It might not make it to the top of President Bush's to-do list before he leaves office, but a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving the Delta Queen riverboat has asked him to issue an executive order allowing the historic vessel to return to service.
The vessel is the last traditional steamboat carrying overnight passengers on inland waterways, according to Vicki Webster, chairman of the "Save the Delta Queen" effort.
"She's the only one," said Ms. Webster, who lives in Cincinnati, one of the Delta Queen's ports of call. "The country's full of old boats that are tied up and they're rusting and they're rotting. They simply cannot make enough to pay for their own maintenance."
The group turned to Mr. Bush after Congress defeated a bill last fall that would have renewed an exemption to a law banning wooden vessels from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers. Since its last exemption expired in November, the Delta Queen has been docked in New Orleans, Ms. Webster said.
In December, U.S. Reps. John Boehner, Jean Schmidt and Steve Chabot, all R-Ohio, and Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., penned a letter to Mr. Bush pleading for the riverboat to keep sailing.
"Critics of the boat have forced it into dry-dock under the guise of being an unacceptable safety risk due to its advanced age and wooden construction," they wrote. "The real reason for allowing the exemption to expire is nothing more than partisan politics that should not be allowed to end the Delta Queen's historic and educational river trips."
The congressmen argued that a labor dispute over union contracts was to blame for the boat's status.
John Lewis, who founded the "Save the Delta Queen" group, said an exemption was unlikely.
"I do not believe that Congress will give the boat the exemption. I do not think the president will give the Delta Queen an exemption," he said.
Chattanooga developer Allen Casey had hoped to dock the boat on his North Shore property across from Ross' Landing, but dropped his plans last summer when one of the project's investors pulled out.
Mr. Casey, the CEO of Rivercity Resort, Inc., said he had wanted to open the boat to hotel guests the way he did with the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, which he redeveloped in 1972.
"It would be where you could stay one night onboard the Delta Queen like they stayed one night on the train cars at the Choo-Choo," he said.
Built in 1926, the steamboat was used to transport cargo and soldiers in Northern California during World War II. It since has navigated the tributaries of the Mississippi River, carrying up to 176 passengers at a time.
"It's like stepping back into another century," said Ms. Webster, who took her first trip on the Delta Queen in 1970. "You got away from television, you got away from radio ... It was just completely relaxing."
Ms. Webster said she had heard reports Tuesday that Mr. Casey planned to lease and gut the paddleboat, but she said Wednesday that she had received "inaccurate information."
Ambassadors International, Inc., which owns the Delta Queen, is discussing lease terms with many potential investors, but not with Mr. Casey, according to Joseph McCarthy, vice president of corporate development for the company, based in Newport Beach, Calif.
Mr. McCarthy declined to discuss specific lease terms, but he stressed that any agreement would require that the vessel be preserved as is and be voided if a congressional exemption came through.