Save the Queen campaign losing steam?

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 4, 2008

Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The famed satirist and steamboat captain loved to spin stories. With his keen wit and incisive satire, Twain became a hugely popular celebrity with his colloquial tales of life in the 19th century.

Twain and his aphorism about history’s ability to rhyme came to mind Thursday when a newsletter from the Save the Delta Queen organization crossed my desk.

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Twain could certainly spin a good story about the Delta Queen’s past 30 years and it current predicament.

On Nov. 8, the steamboat’s red paddle wheel will slowly lurch to a stop, its calliope will play its last tune and another era in boating on the Mississippi River will come to an end.

Unless Congress intervenes, the boat will be decommissioned because her exemption from a 1966 Safety at Sea law will expire.

The law prohibits overnight passenger service on boats that are primarily constructed of wood. Congress enacted the law in response to a tragic fire where 90 lives were lost on a boat in the Caribbean in 1965. As a result, the Corps of Engineers decided there would be no wood on vessels flying the American flag that carried 50 or more passengers overnight. Without the current exemption from Congress, the boat will no longer be able to offer overnight cruises.

So, on Oct. 31 the Delta Queen will leave Memphis, Tenn., to make its last voyage down the Mississippi to its final docking in New Orleans.

Amazingly, we have been down this river before.

On Nov. 2, 1970, the docks along Poydras Street were packed with those who came to say goodbye to the paddle wheeler. According to accounts, the event was a grand spectacle filled with flashing camera bulbs, speeches from dignitaries and broadcasts from television crews to the rest of the world.

It was the end of the steamboat era and the Delta Queen would be sent out in style.

According to news reports, the scene in New Orleans was typical from the steamboat’s start in St. Paul, Minn.

As reported in Heritage American magazine: “The word had spread that the 40-year-old steamboat, with her wooden superstructure, stood condemned…”

“They lined the banks at LaCrosse, at Prairie du Chien, Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport and her sister city Rock Island, Burlington, Nauvoo, Hannibal (where Mark Twain grew up watching steamboats), St. Louis, Memphis — at every stop.)”

Clutching signs that said, “Save the Queen,” multitudes stood chanting as “When the Saints go marching in” echoed off the banks of the Mississippi.

Accounts in Vicksburg said the captain joked that the reception was so tearful that the Yazoo River rose half a foot that day — an exaggeration rivaling some of Mark Twain’s if I ever heard one.

Pictures from Natchez show children waving “We’ll Miss You Delta Queen” signs from Natchez Under- the-Hill.

The steamboat company that owned the boat estimated that nearly a quarter of a million wrote letters or signed petitions to keep the boat afloat.

Still, on that early November day many had assumed the end for the Delta Queen had come.

That was until an amendment was quietly added to an anonymous bill to give the boat an extension. The extension passed.

Now, some 38 years later, the extension is set to expire.

Once again petition signatures are being collected and letters are being written to congressmen to save the boat.

Will another final cruise down the Mississippi gain public support the magnitude of 1970s final cruise? I am not so sure.

Unfortunately, years have passed and the popularity of the historic riverboats may have waned a bit.

According to Web site, a little more than 1,000 signatures had been collected on Dec. 3.

If history is to repeat itself, or even rhyme as Twain once claimed, it will take much more support than that to save the boat from being decommissioned from overnight voyages.

Ben Hillyer is the web editor for The Democrat. He can be reached at