The legendary Delta Queen is the last remaining historical steamboat capable for overnight cruises, though it is unclear whether she’ll ever be able to sail as a cruise ship again.
The Delta Queen and her identical twin the Delta King – called the million dollar boats – were fabricated from 1924 to 1927 on the River Clyde at the Isherwood Yard in Glasgow, Scotland, (other sources claim William Denny & Brothers Ltd., Dumbarton, Scotland) and assembled that same year at Banner Island shipyard in Stockton, CA. The machinery was built by William Denny & Brothers Ltd., Dumbarton, Scotland. The paddlewheel shaft and the cranks were forged at the Krupp Stahlwerke AG, Germany. The boats were completed on May 20, 1927.
The Delta Queen is listed as a National Historic Landmark.
She is 285 feet long, 60 feet wide and has a height of 66′-5” to the top of the smokestack. There are 87 staterooms for a total of 174 passengers.
Since the exemption for the Delta Queen from the Safety at Sea Act expired end of October 2008 she must no longer carry overnight passengers. But in November 2018, US Congress granted a new exemption, so at least legally the DQ can sail as a cruise ship again, given that she receives a Certificate of Inspection from the US Coast Guard.
From February 2009 the Delta Queen is located at Chattanooga, TN, to serve as a hotel and restaurant beginning in April 2009. Delta Queen fans are still working on getting a renewal of the exemption from Congress. For details see www.save-the-delta-queen.org.
More about the Delta Queen
Below, you’ll find a picture gallery, several interactive 360° panorama pictures as well as recordings and video clips from the Delta Queen’s steam whistle and calliope as well as the complete history and more details about the Delta Queen.
If you’re planning to build a scale model of the Delta Queen, there are a few options, and we’ve collected some information for model builders on our page “Delta Queen Steamboat Model Kit and Plans“.
In addition to these pictures, there is a comprehensive picture gallery of the Delta Queen, taken in 2016 when she was at Chattanooga, TN.
360° Panorama Pictures: Delta Queen
These interactive panorama pictures of the Delta Queen have been made in August 2013 while the boat was serving as the Delta Queen Hotel at Chattanooga, TN.
Please view the panorama pictures in full screen mode for much more details – just click on the right button (the one with the four arrows) within the panorama picture for full screen mode. Choose from a total of 13 different views of the Delta Queen by clicking on one of the panorama icons on the right side – in case they’re hidden, just click the little arrow icon on the right or use the drop-down menu in the upper right corner.
The Bell and Whistle of the Delta Queen
The series of 3 x 3 bell strokes and the following whistle signal indicates the departure of the boat in about 30 minutes.
The Delta Queen’s bell was made by the Kaye Co., Louisville and was originally on the Anchor Line’s sidewheeler CITY OF ST. LOUIS, built by the Howard Shipyard at Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1883.
The CITY OF ST. LOUIS burned in 1903 while laid up, but the bell survived and was sold to Capt. J. Frank Ellison who placed it on the Str. QUEEN CITY, remaining on that boat for her entire career which spanned 1897-1940. Later, the bell served briefly on the towboat MILDRED, the packet OUACHITA, and the towboat JOHN W. HUBBARD (now the MIKE FINK restaurant at Covington, KY). The bell was placed aboard the DQ in 1947 or 1948.
Under which circumstances the roof bell came from the JOHN W. HUBBARD to the DELTA QUEEN is not absolutely clear. Is seams that the bell was “transferred”, not sold from Capt. Charles Campbell and Capt. Tom Greene, who were good friends. One theory says that Tom Greene loaned the bell to Campbell for the HUBBARD. Now Campbell was absorbed by “Valley Line” and the HUBBARD was sold by Campbell to the Ohio River Co. in 1947. Charlie Campbell probably didn’t like the idea of either the bell or whistle going to ORCO, thus returning them to Tom Greene.
Another theory suggests that the bell came into Greene Line ownership when they purchased the holdings of the Ohio River Transportation Co. in 1936, and got the OUACHITA in the deal. The Greene Line didn’t need her bell at that time as they stripped her down to the main deck and made a deck barge out of her named STOGIE WHITE. So the Greene’s may have loaned out the bell, and called in the favor when the DELTA QUEEN needed a decent roof bell.
Totally unrelated, one story tells that the DELTA QUEEN’s bell is reputed to contain one hundred Mexican silver dollars in the alloy, for a “sweet” tone.
Many steamboat enthusiasts consider the sound of the Delta Queen’s whistle as the most beautiful all along the rivers, like John Hartford praised the whistle’s “deep, mellow sound” in his “Delta Queen Waltz”.
