A Legislative and Corporate History
From the Files of Bill N. Muster
and Richard C. Simonton
Short Summary of Delta Queen History
The Delta Queen: A Steam-Powered Time Machine
by Steve Christensen
"The Delta Queen and its sister ship, the Delta King, were built in the early 1920s. The twins were designed to operate overnight between Sacramento and San Francisco where riverboating was comparatively unknown.
"After a memorable career carrying honeymooners, vacationers, businessmen, legislators, and freight along the Sacramento River, the Delta Queen entered military duty. The U.S. Navy used her to ferry and care for the wounded in World War II in San Francisco Bay. She was decommissioned in 1947 and auctioned to the highest bidder: Tom Greene, then-president of Greene Line Steamers (GLS).
"After her more than 5,000 mile journey from San Francisco Bay, through the Panama Canal, up into the Mississippi and on to Pittsburgh, the Delta Queen was remodeled and re-outfitted at a cost of nearly $750,000. Then she embarked on a 20-year series of vacation voyages.
"Since then, the 285-foot vessel with 75 officers and crew and carrying 192 passengers, has logged nearly a million miles of leisurely travel. She has become a much beloved, adopted daughter of the waterways she now calls home."
The Safety at Sea Act
In May 1966, the Safety at Sea Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives and came before the Senate. The Act, if passed by both branches, would force the Delta Queen out of operation. After consulting with lawyer William Kohler, Simonton, Muster, and Quinby traveled to Washington, DC, to try to save their boat. As chairman of the board of GLS, Quinby testified before the Senate.
In his speach before the Senate, Quinby successfully persuaded legislators to add an amendment to the bill granting the Delta Queen a two-year delay in enactment. The company promised to either bring the Delta Queen to modern construction standards or build a new boat to replace her. In 1968 the Delta Queen won another two-year delay.
1970: A Big Fight in Congress
According to legislation passed in 1968, Nov. 2, 1970, was to be the last day the Delta Queen could function as an overnight passenger boat. Legislators agreed to support favorable legislation for another delay.
Greene Line Steamers launched a mass letter-writing campaign and petition drive. By year's end, an estimated 250,000 American citizens participated by contacting their government representatives, the media, or signing petitions. President Nixon alone received an estimated 1,500 letters that year. As Congresswoman Sullivan from St. Louis said, "The cause of the Delta Queen has generated more public interest and mail than any other issue since the Cambodian invasion." GLS issued "SOS Certificates" to Congressmen and private citizens for their help in rallying support.
Twenty bills were introduced in the House and two in the Senate, many asking for complete exemption from the Safety at Sea Act. On June 26, 1970, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved S. 15424 (the Merchant Marine bill) with an amendment to save the Delta Queen. Meanwhile Rep. Garmatz, chairman of the House Committee on Merchant Marine, refused to hold hearings on any of the Delta Queen bills pending in his committee.
The Merchant Marine Bill, with the Delta Queen amendment, was approved by the full Senate in September. When it went to a joint House-Senate conference for final confirmation in October, Garmatz killed the Delta Queen amendment. It happened in a tense bargaining session where Sen. Russell Long had to give in to Garmatz in order to get other parts of the Merchant Marine bill approved.
Garmatz blocked the Delta Queen amendment despite a recommendation signed by 195 Congressmen favoring the boat. Garmatz tried to defend his position by putting the blame on the U.S. Coast Guard, who found the vessel unsafe. Public media condemned Garmatz's action, naming him as the "one who put an end to steamboating in America."
When legislation failed, the Delta Queen set sail on its final voyage--a 2,000 mile journey to New Orleans. City and state officials, high school bands, and sympathizers lined the shores in river cities and locks, and turned out to meet the Queen for the last time. The press followed the boat down the river and hundreds of articles appeared in local and national papers, and on TV. In New Orleans, jazz bands greeted the boat and gave her an official jazz funeral. Towboats, excursion boats, and fire boats followed the Queen to pay tribute. One Mississippi journalist wrote, "It was something like a New Orleans funeral where you didn't know whether to clap your hands and sing, or cry."
In October, Sen. Marlow Cook tacked a Delta Queen amendment to a private relief bill (Elmer M. Grade, HR 6114). The amendment passed the Senate and went to the House. Because of the nature of the bill, it did not go to Rep. Garmatz's committee, but was considered by the judiciary committee instead.
When HR 6114 was debated before the House in December, Garmatz sketched a skull and crossbones on a memorandum that said, in part, that if a disaster ever struck the Delta Queen, "the blood would be on the hands of Congress." (The incident was covered in the Dec. 3, 1970, Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati Post, the December issue of Waterways Journal, and the Dec. 15, 1970, Congressional Record.)
The Elmer M. Grade bill passed with the Delta Queen rider on Dec. 17, 295 to 73, after a dramatic fight on the floor of the House (covered in the Congressional Record). On Dec. 31, 1970, President Nixon signed the bill into law, giving the boat three more years to live. With the last-minute reprieve, the company began to plan its 1971 season.
The year's media coverage included five minutes on the CBS Evening News with Roger Mudd, the NBC news, an ABC TV special ("This Land is Mine"), a CBS special called America featuring John Hartford; the Today Show, Life and Newsweek magazines, and a second-time front-page story in The New York Times. The Washington Post and newspapers from nearly every state (including Alaska and Hawaii) covered the story of the Delta Queen's victory. Three movies and documentaries were produced, including one by National Geographic. Johnny Cash urged his ABC-TV audience to help save the Delta Queen and sang a song about her. An Oklahoma rock band called Carp wrote Save the Delta Queen and recorded it on the Epic label. Go to 1970 documents . . .
In 2008, the Delta Queen is again in dager because of the Safety at Sea Law. Click here for news about the new Save the Delta Queen Campaign.