Legislators working to get steamboat back on the water

Published 12:14 am Saturday, July 27, 2013

NATCHEZ — The Delta Queen could resume her reign of the Mississippi next summer.

The Delta Queen made its final tour of the Mississippi River in 2008 after the federal government ended an exemption to the 1960 Safety of Lives at Sea Act that allowed the wooden vessel to operate.

Now, a piece of legislation has made its way out of the U.S. House Transportation Committee that would allow the historic vessel to resume river cruises if the bill passes through Congress.

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“We were able to get (the bill) out of committee, which we weren’t able to even do that in 2008,” said Cornel Martin, chief executive officer of DQSC Inc., the company that operates the boat as a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“We are very optimistic with the progress we are making, and we hope to get the bill out of the House after their August recess — our hope is to get it out of Congress and signed into law by Dec. 1.”

The 1960 Safety of Lives at Sea Act requires that ships be constructed of inflammable materials if they have more than 50 staterooms. Commissioned in 1927, the Delta Queen — a designated National Landmark and the nation’s oldest passenger steamboat — accommodates 176 passengers and is made of wood. In recent years much of the wood has been replaced with steel, and its hull is double steel. As a riverboat, it has never been more than a mile from shore.

Martin said if the legislation passes Congress, DQSC Inc. would buy the boat from its current owners — it is presently operated under a lease agreement — and resume the itineraries the Delta Queen formerly traveled, which included frequent stops at Natchez.

“We would love to see her back Under-the-Hill,” Martin said. “It has been far too long.”

The goal, he said, is to have the vessel traveling the waters again by June 2, 2014, the 87th anniversary of when it started service.

But Martin said if that is to happen, the Delta Queen will require millions of dollars of renovations, not the least of which is the replacement of the vessel’s boilers, which date back to the early 20th century.

“Clearly the boilers have outlived their usefulness and their expected lifetime,” he said. “We will be replacing them with more modern, environmentally friendly boilers.”

The on-board generators and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems also need to be overhauled, he said.

Getting the Queen back on the river will make that work worth it, though, Martin said.

“It is really an opportunity to see America unlike any other option out there from an authentic paddlewheel steamboat built in the 1920s,” he said. “It is really the nostalgia, the history, the immersion into that period of time when things were a lot slower and a lot simpler in America.”

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said the chance to have the Delta Queen returning to Natchez was something that many people have worked on for a long time and is “truly a phenomenal feat.”

“It is a protected part of our national treasury,” he said. “That floating history is something that is unique to at least our part of the river.”

The House bill that cleared the transportation committee has 22 co-sponsors. An identical Senate bill is co-sponsored by both Louisiana senators, Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R). Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R) also sponsored the measure.