The actual whistle seems to be the original Lukenheimer whistle, while the Delta Queen around 1950 for a while had the old whistle from the the Homer Smith (later renamed Chris Greene). Hear the Homer Smith / Chris Greene whistle. See also a letter of Capt. Tom Greene, discussing the whistle issue.
A while ago the whistle was moved away from her original position at the smoke stack and is now located right behind the pilot house. There had been arguments that the vibrations of the whistle may cause soot being rattled loose in th smoke stack, causing a shower of soot over the passengers on the open decks. What ever the reason for these frequent soot shower had been, the issue is solved as of today.
Delta Queen Calliope
The Delta Queen’s calliope has first been connected and played on January 23, 1960. On the keyboard was Chief Engineer Fred A. Barrows. (brought to our attention by Ted Guillaum).
The video gives you an impression of the sound and look of the Delta Queens calliope. And there are more calliope recordings below. Read about her history in Travis Vasconcelos’ story “The History of the Delta Queen Calliope“.
Delta Queen History
The Delta Queen and her identical twin the Delta King – called the million dollar boats – were fabricated from 1924 to 1927 on the River Clyde at the William Denny & Brothers Ltd., Dumbarton, Scotland and assembled that same year at Banner Island shipyard in Stockton, CA. The machinery was built by William Denny & Brothers Ltd., Dumbarton, Scotland. The paddlewheel shaft and the cranks were forged at the Krupp Stahlwerke AG, Germany. The boats were completed on May 20, 1927.
Both boats run for the California Transportation Company of San Francisco on the so called “Delta Route”, the Sacramtento – San Joaquin River Delta, which gave them their names. The boats took up their regular service on June 1, 1927, replacing the steamers Fort Sutter and Capital City. Both boats had their last regular runs on September 29, 1940, the closing day of the Golden Gate International Exposition or world fair on Treasure Island.
The Delta Queen was required by the Navy as receiving ship for naval reservists. The first group arrived on October 16, 1940. The Delta King followed in November 1940. These leases were planned for 6 months but in April 1941, the Navy renewed the leases for another 6 months. In fall of 1941 both boats returned to Stockton but instead of returning them to regular passenger service the California Transportation Company sold the boats to the Isbrandsten Steamship Co. of New York. Both vessels should be towed to the East Coast via the Panama Canal for use as excursion boats on the Hudson River. Pearl Harbor brought a turn in the fate of the boats. The Delta Queen and the Delta King rushed back into Navy service as emergency hospital transports. They were classified as Yard House Boats, the Delta King as YHB-6 and the Delta Queen as YHB-7, but retained their names.
On July 5, 1944, reclassified the boats as Yard Ferry Boats, the Delta King as YFB-55 and the Delta Queen as YFB-56. 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. In 1946 the boats went into lay-up at the Reserve Fleet on Suisan Bay, called the “mothball fleet”. The Delta King was off the Navy records on April 17, 1946, the Delta Queen on August 28.
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, OH, for use on the Mississippi River system. Capt. Frederick Way Jr., engineer Charlie Dietz and ship carpenter Bill Horn prepared the Delta Queen on Fultons shipyard in Antioch, CA, for her voyage on sea. The Delta Queen 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, PA, 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. With the help of Betty Blake, Bill Muster and E. Jay Quinby the Delta Queen got an extension for two years. E. Jay Quinby also installed an old calliope on the Delta Queen, which was rescued from the sunken showboat Water Queen, made by Thomas J. Nichols as one of the famous “Three Sisters”. In 1969 the ownership changed to Overseas National Airways. The Delta Queen’s extension ran out in November 1970. The “Save The Delta Queen” campaign promoted by Betty Blake 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. On December 31, 1970, President Nixon signed another extension until 1973. Those extensions are prolonged until the present time.
In 1973 the company’s name was changed to Delta Queen Steamboat Company as the Greene family was no longer involved. In April 1976 the Delta Queen was sold to the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of New York. Soon after that the Prudential Lines Inc. of San Francisco, CA, became involved. In the early 1980s Sam Zell and Bob Lurie of Chicago, IL, acquired control of the outstanding stock. On October 19, 2001, American Classical Voyages, the parental company of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. and still under control of Sam Zell, filed for Chapter 11. All boats finished their cruises except the Delta Queen which finished the season on January 5, 2002. Fortunately, the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. finally was bought by Delaware North Companies, Inc. and the Delta Queen went back in service on August 26, 2002, the year of her 75th birthday. In 2006 the Delta Queen Steamboat Company again was sold, this time to Ambassadors International, who formed a new cruise line called Majestic America Line, running now also the Empress of the North, the Columbia Queen, the Queen of the West and other ships.
