Mary Sward Charlton
steamboatmary - at - gmail.com
Dear Mr. Matties,
My sister, Ellen Sward, forwarded to me her correspondence with you regarding the Delta Queen Steamboat. I am the historian aboard the vessel, and I would like to answer any of your concerns, so that you and Representative Boyda have a better understanding of the issues.
The Delta Queen must have an exemption from the Safety at Sea Act in order to operate past this November. This law was passed in 1966 to protect passengers in ocean waters, but the language of the law inadvertently caught the Delta Queen. For 40 years, Congress has passed this exemption—almost always close to unanimously. Representative Oberstar himself voted for it last year. Since then, the boat was bought by a company that does not employ a union crew. Please look up the top contributors to Mr. Oberstar’s 2006 campaign, and you might see why his vote has changed.
The Delta Queen is the last traditional steamboat carrying overnight passengers on our inland waterways. She is the only remaining example of a time when our rivers were our superhighways; when these vessels settled the West. For that reason, she has been designated a National Historic Landmark, and this year she has been nominated for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the 11 Most Endangered Places in America.
The steamboat is one of the most significant inventions in the history of the world, and it is an American invention. Before the power of steam was harnessed to transportation, the fastest that people could travel was the speed of a galloping horse—and for only as long as the horse could sustain that speed. The arrival of the steamboat meant that not only could people and goods travel faster, but so could knowledge and information.
As for your safety concerns, I sleep below the waterline on the boat, and I assure you, I feel safe. Every room on the vessel is equipped with heat and smoke detectors, as well as a modern sprinkler system. Almost every room has a door directly out to the deck, and for those few that do not, it is at most a 20 to 30 foot walk to the outside deck. Fire extinguishers are very visible, and every passenger and crewmember undergoes a fire and boat drill at the beginning of each cruise. In addition, we have modern fire suppression systems on board in critical areas. Our fire fighting team drills constantly.
Please remember, we cruise only America’s rivers, and are never more than a minute or two from land. Steamboats were built to land just about anywhere along the rivers. They are uniquely designed for this. Many times, if the fog is too thick, we do as steamboats have always done: We “choke a stump” (tie off on any nearby accommodating tree along a bank) until the fog lifts. We can get someone off in a medical emergency anywhere there is a nearby road for an ambulance. Try doing that in the middle of the ocean or thousands of feet in the air. Our safety record is enviable—you can check it yourself online—and compare our “grand old lady” with many newer boats!
Mr. Oberstar is right—the Delta Queen can run overnight with fewer than 50 passengers, or as a day excursion boat with more. What he is not telling you is this: it takes about 100 overnight passengers to break even. It is not financially feasible to run as he suggests. Furthermore, why is it that he is not concerned about the safety of 49 passengers staying overnight? Either the boat is safe, or she is not. Here is the dismal truth about old boats changed for other uses: they sink. They simply do not make enough money for their own maintenance, no matter what their use. Just look up the Showboat Goldenrod, or the steamboat Julius Wilke in Winona, MN. If the Delta Queen cannot run as she is, she will die.
These are American jobs we are talking about, but let me tell you about the American people this would affect. They are a microcosm of what is good in this country, a dedicated staff of men and women who represent all facets of our society. They are black, white, Hispanic; young and old; male and female; gay and straight, and from every part of the country. We get along—we are friends who share a common goal, and we love what we do! Some of the people who work on this vessel lost everything they had in Hurricane Katrina; the stories passengers tell of those tragic days when many staff had no idea where their family members were, yet continued to provide exemplary service, are heart-rending. Not only that, but some of the small towns up and down the rivers of America depend on us for a boost to their economy. Ask the ladies in Helena, Arkansas, who put on one of the most popular tours we offer. Their town is dying, but they bring it to life with their generosity of spirit, their fine singing, and their popular soul food.
I hope I have convinced you—and Ms. Boyda – that this is a far more complicated issue than Mr. Oberstar would have you believe. Please talk to Rep. Chabot’s office. Go to Save-the-Delta-Queen.org or Steamboats.org for more information. Call me! I expect you to do your research. But please, make sure that you are getting both sides.
I had the pleasure of meeting Rep. Boyda in Washington for her swearing-in a year ago. I would love to show her my boat, and let her see for herself. This is not an ordinary boat—she is an American icon. If Congress does not pass the bill by November, she will lose her Certificate of Inspection, and can never run in a meaningful way again. Please give us a chance to preserve history, as Congress has done for us for the past 40 years.
Mary Sward Charlton
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For river cruises, train journeys and other leisure travel, domestic or international, contact our favorite travel agent, Phyllis Dale. She has the experience you need when planning a vacation.
Note: Phyllis does not book day excursions.