Delta Queen receives congressional exemption to cruise again

Queen
Courtesy Franz Neumeier
The steamboat Delta Queen cruises on the Upper Mississippi River in 2005. Sidelined after its last safety exemption expired in 2008, the vessel is set to resume river voyages in 2020.

The 92-year-old Delta Queen steamboat is being refurbished to carry passengers next year after its Missouri owners were granted a 10-year exemption from a 1966 safety law. The exemption is in the Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018, signed by President Trump on Dec. 4. The vessel’s last exemption expired in October 2008.

The 285-foot vessel is now docked in Houma, La., after spending five years in Chattanooga, Tenn., as a waterside hotel. Congress has given the boat 10 exemptions since the 1966 Safety at Sea Act, which aimed to prevent fires on wooden vessels calling on U.S. ports and carrying 50 or more overnight passengers. The law was intended for oceangoing ships, however, and Delta Queen has been given exemptions partly because it operated inland.

The boat has a steel hull but its superstructure is wooden, said Cornel Martin, president and CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. in Kimmswick, Mo. The vessel’s first hull was made from riveted steel, and it was encased in welded steel in 1991.

Delta Queen’s boilers, produced in 1919 for a U.S. Navy destroyer that was never built, will be replaced. The generators, main steam line and HVAC and sewage systems will be repaired or replaced. Staterooms and the vessel’s four public areas will also be upgraded.

Under the latest exemption, the owners must prioritize their work and focus on updating the galleys, areas near the engines, boilers, electrical panels, fuel and oil tanks, and generators with fire-retardant materials. At least 10 percent of the superstructure’s wooden parts must be converted yearly to make them noncombustible.

The projected $10 million to $12 million cost to get the boat cruising again will be covered by private investors, Martin said. The owners are doing the engineering and design work now.

“The Coast Guard needs to sign off on everything we do and approve all the plans so that we can secure a certificate of inspection from them,” he said. The work is expected to be done in south Louisiana but the shipyard hasn’t been announced yet.

With 88 staterooms, Delta Queen can accommodate 176 passengers. Its home port will be Kimmswick. In November, Kimmswick Mayor Philip Stang said the boat’s return will create hundreds of jobs and give his city and ports elsewhere an economic boost. Legislators from Missouri, Ohio and other states to be visited by the vessel supported its latest exemption.

Delta Queen and its twin, Delta King, date to 1927, and their names refer to the San Joaquin River Delta. They first worked in California as overnight ferries and hosted Prohibition-era drinking and gambling. During World War II, both boats ferried troops in California for the U.S. Navy, Martin said. After they were designated as military surplus in 1946, Delta Queen was acquired by Greene Line Steamers in Ohio. Engines from Delta King were removed for spare parts for Delta Queen, which was towed through the Panama Canal to New Orleans. It resumed carrying passengers in 1948.

Martin said a deadly fire on SS Yarmouth Castle, an American steamship, near the Bahamas in 1965 was one of the factors prompting the 1966 Safety at Sea Act. But exemptions to the law allowed Delta Queen to sail the Mississippi River until 2008. The restored Delta King has been a floating hotel in Sacramento, Calif., for decades.

From Kimmswick, Delta Queen will cruise the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Kanawha, Arkansas and Illinois rivers, along with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. New Orleans to Memphis will be a major route, and the boat also will travel to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Chattanooga. A trip from New Orleans west on the Intracoastal Waterway will let passengers attend the annual Dickens on the Strand festival in Galveston, Texas, Martin said.

Delta Queen was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. In the past, the boat used the Robin Street Wharf in New Orleans, but in the future it will probably arrive at the port’s cruise terminal facilities at Julia and Erato streets, Martin said.

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