent of its receipts. The total annual payment averages about $45,000, she said, meaning the hotel brings in about $4.5 million a year.

"It's kind of a win-win for the both of us," she said.

Mr. Coyne said about 85 percent of his business comes from visitors who live within 50 miles of the King.

"Our market is very local," he said.

Overall, he said, he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of guests who continue to visit the King.

"This boat went out of operation before I was born," said Mr. Coyne, 59. "I didn't realize the number of people that held affection for it."


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