Passion for Transatlantic Passenger Liners

The Steamboats Delta Queen and Delta King (Part 1: History)

Delta Queen at Night

Delta Queen Hotel at Night

The topic I am about to expound on is not that of an ocean liner. I want to discuss a different kind of vessel. While ocean liners are designed to battle the ferocious North Atlantic Ocean with its mountainous swells unpredictable storms, steamboats are designed for the peaceful inland waterways of America’s rivers. The legacy of the riverboat is undeniable. They have been immortalized in song, in literature, in film, and in photograph. These vessels are a triumph of American invention and necessity. The configurations of riverboats are extremely diverse, as their form usually follows their ultimate function. The passenger steamboats are a triumph of design. Very few images capture the romance of the Mississippi River region from days-gone-by like the stern wheel of a river steamboat.

I currently live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We have a beautiful downtown waterfront that just begs to be photographed. As I was walking with a friend on a gorgeous spring day I looked down toward Coolidge Park from the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge. There I saw a beautiful classic river steamboat docked below. This wasn’t the Southern Belle riverboat, Chattanooga’s tourist riverboat built in the 1980s.

Southern Belle

Pretty Impostor

This riverboat was authentic, and many times bigger than Southern Belle. Just above the huge red stern paddle wheel was the name DELTA QUEEN. I couldn’t resist and started snapping photos. At the time, I thought Delta Queen was just in for a visit. I soon learned that this was her new berth and that she was opening as a boutique hotel. I became fascinated with finding out everything I could about this vessel and her history.

In 1924, a nearly identical pair of riverboats were built in Dunbarton, Scotland at the William Denny & Brothers shipyard on the River Leven adjoining the River Clyde. (Incidentally, the Clyde in Scotland is the same river that John Brown & Co. is located on. This is the shipyard that built the famous Cunard ocean liners RMS Queen Mary, RMS Queen Elizabeth and RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.) These riverboats were dismantled in Scotland and shipped to Stockton, California in 1926. They were intended for use along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers (known as the ‘delta route’) and were named Delta King and Delta Queen. At the time of their assembly, they were the most lavishly decorated stern-wheel riverboats ever constructed.

On the main deck in the heart of each riverboat was built a magnificent grand staircase trimmed in teak and brass. The Delta Queen’s appointments were noticeably more detailed and expensive than the Delta King’s, but the pair were quickly to be come known as “the million dollar steamboats.”

The Queen's Grand Staircase

The Delta King and Delta Queen began their careers on June 1, 1927 and replaced the aging steamboats Fort Sutter and Capital City. Both the King and the Queen sailed reliably for thirteen years before their service ended in 1940 due to the construction of a highway between Sacramento and San Francisco. Both steamboats were retired and laid up for a short time.

Then in October of 1940, the US Navy requisitioned the Delta Queen. She became a receiving ship for naval reservists and served for about a year in this manner. Both Delta Queen and Delta King were sold to a New York company, and were intended to be towed through the Panama Canal to the Hudson. However, just as the US Navy had completed their use for Delta Queen (and King), Pearl Harbor was attacked. Both vessels were rushed back into service with the US Navy where they became emergency hospital transports. Now the Deltas were known as ‘Yard House Boats – YHB.’ Delta King was YHB-6 and Delta Queen became YHB-7. In 1944, they were re-classified as ‘Hard House Ferries.’

Delta King

The DELTA KING in Sacramento. Photo courtesy of Betsy Samson-Andrews

One major distinction for Delta Queen over Delta King is the Queen’s involvement in the 1945 founding of the United Nations. Between April and June of 1945, Delta Queen hosted delegates of the original 51 nations gathered to create the United Nations, touring San Fransisco Bay. This important task was short-lived and the boats were laid up once more, this time as part of the ‘mothball fleet’ of Suisun Bay. Fortunately for Delta Queen, this lay up wouldn’t last long, and the King and Queen would part ways.

Delta King was nearly bought in 1946 by Southeast Asia Importing & Exporting Co. of Siam. After placing their bid, SAIE lost interest in purchasing the steamboat when they realized she was a paddlewheeler and not intended for ocean voyages. The Delta King was intended to be sold at auction several times, but nobody seemed interested, or intended plans failed. Finally in 1952, Delta King was sold to Kitmat Constructors in British Columbia to be used to house workers at their aluminum plant construction site. Sadly, her engines were removed and sent back to California where they would be bought by the owner of Delta Queen as replacement parts. Delta King would never sail under her own power again. She was beached at high tide and became a landlocked housing dormitory for the next seven years. Then in 1959, Delta King was re-floated and returned to Stockton, California where she was originally assembled. The intention was to transform Delta King into a museum and theater boat. This scheme never came to be. Inadequate funding, inexperience and legal issues halted the restoration. Delta King sat neglected as legal disputes surrounding the ownership of the riverboat waged for about a decade.

