PADUCAH, Ky. — Still churning up America's most scenic rivers at age 77, the paddlewheeler Delta Queen just keeps on rolling as the nation's oldest and most beloved authentic steamboat.
By bragging rights common to most pilot houses, it really ought to be classified as a cat boat, having survived at least nine lives.
This varnished and polished wooden beauty, launched in Stockton, Calif., in 1925, entered service as a night boat between San Francisco and Sacramento. The Delta Queen joined the Navy in World War II to ferry soldiers and Marines bound for Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal out to troop ships in San Francisco Bay, then became a floating hotel for delegates from around the world launching the United Nations.
Like steamers armed during the Civil War, the Delta Queen was rigged out as a gunboat to put down a prison riot at Alcatraz. Still wearing its navy gray sailor suit, it was sold at auction in 1946 for $46,250 to Capt. Tom Greene, who ran a line of boats out of Cincinnati. He had it boxed up like a huge grand piano, loaded onto a barge and hauled 5,000 miles, from the Pacific through the Panama Canal into the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi and onto the Ohio by the ocean tug Osage.
Since then, all gussied up with gingerbread fretwork, stained glass transoms, three decks of quaint staterooms and a brass-clad calliope salvaged from the sunken showboat Water Queen, the Delta Queen has coddled generations of passengers, spinning rainbows from her stern wheel along countless miles of river and intercoastal waterways from St. Paul to Galveston, east as far as Pittsburgh.
In 1968, more than a million signatures on petitions from loyal passengers and faithful crew alumni, led by retired Delta Queen entertainer Phyllis Dale, resulted in an Act of Congress exempting it from a federal ban on wooden passenger ships.
And now, in just the past year, the Delta Queen has survived the most sinking blow of all: bankruptcy, which left her high and dry in New Orleans last January. Then, responding to a hurricane of Internet pleas on a steamboat fan Web site, along came Delaware North, a hotel and catering group based in Buffalo, N.Y., which acquired the venerable Queen and its two younger and larger siblings, the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen.
"I guess she's just charmed, bless her wood-lined soul," says Capt. Mike Williams, taking a break from the bridge as the Delta Queen chugged along at 9 knots through the Barkley Canal connecting the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers at Paducah.
"In Mark Twain's day, the average life of a riverboat was less than five years. Their boilers blew up, they caught fire, hit a snag and sank, or just got worn out carrying tons of cotton bales. But even the best of them, like the luxurious J.M. White with her crystal chandeliers and plush carpets, never had a following like this boat. We got 163 passengers aboard, and more than 100 of them are repeats. Some are making their 25th, even 30th cruise, and that's not uncommon."
We boarded this rare old beauty at Chattanooga for a 781-mile voyage down the Tennessee, Ohio, and Cumberland rivers, settling into the cozy and quaintly furnished stateroom with "Texas" embossed on the door. Since Texas entered the Union in 1845, riverboat cabins have been named for states, but the Delta Queen — with 87 all outside cabins— ran out states. So the extra cabins are named for celebrities who have bunked down there, like Princess Margaret, Helen Hayes, Van Johnson, President Jimmy Carter, who used the landing stage, the swinging gangplank, to campaign in Burlington, Davenport, and neighboring Mississippi River precincts, and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who early every morning led an aerobics class out on deck.
The first morning out we awoke in a fog to find the Delta Queen "choking a stump," which is river talk for tied up to a tree along the bank. Capt. Williams decided to wait for the fog to lift before entering the Nickajack Gorge, known throughout Dixie as "the Grand Canyon of the South." Veteran river ramblers crowding the decks with cameras and camcorders argued whether this or the Mississippi heading up to St. Paul or the Columbia Gorge is America's prettiest stretch of river.
Flanked by hills and mountains in three shades of green, we passed forests of hickory, sweet gum, sumac and sassafras punctuated by an occasional cabin or fishing camp. Low flying herons flapped their enormous wings for our camera bugs, ospreys nested atop the buoys, cormorants dove for their dinner, turkey buzzards in formation provided a flying escort and naturalist Jim Williams, rarely seen without his binoculars, spotted a pair of bald eagles hovering over a high cliff.
