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An Autobiography: Chapter 31, The Delta Queen

Georgianna and I were fascinated by the Ohio River when we were growing up in Covington, and our biggest dream was to take a cruise on the Delta Queen steamboat that docked on the Cincinnati side of the river. After we were married, we would walk to the river and listen to the calliope’s notes wafting over the river’s waves. We knew how Mark Twain must have felt as a young boy in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. We would put Tracy and Marc in the stroller and go to the river on beautiful days.

The Delta Queen is world renowned. The grand lady logged more than 2 million miles, carried more than half a million passengers, and is the only boat to be inducted into the National Marine Hall of Fame while still in service. She has entertained presidents, foreign dignitaries, and a multitude of celebrities. The Delta Queen became a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

Delta Queen 001 

Serigraph by Masaaki Tanaka, Japanese artist. 

The Delta Queen was fabricated in Scotland. It was assembled at Banner Island shipyard in Stockton, California, and completed in 1927, about six weeks before Georgianna was born. It went into service for the California Transportation Company and had its last regular run on September 29, 1940, the closing day of the Golden Gate International Exposition or World Fair on Treasure Island.

The Delta Queen was requisitioned by the Navy as a receiving ship for naval reservists, and in the fall of 1941 was sold to a company in New York to be used as an excursion boat on the Hudson River. After Pearl Harbor, the Delta Queen was rushed back into Navy service as an emergency hospital transport. During the founding conference of the United Nations from April 25 to June 26, 1945, the Delta Queen took delegates of the 51 gathered nations on sightseeing trips around San Francisco Bay.

Delta Queen 002 

On December 17, 1946, the Delta Queen was bought from the War Shipping Administration by Capt. Tom R. Greene of Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was prepared on Fultons shipyard in Antioch, California, and then started her legendary voyage through the Panama Canal on April 19, 1947, tugged by the tug Osage. She arrived in New Orleans on May 18, 1947, after 29 days, covering 5,261 miles of open sea.

 The Delta Queen was reassembled and prepared for her voyage up the Mississippi River and the Ohio River to Dravo Corporation on Neville Island, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a major overhaul. She went back into passenger service on June 21, 1948. In 1966, the Safety of Life at Sea Law nearly ended the Delta Queen´s career. Because of her wooden structure, the legislation would end her passenger cruise. Extensions were given, and there was a change of ownership several times.

An old calliope, made by Thomas J. Nichols as one of the famous "Three Sisters,” was rescued from the sunken showboat Water Queen and installed on the Delta Queen. The Delta Queen’s extension ran out in November 1970, and the "Save The Delta Queen" campaign seemed to be a failure. On October 21, 1970, the Delta Queen left St. Paul for her final cruise to New Orleans with Capt. Ernest Wagner as master, arriving in New Orleans on November 2. 


Delta Queen Calliope 

On December 31, 1970, President Nixon signed another extension, and in 1973 the company’s name was changed to Delta Queen Steamboat Company by Delaware North Companies, Inc., and the Delta Queen went back into service August 26, 2002, the year of her 75th birthday. Since the exemption for the Delta Queen from the Safety at Sea Act expired at the end of October 2008, she could no longer carry overnight passengers. The Delta Queen is now located at Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a hotel and restaurant.

In later years, we moved away from the river but never lost our dream of that Delta Queen cruise. Finally, in 1969, when Heather was nine years old and we were living in Denver, we decided it was time. So we booked a cruise over Easter weekend, going from St. Louis to Hannibal and back.

Our good friend from the 1940s, Jean Doré, was then living in St. Louis with his wife and children, so we had a welcome visit with them before our trip. Jean was the grand nephew of Gustave Doré, the most popular illustrator of all time. The horror genre as we know it today has two major sources – the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and the engravings of Doré for Dante[i]s Inferno. 


Jean and Blanche Doré 

We left St. Louis on Saturday afternoon, and what a thrill it was going up that mysterious river. It was too cold for the calliope to play, and that was our only disappointment. People on the banks waved as the boat went by, and we returned their waves. I imagine many of those people would have given anything to trade places with us. We were hypnotized watching the huge red paddle wheel going around and around.

That evening from our table in the dining room we saw darkness starting to fall over the river. Before we went to our cabin for the night, we took a last stroll on the deck and soon realized we were going through a lock and dam. It seemed the excitement on the river never ended.

Georgianna had made Heather a “Becky Thatcher” dress to wear on the boat, and another family aboard had three little boys, all in Civil War dress, and those boys followed Heather everywhere!

Heather and Boys 

Heather and the Confederate Boys 

On the morning of Easter Sunday, we docked in Hannibal, where the passengers disembarked for a few hours sightseeing the Mark Twain points of interest. We had been in Hannibal several times when we made trips back and forth to Kentucky, and Heather was steeped in Mark Twain lore. We knew, in Hannibal where Tom Sawyer courted Becky Thatcher, that Becky was once again strolling the streets in the persona of Heather.

Mark Twain House 

Mark Twain’s boyhood home. 

That evening we experienced a beautiful sunset over the majestic Mississippi River as we were having dinner. What a glorious way to end our last night on that grand boat. Of all the wonderful moments I have enjoyed with Georgianna, it would be impossible to list the most memorable.

Before we docked in St. Louis the following day, we were treated to a surprise invitation, which I don’t think any other passengers were given. Heather was small for her age (she’s only 4 feet, 11 inches tall today), and the Delta Queen captain was a very large man. We passed him a couple times on deck during the trip, and he always spoke to Heather, hovering over her.

As we neared St. Louis, we were on the top deck near the stairs leading to the pilot’s cabin, and when Cpt. Ernest Wagner saw us, he came down, spoke to us, took Heather’s hand and said, “How would you like to see my cabin?”

He took us to his cabin and showed Heather the instruments and talked to her. The cabin was spacious with a handsome leather chair, and several windows that wrapped around the cabin. From there Cpt. Wagner could see the Mississippi River spread out before him. What a wonderful way to end our beautiful trip on the mighty Mississippi.

The Delta Queen, on a rare visit, came to Nashville in July 1985, at a time when Heather was visiting us. We went to see the boat and relive fond memories of years past. A member of the crew was standing guard at the gangplank as no one but passengers were allowed on board.

I put on my best face and introduced myself, saying that we had taken a trip on the Delta Queen in 1969 and would love to go aboard and stroll the decks for a few minutes. He graciously stepped aside and said, “You are welcome.” That was our final farewell to the grand old lady, and as we drove home, neither of us had anything to say.

Heather and Georgianna 

Heather and Georgianna. 

Don’t Miss the Next Chapter: Roosevelt Island, New York