In December of 1946, a man named Captain Tom R. Greene bought Delta Queen for use on the historic Ohio River route. Delta Queen was prepped for a long voyage through the Panama Canal, and was accompanied by the tow boat Osage. After braving over 5,200 miles of open sea and the canal, Delta Queen arrived in New Orleans on May 18, 1947. She re-entered service in the summer of 1948 after a refit and a $750,000 overhaul. Delta Queen ferried passengers along the Ohio River for 10 years. In 1958, she was put up for sale. Fortunately a California businessman bought her and she continued her service until 1966 when the US Congress passed a bill declaring all ships and boats with a passenger capacity of over 50 to be required to have a metal superstructure due to fire hazard. Fortunately, exemptions were made by influential congressmen and supporters for the Delta Queen which allowed her to continue her service through 1970. In this year, the Queen was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and a she sailed a farewell cruise from St. Paul to New Orleans as her congressional exemption expired. Just as it seemed to be the end of the line for Delta Queen , President Nixon personally signed another exemption for her to continue service. The very next year, Delta Queen was given her own postmark when she was contracted to carry US Mail.

Twilight Paddlewheel

Delta Queen on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga

On the west coast in the famous summer of 1969, a group of people calling themselves “Riverboat’s Comin’!” took interest in returning Delta King to Sacramento. In a controversial scheme involving the owner of the property where Delta King was moored, “Riverboat’s Comin’” obtained a request to have the riverboat moved away from the dock. Even though this group technically did not own the riverboat, they had the King towed to Sacramento where she was greeted by onlookers, newspaper reporters, television cameras and the police. In Sacramento the night of July 20, the news of the moon landing (which took place on that very night) competed with the news about Delta King’s return. Opinions about the event ranged from joy over preservation of a historical vessel to outrage over the piracy of ‘stealing’ a riverboat. On the 25th the Delta King was re-christened during a large gala attended by the mayor and other city officials, just before US Marshals seized the riverboat. Eventually, “Riverboat’s Comin’” won the rights to Delta King and they continued their fund-raising and restoration efforts. On October 12, 1969, the group threw the very first Dixieland Jazz Festival in Sacramento and Delta King was the center attraction. However in 1973, the ownership disputes returned and Delta King was once again towed away. The public was told the riverboat was returning to San Fransisco. In reality, she was hidden in a marsh near Collinsville and was left completely unattended. There, the King became stuck in the mud. When the tide rose, she was flooded up to her freight deck. Eventually, the water was pumped out and she was freed from the mud, then towed to Rio Vista while the legal battles continued to rage. Years later, while still sitting empty due to ownership legalities,

Delta King Hotel

Delta King Hotel (photo courtesy of Betsy Samson-Andrews)

Delta King got stuck again and partially sank in much the same manner as she had done before, only this time the damage was greater. Finally in 1982, Delta King was pumped out once again as investors took interest in restoring her for the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. This plan never came to be. The details over Delta King’s ownership went back and forth for a number of years while she was being refurbished. In 1989, Delta King Hotel opened to the public. She remains a beautiful part of the Sacramento riverfront to this day. You can learn more HERE.

Over the course of the next nearly 40 years, Delta Queen changed hands several times, being sold to one company after another, each with interest in allowing this historical vessel to continue the service she was designed for. She was a common and welcome sight along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and she attracted numerous regular passengers. One passenger of note toured from St. Paul to St. Louis in 1979. President Jimmy Carter and his family made Delta Queen a national celebrity as she became known as ‘Steamboat 1′ while they were aboard for a week. This was fantastic publicity for the riverboat’s career. In 1989, the same year the Delta King Hotel opened for business, the Delta Queen was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 2004, she was inducted into the Maritime History Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, this overnight steamboat legend was not destined to continue plying the riverways, despite her accolades and awards. In October of 2008, Delta Queen’s last congressional exemption expired. Her supporters lobbied congress again, to no avail. Delta Queen was to be removed from service.
No longer allowed to serve overnight passengers, a plan was devised to convert the riverboat into a boutique hotel. In 2009, Delta Queen Hotel opened to guests just off Coolidge Park along the riverfront of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Read the official Delta Queen History Blog and visit Delta Queen Hotel’s official website to learn more. In addition, there is a large group of Delta Queen’s fans who are continuing to try to convince US Congress to sign the exemption to allow her service to continue. Learn more about their efforts to Save the Delta Queen.

Part TWO coming soon! Until then, enjoy my slide show video Delta Queen: A Photographic Tour. All photos by me!

Delta Queen Hotel at your service.

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One response

  1. Tony Carter

    Excellent story. Interesting and well written.

    October 30, 2010 at 7:24 am

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