Delta Queen Could Sail Again on U.S. Rivers

The Delta Queen docked in Chattanooga, TN, where it served as a hotel. // Photo by SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

It’s possible the legendary Delta Queen, the original Mississippi River cruise vessel, so beloved by past guests and immortalized in song, could possibly sail again—its big wheel turning as it cruises America’s heartland rivers.

It all depends on the outcome of new Congressional legislation filed by U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Rob Portman (R-OH), Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Tom Cotton (R-LA).

Filed late last week, McCaskill's Bill 89 would reinstate an exemption for the ship, which launched in 1925 and first began cruising operations in 1927, to sail the Mississippi and its tributaries.  

While designated as a National Historic Landmark, Delta Queen currently cannot sail with more than 50 passengers, based on requirements of the Safety of Life at Sea Act (SOLAS), passed in 1966.

That law prohibits overnight sailings on wooden vessels. While the historic ship has a steel hull, much of it is wooden. It sailed for decades under a SOLAS exemption, but that expired in 2008.

The bill, if passed, would require the owners to reduce the amount of wood onboard by 10 percent annually. The ship’s 88 staterooms and public spaces are mostly of wooden construction, given the vessel’s age.  

Previous legislation was filed to get the ship sailing again in 2015, but there was no exemption received. But with a changing political climate and new Congressional make-up, the senators opted to try again. 

A Beloved Classic

In its lifetime, the ship has sailed more than two million miles, carried three presidents (Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter) and served as a naval ship during World War II. In 2004, the vessel was inducted into the Maritime Hall of Fame.

From 1946 until 1985, the vessel was based in Cincinnati, and then home ported in New Orleans until 2008.

The vessel retired from service nearly a decade ago, but had served as a Chattanooga, TN hotel, as it was docked in the city from 2009 to 2014. It then moved to Houma, LA, where it’s currently in drydock.

An effort by maritime enthusiasts, former employees and the ship’s owner, Cornell Martin, president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company (DQSC) to “Save the Queen” has been under way for several years. Follow hashtag #SavetheQueen for updates.  

Martin has said he’ll spend up to $10 million for renovations if the Congressional exemption is granted.

Renovations and other shipyard work could take eight months. Then the ship would sail to Kimmswick, MO, south of St. Louis, where DQSC has headquarters and has set up a restaurant and gift shop.

Homeported in Kimmswick, it would operate itineraries with port calls along the Mississippi and visits to such cities as Pittsburgh, Memphis and New Orleans.

But the rivers of the American heartland have also become more crowded since Delta Queen last sailed with revenue passengers. She once was part of a larger fleet that included American Queen, but that largest Mississippi River vessel is now owned by competitor American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC). AQSC also will add a new Mississippi River vessel, the all-suite American Duchess, this year.
In addition, American Cruise Lines operates many Mississippi and heartland voyages, plus the new French America Line is also planning to sail the Mississippi this year.

But Delta Queen has a loyal clientele of older clients or maritime enthusiasts eager for the ship to sail again. So they're waiting to see if the new political climate in Washington, D.C., is favorable to the re-launch of the historic river boat.