Miss-Lou says farewell to Delta Queen

Published 1:01 am Wednesday, November 5, 2008

NATCHEZ — For the last 60 years the Delta Queen has been cruising into Natchez, and on Tuesday night she left on her last scheduled departure from the city.

The 82-year-old vessel’s exemption from the Safety of Life at Sea Act of 1966 lapsed recently, and the boat is no longer legally able to carry cruisers up and down the Mississippi.

The boat’s wooden hull left it in the hazardous category under the 1966 act.

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While she’s currently headed for her winter docking in New Orleans, some of those who were most familiar with the boat gathered at her docking spot, on Silver Street, to visit the vessel one last time Tuesday.

Former director of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours John Saleeby said the Queen’s passengers were extremely valuable to the city’s economy over the years.

“It’s been very, very important to us,” Saleeby said.

Jim Coy, fellow former NPT director, said it’s nearly impossible to calculate what the boat has meant to the city.

“We’re going to miss it,” he said.

Saleeby said the Queen brought cruise-goers, sometimes 100 at a time; into the city where they would eat in Natchez’s restaurants and shop into the city’s stores.

Coy said not only was the economic impact valuable, and difficult to quantify, but the boat brought something else — free advertising.

Coy said now that the boat will no longer dock in the city, all those on the cruise won’t be able to go back to their hometowns and spread the word about Natchez.

While Coy and Saleeby lament the city’s loss, some are more worried about their personal economic situation as a result of the boat’s status.

The Queen’s historian Bill Weimuth said he and 150 of the boat’s crew will soon be unemployed.

“That’s a hard thing to deal with,” Wiemuth said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

And while Weimuth now needs to start looking for work he said he’s grateful for every day he spent on the Queen.

“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “I got to have fun at work every day for 10 years. Not a lot of other people can say that.”

But Weimuth, his coworkers and the city might not be totally out of luck just yet.

Vanessa Bloy, Majestic America Line public relations director, said a bill currently in congress could be the Queen’s saving grace.

Majestic America owns the Queen, and Bloy said if the boat is granted a fire retardant materials exemption it could mean business as usual for the vessel for the next decade.

“We hope to get this exemption,” Bloy said.

Bloy said the boat has had fire safety updates but still does not meet the current fire safety regulations.

But an exemption would keep the boat churning up and down the Mississippi.

And that’s what Weimuth and others are hoping for.

“It’s like a permission slip from Congress,” Weimuth said of the exemption. “That’s all we need.”