A Legislative and Corporate History|
From the Files of Bill N. Muster
and Richard C. Simonton
America's late 1960s and early 1970s were filled with conflict. The nation was at war, the youth rebelled, and a sometimes-violent spirit of reform pervaded. Moral codes were challenged and a sense of reckless rebellion cut across generations, races, and gender lines.
American legislators were faced with many significant challenges. They had to consider and deal with issues ranging from Earth Day to the voting age; from the war in Vietnam to civil rights. These major issues created a dramatic backdrop for the struggle to save an old steamboat, the Delta Queen.
The main characters were taken from the culture and times America faced: Betty Blake--A mini-skirted Kentucky belle with patent-leather boots and love beads, whose background as a senator's daughter was her flower power to deal with the heavies in Washington; and Bill Muster—a sixties-era Hollywood businessman who called people "cool cats" and used his marketing skills to promote the Delta Queen as a Historic National Landmark.
Because of the energy produced in the Greene Line Steamers' P.R. office, hundreds of thousands of Americans found a common cause in saving the Delta Queen. Senators and congressmen rallied behind the boat to gain the support of their constituents and found relief from more worldly matters of the times.
A Personal Connection with the D.Q.
The Delta Queen became part of my life when I was 10. I made several visits to ride the boat, but the main memory is of my dad, who constantly traveled to Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. He would come home with exciting stories about how things were going in the campaign to save the boat.
A lot of strange things happened to our family in connection with the boat. In the late 60s, a self-proclaimed witch cursed my dad and the other Greene Line Steamer executives when they asked her to leave the boat. I remember my dad reading a few books on witchcraft because he was worried about the power of superstition.
In the 1970s a strongman gave my father a choice between accepting a new union on the boat or a concrete overcoat and swim in the river. I'm not sure how much it upset him, but because I was a child at the time, I was very frightened.
In 1970 when the Delta Queen was on the CBS network news, I held the phone receiver to the television so my dad could hear the show from an airport telephone.
The drama to save the steamboat is more than just interesting to me. The events of 1970 changed my life forever. Along with the turmoil in my own life (I was fourteen) and my parents' divorce, I was all too aware of my dad's run-in with a dishonest congressman who sent his assistant to ask my father for a $5,000 bribe to get the boat the exemption it needed. Instead of paying the bribe, my dad and Betty Blake led a quarter-million Americans to sign petitions and write letters on behalf of the boat. Many of my core values formed because I observed the steamboat company save a national landmark the right way - through popular opinion and hard work.
I also got my first lessons in Women's Studies from my association with the Delta Queen. The boat's history includes several outstanding women who became my role models. The most famous (and the only one i never met) is Mary B. Greene, the matriarch of Greene Line Steamers. (click here for more about Mary Greene). Then there was Leitha Greene, widow of Tom Greene and president of Greene Line Steamers in the 1950s, and Rep. Leonore Sullivan, the zesty Missouri Congresswoman who championed the Delta Queen's cause. Particularly significant is the story of Betty Blake, the powerhouse executive credited with saving the boat. Her contribution to the travel industry led the Society for American Travel Writers to present her with the Connie Award. She charmed all who she met with her Southern hospitality. In fact she was so respected by the crew of the Delta Queen that she was nicknamed "Captain Betty." I remember Betty Blake with her 100-foot long petition to save the Delta Queen unfurled on the steps of the Capitol Building. She was practically like my stepmother and I had the good fortune of spending a lot of time with her over many years.
In June 1986 my dad learned he had terminal cancer, which eventually took his life two and a half years later. One of the last things we did together as a family was to assemble these documents from his vast collection of files from those years. We listed the most important documents in an index. His papers, along with this index, are on file at the Cincinnati Historical Society (and at this website). The history of the Delta Queen is very dear to me and I hope that others will draw inspiration from learning about it.
When my dad and I put together his papers, I was fascinated with the correspondence between Richard Simonton and Jay Quinby. I also knew these two men and they were also role models. Because of their fascination with steamships, pipe organs, and calliopes, these 1950s entrepreneurs took on the management of the boat as a labor of love. As Simonton once wrote to Jay Quinby "We can make history and make money at the same time." They rescued the Delta Queen at her darkest hour and through TV promotions on shows like Queen for a Day and What's My Line, they were able to fill the boat to capacity year-round.
A Few Words About the
On-line Publication of this Manuscript
Steamboats.com is dedicated to preserving the history of the Steamer Delta Queen.
The Delta Queen and her sister ships, the Mississippi Queen and American Queen, still offer overnight passenger cruises on the American river system - with more boats on the way. More good news: the Delta King is back in ship-shape, making waves as an elegant hotel with a restaurant and theater, in Old Town Sacramento. Steamboats are American treasures and the struggle to save them is a valuable lesson in American history. In order to preserve this history, in 1989 my father and I wrote these summaries, chose the documents to include, and self-published this manuscript as a three-part book. The volumes, along with my father's corporate papers, photos and riverboat paraphernalia, are now part of the Cincinnati Historical Society's riverboat history archives.
I hope the online publication of this story will inspire others to fight for the preservation of American historic landmarks and other endangered national treasures, including wilderness areas.
--Nori Muster, May 27, 1998