Cruise Line History: Last call for historic Delta Queen steamboat?

Delta Queen

The 82-year-old Delta Queen, America’s best-known paddle-wheeler, will pull into Memphis, Tennessee, Thursday morning for what may be its final port call as a passenger vessel.

The historic riverboat, whose twin, the Delta King, is now a floating hotel and restaurant in Sacramento, has hit troubled waters. An exemption from safety laws that allows the Delta Queen to carry passengers on overnight trips will expire at midnight Friday, and the U.S. Congress has declined to extend it.

Even if Congress decides to act, “The vessel will not operate in 2009,” Joe Ueberroth, president and chief executive of its owner, Ambassadors International Inc. in Newport Beach, said today in a conference call with media and others. “It’s just too late to put her back in service.”

After calling on Memphis and unloading its final passengers, the Delta Queen will set sail the next day, in tandem with the American Queen, for its home port of New Orleans, with tributes scheduled at several ports along the way. From there, its future is anyone’s guess.

U.S. Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have introduced a bill, a companion to H.R. 3852 introduced in the House last year by U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), to extend the Delta Queen’s safety exemption. Ueberroth and other advocates say the boat, equipped with sprinklers and fire-detection devices, is safe. But the U.S. Coast Guard says its wooden superstructure is a fire hazard. If Congress returns to session after the November election as expected, it may revisit the issue.

In any event, it’s not clear who, if anyone, would run the Delta Queen, which has plied the Mississippi and other rivers for decades under a series of owners. Ambassadors International, eager to unload what Ueberroth today called “a very bad investment,” has tried for months without success to sell its Majestic America Line, which runs the Delta Queen and several other riverboats.

Meanwhile, an informal network of steamboat fans that calls itself the Save the Delta Queen Campaign is trying to save the boat. A fan website carries updates on the effort.

— Jane Engle, assistant Los Angeles Times Travel editor

[Photo: The Delta Queen moves up the Ohio River last week after making wh

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