The Delta Queen is the oldest overnight passenger steamboat still fully intact and capable of traveling the inland waterways of America. Built in 1926, and entering service on June 2, 1927 for the California Transportation Company, the Delta Queen and her identical twin, then Delta King were the most lavish and expensive river steamboats ever constructed costing over $1 million dollars each to build and furnish. 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 Delta twins carried freight and produce on the main deck, while offering luxurious accommodations to passengers commuting between the two cities 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 two proud river steamers didn’t sit idle for long when they were pressed into service by the United States Navy to support the war effort. Designated YFB-56, the Delta Queen was painted in battleship gray during World War 2 and did her part serving her country ferrying 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. It was during this time 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.
At the conclusion of World War 2, the Delta Queen and Delta King were declared surplus by the U.S. Navy and put in the mothball fleet at Suisun Bay. Back on the Ohio River, Captain Tom Greene was experiencing considerable success after the war with his tourist steamer, the Gordon C. Greene. This was a budding market for the Greene Line, and Captain Tom had grand visions of having the largest and most luxurious steamboat on the rivers. When the government put the Delta twins on the auction block in 1946, Captain Tom initially bid on the Delta King, but was unsuccessful with his bid of $23,000. Not wanting to be defeated the second time, he entered a bid for the Delta Queen at $46,000 and receiving no other bids, the U.S. Navy awarded Captain Tom his prize.
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. The Greene Line assembled a crew to uncrate the Delta Queen, as she had been substantially boarded up for the long ocean voyage, before steaming her upriver to Dravo Shipyards in Pittsburgh, PA for a $500,000 refit.
The Delta Queen entered the tourist trade in 1948, based out of her new homeport of Cincinnati, OH. She quickly gained her place as the grand dame of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and enjoyed immense popularity over the next several decades. Running the entire length of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers the Delta Queen has been a familiar site to more than 80 ports of call in the southern and mid-western United States.
In 1966, off the coast of Florida a cruise ship with a wooden super structure caught fire with substantial losses of life. The U.S. Congress quickly enacted the “Safety At Sea” act requiring any vessel carrying more than 50 overnight passengers to be constructed entirely of non-combustible materials. With the Delta Queen being the only overnight passenger vessel operating on the inland rivers of America at the time, Congress had inadvertently included her in this new law, effectively putting her out of business.
Based on the Delta Queen’s impeccable safety record and close proximity to land at all times Congress granted her an exemption from the new law. This exemption was continually renewed with overwhelming support until 2008 when the boat’s owners at the time failed to take the actions necessary to obtain its renewal.
In 2009 the Delta Queen was put up for sale and docked in Chattanooga, TN as a floating hotel until another buyer would determine her fate. After sitting in Chattanooga for six years, things were looking grim for the vulnerable old steamboat, until she was purchased in February 2015 by the newly reformed Delta Queen Steamboat Company dedicated to obtaining the needed congressional exemption and returning the Delta Queen back to America’s rivers.