The Delta Queen may be a steamboat, but the story of its construction, abandonment, rebirth, near consignment to the scrap heap and federally forced retirement more closely resembles a cat’s nine lives. The Queen, moreover, made possibly the most dramatic voyage of any river boat in this country during one reincarnation.
The Delta Queen and its brother ship The Delta King came into being long after the heyday of the steamboat, that classic symbol of 19th-century inland America that occupied the public’s imagination in no small part thanks to the writings of Mark Twain, who in his youth for a short time piloted a steamboat. Steamboats for many decades served the mid-continent drainage system anchored by the Mississippi and fed by the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Missouri and several other rivers, but by the 1920s their day had come and gone, and the classic white wooden boat with the large paddle wheels, ornate gingerbread filigree and twin decorated smokestacks had just about faded into the romantic mists of memory.
The fondness for steamships had not faded even as their usefulness dwindled, and the California Transportation Co. in 1925 began plans to build the twin ships, which would operate on the San Joachin and Sacramento rivers. The hulls were built from English steel in Dumbarton, Scotland, and the Krupp works in Germany forged the crankshafts and wheelshafts. The latter were shipped by freighter to Scotland and assembled in the 250-foot hulls, and the hulls were dismantled, loaded into another freighter, and shipped across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and north to San Francisco, towed by tugs to Sacramento, and reassembled under the direction of James Burns at Stockton.
Decks of North American oak and pine and mahogany from South America, teakwood railing from Siam, flooring of Siamese ironbark, and staterooms finished in mahogany and walnut contributed to the boats’ elegance. Launched in 1926, the King and Queen enjoyed fine lives as excursion boats for more than 10 years, until the hard times of the Depression outmaneuvered the romance of river travel. For a time they hauled freight but eventually lay inactive, out to pasture, until being called into service as troop transport ships in World War II. They were painted gray and carried sailors to and from ships in San Francisco Bay, but at war’s end they again were left to be forgotten.
The Greene Line of Cincinnati bought the Delta Queen in 1946, and thus began the steamboat’s most daring and dangerous voyage. She was boarded up and towed south — the story of her perilous trip through the Pacific Ocean too lengthy to relate here — taken through the Panama Canal once again, and guided into the Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans on May 19, 1947, a month after leaving California, over 5,378 miles of ocean and canal.
The refurbishment was finished in 1948, and she enjoyed many years of river cruises, but tough times for the Greenes forced the company to put the Queen up for sale in 1958. But three men bought the Delta Queen, and she managed to avoid the scrap heap once again.
I saw the Delta Queen one day in Marietta, perhaps in 1971 or 1972, when she was docked and open for tours, and, being a lifelong lover of river history, was instantly captivated. For years afterward I dreamed of taking a cruise from Pittsburgh to New Orleans and back, but lack of funds and time prevented that dream from ever becoming a reality. The best I could do was listen to a record of the Queen’s calliope and receive mailings promoting river cruises.
My dream was laid to rest in 2009 when the Delta Queen was grounded, so to speak, for fire regulations, if I remember correctly, and she has since operated as a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
But her next incarnation may be soon upon her. The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. signed a purchase agreement on Feb. 17 and hopes to have the ship operating by 2016. Her progress can be followed on Facebook and at http://www.save-the-delta-queen.org/. And once again I dream of the day that I watch wooded shores pass by while steam-powered organ music recreates Mark Twain’s life on the river.
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