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Lynn, left, and Saundra Overstake of Cincinnatti during Wednesday's visit to Decatur by the Delta Queen. The two passengers started a petition aimed at keeping the steamboat in service.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Lynn, left, and Saundra Overstake of Cincinnatti during Wednesday's visit to Decatur by the Delta Queen. The two passengers started a petition aimed at keeping the steamboat in service.

FINAL DAYS FOR AN AMERICAN LEGEND?
Delta Queen steamboat faces shutdown in 2008
Boat is regular visitor to Decatur

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

For Delta Queen passengers like Lynn and Saundra Overstake, riverboat vacations are about the journey, not the destination.

They, like most of the other passengers on the floating national landmark, are more concerned about soaking up Victorian comforts with newfound friends rather than adding another tourist attraction to their photo album.

But as of Aug. 1, many are worried and upset about the Delta Queen's final destination.

The boat's owner, Majestic America Lines, announced 2008 will be the Delta Queen's final season. Its future, much to the Overstakes' dread, could be as a floating museum or a permanently docked hotel or restaurant.

"That would be the death of her," said Lynn Overstake, 58, a federal employee from Ohio who this week is taking his fourth Delta Queen cruise with his wife, Saundra.

The reason 2008 will be its final year is that Congress said it will no longer exempt the 174-passenger boat from a 1966 law that prohibits mostly wooden vessels from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers.

That would end an 81-year tradition and remove the only remaining steam-powered riverboat still carrying overnight passengers on American waters.

There are other stern-wheel riverboats that offer luxury vacations catering to mostly retirees and senior citizens. Majestic also operates the Mississippi Queen and American Queen in the Heartland, neither of which is mostly wooden.

Woody Woodrow, 60, a retired police office from Bradenton, Fla., has ridden all three.

"I like them all, but this one is like being on a legend," he said.

The Overstakes, who were headed to Chattanooga, said no other boat in America can offer as much historic significance.

They point to where President Jimmy Carter slept in 1979 (he was one of three presidential guests), and how the rare Siamese ironwood floor in the dining room was originally built to carry cars as an overnight ferry from Sacramento to San Francisco.

The Delta Queen, replete with ornate décor, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its tiffany lamps, antique furniture, hardwood paneling, brass fittings and 1864 steam-powered calliope make it a working museum.

The Overstakes fear all that makes Delta Queen special will end after 2008, even if the riverboat becomes a permanent museum or restaurant, as Majestic reports is the initial interest of potential buyers.

It was built to carry overnight passengers and its best use is to remain that way, Overstake said.

Passengers have two theories why Congress didn't renew the exemption as it did six previous times since 1968:

n Maritime union officials pressured Congress into non-action to punish Majestic for not hiring union crews.

n Majestic, owned by conglomerate Ambassadors International, wants to dump the Delta Queen because it doesn't make as much revenue as its larger sisters do and costs more to maintain.

The Mississippi Queen and American Queen can sleep 412 and 436, respectively. The Seattle-based company also operates three riverboats in the west, two of which are smaller than the Delta Queen, though not as old.

Majestic officials were unavailable to respond to those theories and would not allow crew members to talk to the press.

The company press release said Majestic, along with its partners, such as the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and thousands of former passengers, lobbied hard to get the exemption.

It also said it will give the Delta Queen "a proper and well-deserved sendoff," and celebrate its farewell season with the communities and people who revere it.

Anne Marie Ricard, Majestic spokeswoman, said the Delta Queen is valuable to Majestic as it has the most loyal clients and most repeat customers of all its riverboats. It's common to see many making their 10th cruise, and one woman has traveled aboard the Delta Queen at least 100 times, she said.

That type of loyalty explains why passengers like the Overstakes and Woodrow are starting a petition campaign to save the riverboat. It states the Delta is a "safe and sound vessel" and urges Congress to consider the negative economic impact should the boat end overnight excursions.

Majestic will make nine stops in Decatur in 2007, and eight of those are by the Delta Queen. The visitors bureau offers tours of historic sites and takes passengers shopping.

Gloria Arthur, owner of Bank Street Antiques, said passengers generally spend $750 to $1,000 at her store each time a boat docks here.

"We would miss them," she said.

On the Web

Two Web sites are dedicated to restoring the Delta Queen’s exemption from a Coast Guard regulation that will banish it from overnight river excursions after 2008: www.steamboats.org and www.save-the-delta-queen.org.

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