The Fight For The Queen, Or Two Cheers For Congress

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As the Queen dropped into the great lock at Keokuk, Twain’s comments seemed apt enough. The works are a marvelous achievement and, from any human standpoint, perfectly useless hereafter unless you are a barge load of coal.

So it went all during this last trip, visitors streaming aboard wherever possible for a last look at the gleaming brass, broad stairways, and the rest of the old-fashioned elegance, passengers glumly contemplating the banks when not diverted by good food, music, and entertainment—all of this in strange counterpoint to the sense of gloom. At Vicksburg the reception was so warm and tearful, the captain jested, that the Yazoo River rose half a foot. Officials of the venerable Greene Line, which operates the Delta Queen , estimated that as many as a quarter of a million people had written their congressmen or signed petitions to keep her on the rivers. Editorial writers mourned her passing all through the Middle West.

Why, with all this support and affection, was the old steamboat in danger? This, as anyone interested in historic preservation will recognize, is a silly question; it takes us back to Washington, where riverboats and sentiment are normally no match for lethargy, bureaucracy, and vested interests. The sword that hung over the Queen ’s, head is called Public Law 89-777, or more popularly if not so accurately, the Safety at Sea Act of 1966. It was passed after a disastrous fire on the S.S. Yarmouth Castle in the Caribbean, during which ninety lives were lost. Hereafter, the Coast Guard had decided, there would be no wood at all in vessels flying the American flag if they carried fifty passengers or more in overnight or longer passage. (The lives of forty-nine or fewer overnighters, apparently, do not concern anyone, and daytime travellers seem to be on their own.) There would be no exceptions, for bureaucracy hates exceptions, even for a riverboat that can always be beached in less than five minutes.

Although she has a steel hull, the upper works of the Delta Queen are indeed of wood. That fire-retardant paints have been used; that every room and space has sprinklers (just as in the new Queen Elizabeth II); that she has passed every inspection; that the fire underwriters are satisfied with her hydrants, pumps, warning systems, and all the other precautions; that the Greene Line, after eighty years in business with twenty-eight ships, has never lost a passenger—none of this seemed to make a difference.

The Yarmouth Castle , as President William Muster of the Greene Line was quick to point out, had been recently remodelled in 1965 to Coast Guard specifications of the time, which dictated that sprinklers need be installed only in passenger spaces. Yet the fire began in an unprotected storeroom and thus got beyond control. The Coast Guard ridiculed the business of simply beaching the Queen in case of fire by citing the tragic fire in 1904 on the New York excursion steamer General Slocum , which cost about a thousand lives. She had been beached, hadn’t she? But the staff work behind the Coast Guard argument was sketchy: it failed to mention that the Slocum was a deep-water boat, whose bow went high on beaching, unlike a flat-bottomed river steamer, which is built to nose up to shore on an even keel as a regular procedure. But most importantly, the Slocum had fatally postponed seeking the beach and foolishly steamed on into the wind for many agonizing minutes, which only spread the flames on the overcrowded decks. To make matters worse, the crew was inept, the life preservers and hoses had rotted, pumps had failed to work, lifeboats were wired down, and there had been no fire precautions at all.

So went the argument; this and much more. But the problem for the Delta Queen , whose time would soon run out, was neither the sentimental nor the common-sense arguments for saving her. Legislators who had written the 1966 law made plain that they had meant it for saltwater vessels, not riverboats. The Senate passed three bills to exempt the Delta Queen , two unanimously, one by 68 to 1. The Department of the Interior, only four months before the Queen ’s operating life would expire on November 2, placed her on the National Register of historic landmarks that should be preserved. What stopped the wheel and stilled the whistle of the Queen was that remarkable instrument of absolutism, the committee system of the United States House of Representatives, a supposedly democratic institution that can be in fact about as responsive to the public will as the Politburo or the court of Louis XVI. Perhaps a little less.