Since the exemption for the Delta Queen from the Safety at Sea Act expired end of October 2008 she must no longer carry overnight passengers. From February 2009 the Delta Queen is located at Chattanooga, TN, to serve as a hotel and restaurant beginning in April 2009.
On November 27th, 2018, US Congress has granted a new exemption to allow the historic Delta Queen to return to the rivers as a cruise ship. According to Cornel Martin, President and CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the Delta Queen was projected to return to service in 2020. This will probably be delayed in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
For more details about the difficult fight to get a new exemption from US Congress, see www.save-the-delta-queen.org.
The Delta Queen
December 17th, 1946: Capt. Tom Greene and family received formal notification from the UNITED STATES MARITIME COMMISSION that his bid for “The vessel DELTA QUEEN (YFB 56) had been accepted.” His bid of $46,250.00 had been the only one received. Thus began the greatest adventure of his life and that of boon companion/advisor Capt. Fred Way, Jr. (brought to our attention by R. Dale Flick)
Celebrities travelling on the Delta Queen
The most famous trip of the Delta Queen has been the “Presidential Cruise” of 1976 (???) of Jimmy Carter and family. But there had been other Celebrities cruising the Delta Queen as well. Here are some memories from the Steamboats.org Message Board.
January 16, 2003, Jane Greene: “Not all celebrities on the Delta Queen were Presidents. Ever heard of William Carlos Williams? I have..only because my college degrees were in English and so were my sisters at the time that William Carlos Williams was on the Delta Queen and Mary was the social director. She was quite thrilled that this famous American poet, Pullitzer Prize winner was travelling with us. However, not EVERYONE had heard of this poet who in real life was a pediatrician. Mary prevailed upon him to read some of his famous poems one night for the passengers. I wasn’t on the trip, but when I talked with my sister later, I asked how the evening went when Dr. Williams read his poems to the passengers.She said that it didn’t go so well, that he may as well have been unpacking his suitcase for them…that they were just sorta counting the minutes till they could get up and do the hokey pokey.I was disappointed that nobody dug him, and cocluded that he was casting pearls before swine. And I thought the same when the famous Virgil Fos was playing classical music on the calliope at Cave-in-Rock to people who no doubt would rather hear chopsticks. However, at my ripe old age of 60, my entire views have changed…We are ALL swine and we are ALL pearl casters. EVeryone has areas of expertise which the other guy probably doesn’t get…so rather than to look down on those who don’t share our knowledge and appreciation for this and that, I’ve concluded that the important thing ONLY is to recognize the appreciation within ONESELF. As long as I know that I appreciate William Carlos Williams’ poetry, that’s all that matters. This all sounds lofty, no doubt, but the bottom line is “Don’t condemn people who don’t tap their toes to the same tunes that you do. They may know tons more than you in another area. Philosophically yours, Jane”
January 16, 2003, Jane Greene: “My mother sent him [Jimmy Carter] her book Long Live the Delta Queen after he returned from his trip. He wrote her a lengthy thank you note which she certainly didn”t expect. Then later, when she was hospitalized several times with various things, he sent her get-well cards in the hospital! The nurse’s were amazed to see her cards from Pres. Carter with the pre.seal sitting there among a host of others. Just thought that was very nice of him. Plentya people had forgotten Letha Greene by then, that’s for sure, but old Jimmy remembered her. Also, to add a bit of levity, when mom was autographing her book, she asked ME what I thought she should say on there. I said that I had heard that they stayed in room 338 which was frequentyly occupied by my parents years ago, so I said, I think you oughta say “Best wishes to the only President who ever slept in my room!” She howled but refrained. Also, mom never did figure out how he found out that she was in the hospital?”
January 17, 2003, Ted Guillaum: “Another celebrity name to add to the steamboat list is Olivia de Haveland. One year the company scheduled a “Movie Cruise” for the Delta Queen and a “Big Band” cruise for the MQ. It was early in the season and bookings were low on the DQ (especially since the company was trying to channel most people to the MQ) so they canceled the DQ and combined both cruises to the MQ. What a bargain for the passengers! Some of the DQ crew like myself and cruise Director, Terry Severns, were put on the MQ to help host the movie people. Terry and I shared the duties of hosting Ms. de Haveland who was a most gracious lady as most big celebrities are. It was a pleasure and I even got a paycheck. Ms. de Haveland was traveling alone and she wanted one of us to be with her for public appearances. She was the only living leading character from “Gone With The Wind” and of course we showed the film. Now for the name dropping part. I got to sit next to Olivia de Haveland while watching “GWTW” and sharing popcorn with her. The passengers loved her.”
