[Updated] Delta Queen Steamboat to Resume Overnight Voyages

Delta Queen
Delta Queen

Published Jan 6, 2019 7:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S.’s last authentic overnight steamboat may once again cruise the rivers of the nation’s Heartland and Deep South. Late last year, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to reinstate an exemption to allow the Delta Queen Steamboat to return to service after a decade-long retirement.

In 2008, the Delta Queen was forced to retire from service when her Congressional Exemption from the 1966 Safety at Sea act expired. The law intended to prohibit ocean-bound vessels from carrying overnight passengers unless completely made of non-combustible materials included the Delta Queen, even though she was never more than several hundred yards from shore. Congress approved nine exemptions over four decades to allow the Delta Queen to continue operations until 2008. The latest vote completes a decade-long legislative effort to renew the exemption.

After being signed into law by the President in December 2018, major repairs will begin to allow the Delta Queen to return to overnight service. Beginning in 2020, themed voyages will operate on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Kanawha and Arkansas Rivers. The vessel will first undergo an extensive renovation in Louisiana.

“Preserving the boat’s historic integrity and ensuring passenger safety are our priorities,” said Cornel Martin, President and CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. “With this approval, we may now move forward with our renovations and return her the waterways, where she belongs.”

The 176-passenger Delta Queen is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. The steamboat is also included in the National Maritime Hall of Fame and was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

She was built in 1926, and entered service on June 2, 1927 for the California Transportation Company, along with her identical twin Delta King. They operated together in the nightly San Francisco-Sacramento ferry trade, each vessel leaving the opposite port at 6:00 PM every night, passing each other at the half way point. The vessels carried cargo on the main deck, while offering passenger accommodation on the upper decks. This nightly ritual continued for 13 years until 1940 when improved highways and rail service forced the boats out of business.

The vessels then entered service for the U.S. Navy to support the war effort. Designated YFB-56, the Delta Queen was painted in battleship gray during World War 2 and carried troops from the shallow water piers around San Francisco Bay to the ocean going troop transports anchored in the bay. As many as 3,000 men would be loaded onto the vessel during each trip. The Delta Queen received the first wounded from the attack on Pearl Harbor, ferrying them from hospital ships to the shore based hospitals around San Francisco.

After the war, Delta Queen was purchased by Captain Tom Greene, operator of a tourist steamer, the Gordon C. Greene. After a more than 5,000 mile long journey in which the Delta Queen was towed down the California coast, through the Panama Canal, and across the Gulf of Mexico, she arrived in New Orleans and entered service in 1948, based out of Cincinnati. 

In February 2015, she was purchased by the newly reformed Delta Queen Steamboat Company dedicated to returning her to service.