Lulled by the mournful moan of our whistle or the strains of "Come Down to the Levee" on the calliope, parents hurried down to the banks so their small fry could wave in wonder. School buses paused for a peek. Sometimes a high school band or church choir serenaded us at a landing. At Savannah, Tenn., ladies in plantation gowns twirling parasols adorned the landing where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant hopped on a riverboat to hurry to Pittsburgh Landing and the Battle of Shiloh.
Grant, raised on the Mississippi at Galena, Ill., was a master at river warfare, moving ironclads studded with cannons and steamboats loaded with troops along both the Tennessee and the Cumberland. It seemed as if every day we were visiting another battlefield or calling at lovingly restored antebellum mansions.
En route to Nashville along these three so different rivers, Capt. Mike was on the bridge wing with his walkie-talkie as we passed through eight locks. Most memorable was the Wilson Lock below Decatur, Ala., the world's second-highest, which lowered us 94 feet in the Tennessee River. (The highest is the John Day Dam on the Columbia with a 108-foot lift.)
At every lock, the Delta Queen got priority, jumping ahead of towboats pushing 15 barges, pleasure boats and sightseeing craft, not because of age or beauty, but because it has on board a U.S. post office with its own postmark.
"Keep those postcards coming if you don't want us sitting here all day," urged historian Karen "Toots" Maloy, who calls herself a "riverlorian" and kept us informed via the public address system on what was happening all around us.
Meals aboard, planned by a rotund chef in a tall white hat
who looked like a double portion of Paul Prudhomme, featured juicy steaks and prime ribs but also Cajun-Creole favorites like shrimp remoulade, fried catfish and oysters, bread pudding with whiskey sauce, baked ham with hush puppies and, for breakfast, grits, omelets made to your specifications, and savory biscuits with sausage gravy.
The boat's interior decor evoked the golden age of steamboats with gilt-framed portraits of long-departed captains and their floating palaces, antique lamps, Victorian furniture, Tiffany chandeliers and rare Siamese ironwood floors in the dining room, which also doubled as a showboat theater. As required in steamboat lore, there was a grand staircase for ladies to preen elegant entrances. We floated serenely along in another century like a waterborne edition of the Antiques Road Show.
The ladies lounge and the smoking saloon of Mark Twain's era were deemed culturally unworthy of preservation — smoking is permitted on the open deck only. The engine room, however, boasted cuspidor's last stand, a gleaming brass l00-year-old throat-clearing utensil not often in use.
"We got a rule down here: 'PING IT AND YOU CLEAN IT,' " explained third engineer Jack Brooks from Slidell, La.
The Delta Queen is listed on the National Historic Register. It is the only national landmark found in a different place most days. Its crew loyalty almost exceeds the passengers'. More than half returned after a year on the beach, some like our waiter Victor giving up better paying jobs they had found during the bankruptcy layoff.
"They just love the old boat; they got mud in their blood," says Capt. Williams, who suffers from the same incurable affliction. He was born on the Mississippi at St. Louis, got a job as a deckhand on an excursion boat before he was into his teens, joined the Delta Queen as an apprentice carpenter in 1981 and worked his way up to the bridge, gaining a pilot's, then a master's license before he was 40.
Just then the calliope erupted with "Camp Town Races," reminding our captain that sometimes the refrains of the old steam piano fall on unwelcome ears but are music to the ears of lawyers. On a clear day the shrill siren song of the 112-year-old instrument can be heard eight to 10 miles away. Small towns love it, but in big cities it resonates off the tall buildings like a boom box on the window sill.
"We've had lawyers come down to the boat, saying the calliope interferes with business meetings and conferences," sighed Williams. "New Orleans now sets a time limit on when it can be played, and I hear Pittsburgh has an ordinance banning calliope playing."
There would have to have been a cuspidor handy to punctuate Mark Twain's reply to such blatant discrimination against the sacred, steam-pumped music of our American rivers.