News from the Tennessee Valley News

Ronnie Thomas

Jim Williams, a self-described river rat, makes his living plying the waterways of the Eastern U.S. onboard the Delta Queen, working in the boiler room. On a cool day, the boiler room is 100 degrees; in August the room reached 142 degrees. He is standing where the Delta Queen docks in Decatur.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Jim Williams, a self-described river rat, makes his living plying the waterways of the Eastern U.S. onboard the Delta Queen, working in the boiler room. On a cool day, the boiler room is 100 degrees; in August the room reached 142 degrees. He is standing where the Delta Queen docks in Decatur.

Ex-Decatur taxi driver travels Eastern waterways
River rat keeps Delta Queen sailing

Had Jim Williams of Decatur not driven a taxi, he might never have gotten the job he says no one could pry him away from with a crowbar.

He’s a river rat, a boiler operator on the Delta Queen, because he got a call in October 2002 to pick up a passenger at the old steamboat docked in Decatur.

“He got in the taxi wearing blue coveralls and a nametag that read chief engineer,” said Williams, 52, a 1973 graduate of Austin High School. “I asked him if there were any openings for anyone with marine engineering experience. He asked me what kind of experience. I didn’t know it but that was the start of my job interview.”

As Williams drove Dennis Shenk to an industrial supply store to pick up parts, the interview continued.

“When I drove him back to the boat, he asked if I’d like to come aboard and see the engineering plant, the boilers and the engine room,” Williams said. “He handed me an application and said he’d be back in four days from an excursion to Chattanooga. I asked him what my chances were. He pointed to the work schedule. My name was already on it. I started to work the next month.”

During 12 years in the Navy, Williams was a boiler technician on the aircraft carrier USS Midway, the frigate USS Reasoner, a guided missile destroyer USS Waddell, a landing support dock USS Point Defiance and a destroyer tender USS Acadia.

“On the Delta Queen, our only form of propulsion is that paddle wheel,” he said. “There are no hidden screws like on the modern boats.”

Williams maintains the proper operating pressure on two World War I vintage water tube boilers built in 1919.

“Everything runs by steam and those boilers are the source of all the power for the boat,” he said. The boiler room occupies the middle part of the hold and extends vertically up through the main deck. The boilers are arranged sideways along the keel. Williams fires the boilers from the front with heated No. 6 grade Bunker C crude oil, atomized by air blowers.

“We have six storage tanks, all located midship, to help balance the boat,” he said. “We heat the heavy black oil to over 200 degrees before it will burn. If we let it drop to 40 degrees, it will solidify like clay, and you can roll it up like a ball and throw it.”

The Delta Queen is in dry dock in Mobile where officials will inspect its hull, which they do every five years. Around Valentine’s Day, Williams said, he will head for New Orleans and prepare for the start of the new 10-month season. He will divide his time with another boiler operator, with whom he shares a room with two bunks.

“I’ll be working a 12-hour day with six hours on, six hours off,” he said. “I’ll get a two-week vacation every six weeks. That’s enough time to catch up on sleep.”

Williams said a cool day in the boiler room is 100 degrees and that last August the temperature soared to 142. He maintains that the heat is a good trade for the excitement he finds on the river.

“From New Orleans, we’ll head out on three- to four-day cruises, for example to Baton Rouge, La., and back with a stop in St. Francisville along the Mississippi coast road for visits to the old plantations,” he said.

The Delta Queen will visit more than 150 towns.

“We’ll go as far north as Minneapolis, as far east as Pittsburgh and as far west as Little Rock, Ark., and Galveston, Texas,” he said.

Williams has met numerous celebrities traveling on the Delta Queen. He gave billionaire Warren Buffett a tour of the boiler room that Williams said fascinated one of the world’s richest men.

Author James Alexander Thom toured as a guest lecturer during a Native American Cruise. The Indiana native has written books like “Long Knife,” “Follow the River” and “The Children of First Man.”

Acclaimed songwriter and performer Bobby Horton of Birmingham, whom Williams calls “a true Southern gentleman,” contributed to the soundtrack of Ken Burns’ Public Broadcasting Service production of “The Civil War.”

Williams said Delta Burke, the star of “Designing Women,” learned to bake gingerbread men on a cruise and brought samples of the cookies down to the engineers.

Thanks to his job, Williams also has met actress Ali McGraw, former wife of movie icon Steve McQueen, and the British actress and Academy Award winner Dame Judi Dench, who played the role of spy boss “M” in the last three James Bond movies. “She was the interviewer and newscaster for the BBC when they did a special on riverboats,” Williams said.

Williams said he has been in numerous other places doing strange things.

“I once made bamboo flutes,” he said, pointing to several hanging in his Wilson Street apartment, across the road from the Tennessee River. “It didn’t pay well, but it was fun. I was working at Huntsville Botanical Gardens and they sent me to Atlanta to a Bamboo Growers Convention, where I demonstrated how to make the flutes.”

But he says nothing compares to his job aboard the Delta Queen, launched in 1927 at a cost of $875,000.

It is the only floating historical marker in America and the only cruise boat on the water that has its own post office.

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Ronnie Thomas Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer

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