50th birthday of the Delta Queen 1976
As Ted Guillaum brought to our attention, here is the official press release for the Delta Queen’s 50th birthday in 1976:
The Delta Queen celebrates her 50th birthday in 1976. Her hull was fabricated on the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland and shipped to Stockton, California for final assembly. Her superstructure was completed in 1926 and she was commissioned by the California Transportation Company to operate overnight trips between Sacramento and San Francisco.
No expense was spared in outfitting the Delta Queen with the finest appointments. Teakwood handrails line her outside decks. Stained glass windows set with copper rather than lead decorate the Forward Cabin lounge and the Texas Lounge. The Orleans Room features Siamese ironbark floor. Cut glass fills the door of the Gift Shop. And throughout the boat, the fittings are brass and the posts and paneling are either oak or mahogany. These features are irreplaceable and unique to the Delta Queen. Her original cost was $850,000.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy used the Delta Queen to ferry troops and wounded in San Francisco Bay. She was decommissioned in 1946 and auctioned off to Tom Greene, President of Greene Line Steamers, the former name of The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. Greene originally bid unsuccessfully for the Queen’s twin sister, the Delta King. His successful bid on the Queen was $46,250.
After painstakingly crating the superstructure, Tom Greene had the Delta Queen towed across 5,000 miles of open sea down the Pacific Coast, through the Panama Canal, and up the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. From there, she traveled under her own power to the Dravo Shipyards in Pittsburgh where she was remodeled and re-outfitted at a cost of nearly $750,000.
On June 30, 1948 the Delta Queen made her maiden passenger voyage on the Mississippi River system with a round trip from Cincinnati to Cairo, Illinois. In 1966, the operation of the Delta Queen encountered a legal snag. That year the U.S. Congress passed the Safety at Sea Law which requires any vessel carrying more than 50 overnight passengers to be constructed entirely of steel. The law was passed after the Viking Princess and the Yarmouth Castle burned at sea and was intended to legislate the construction of ocean going vessels. But the broad terminology of the bill embraced river bound vessels as well. It looked as if the Delta Queen might have to be retired. But her supporters rallied behind her. And since 1966, they have persuaded Congress to five 5 exemptions from the law. In return, the Delta Queen’s current exemption from the law expires November 1, 1978. And since the sternwheeler is a riverboat rather than an ocean vessel, the steamboat company is now working to have legislation introduced into Congress that would permanently exempt the steamer from the Safety at Sea Law. [*this exemption has occured, Ted]
The significance of the Delta Queen as the last overnight sternwheel steamboat of its kind has been recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior which has listed her in the National Register of historic Places and by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration which has certified her as an ongoing Bicentennial experience.
The Delta Queen is truly a tribute to America and the era of Mark Twain.
A Letter from famous Delta Queen Captain Ernie Wagner
Ted Guillaum wrote the following on the Steamboats.org Message Board on January 16, 2003:
Many “old timers” and almost all S & D members remember the late Bert Fenn of Tell City, Indiana. I found his Christmas letter from 1980. It was the first Christmas after the death of Capt. Ernie Wagner. I think it is appropriate to submit the letter in it’s entirety since it is a story about the great Capt. Wagner:
MAY NOTHING YOU DISMAY
It seems fitting somehow to spin a tale this year about Capt. Ernie Wagner who passed away in October. This story may be common knowledge on the river but I don’t recall its being bantered about like other of his tales.
Ernie knew everything there was to know about running an excursion boat. He came up from ice cream vendor, to deck hand, to mate, to captain, to commodore on the Island Queen, the Avalon, the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen. And to the end he wasn’t afraid to don work clothes and join the crew in dirty work.
He was dressed like that one day, in a pair of greasy coveralls, puttering around the wharfboat at Cincinnati, when a newly hired young assistant purser reported for work on the Delta Queen. Mistaking Wagner for a bum, this young pup introduced himself and asked if he could do anything for him.
Always the practical joker, Ernie asked him for a job on the boat. He was directed to the business office.
A couple of hours later Wagner, by then dressed in his impressive Captain’s uniform, ran into the new purser again.
“Son, I’ll never forget what you did for me. I went over to the office, and they gave me the job of Captain.”
Like the old steamboats, as Sidney Snooks once wrote, that “have drifted into some cove of green willows around the last bend.” Ernie Wagner is a tradition on the river. He will continue to occupy cherished memories in many of our hearts. Rest easy, Cap.
Merry Christmas ***** Happy New Year 1980
Bert and Capt. Wagner are both river treasures that are missed by all who knew them.