The steam calliope’s sprightly rendition of “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” bounces off immense lock walls at the Kentucky Dam. As the steamboat Delta Queen descends forty-six feet, onlookers are soon no more than barely visible heads, rising to disappear into the mild twilight. We haven’t seen much river traffic so far on this journey from Nashville, but here, at the lock, strings of coal and grain tows line up to transit the Tennessee River. The barges often have to wait at least a day, says the Delta Queen ’s captain, John Davitt, adding, “We were real lucky”; our vessel was ushered right through.
It’s not the only time that passengers on the Delta Queen will feel favored. We are here, after all, on a snug, solid survivor of an era that effectively ended even before this steamboat was built, in 1926. We share a sense of being attendant at a sort of miracle, as we travel waterways that are almost as unknown to today’s car-bound or airlifted traveler as they were to the first European explorers.
On a May journey of five days starting in Nashville, we cover 157 miles on the Cumberland River, slip onto the Tennessee for 25 more miles, then steam north and east on the Ohio, which we follow 465 miles upriver to Louisville.
Although no one is certain which European adventurer first spied the Ohio River or how it got its name, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, is often credited for the discovery. Still, it remains a matter historians like to disagree about. “Someone Finds the Ohio—and France and England Claim It,” the chapter title in R. E. Banta’s authoritative volume on the river, summarizes it well enough. The name Ohio supposedly refers to an Iroquois word for “beautiful,” but that too belongs to lore.
Never mind. We agree that it is a beautiful river, revealing pleasing harmonies, all of a piece, with few signs of civilization. A passenger stationed at the bow deck will discover a broad and curving stream, screened at the shores by a thick mesh of cottonwood and willow, flecked with small islands that hold ospreys and heron. Eager to see what the next bend will reveal and the turning after that, the passenger can easily imagine himself or herself as a painted dab of a figure in a work by George Caleb Bingham or any of the countless mid-nineteenth-century artists who found in the Ohio a message about the journey West, toward the promise of America.
As the only major American river that flowed in a westerly direction, the Ohio was the route of choice for settlers. “We are pilgrims, wild and winding river! Both wandering onward to the boundless West,” exclaimed the young Frederick W. Thomas in his epic poem “The Emigrant,” written in 1833.
Starting in 1811, the first steamboats enabled traders and manufacturers to send goods upstream against the river’s flow; towns took root, and the wilderness was rapidly transformed. One who watched this change with astonishment mingled with regret was John J. Audubon, who began his career as a naturalist and painter along the Ohio’s banks. In the late 183Os he wrote: “When I reflect that all this grand portion of our Union, instead of being in a state of nature, is now more or less covered with villages, farms and towns . . . that hundreds of steam-boats are gliding to and fro over the whole length of the majestic river . . . when I remember that these extraordinary changes have all taken place in the short period of twenty years, I pause, wonder, and although I know all to be fact, can scarcely believe its reality.”
Henderson, Kentucky, where the Delta Queen tied up on a sunny Saturday afternoon, is the town Audubon and his family lived in for six years, first with great hopes, as he struggled to make a success of a general store and a mill, and then in increasing misery, as his paltry business instincts were overwhelmed by his yearning to explore the animal life of the surrounding woodland.
Today’s Henderson likes to quote Audubon’s bright memory of the place—“the people round loved us and we them in return”—but his diary also shows that when he visited Henderson many years later, he could recall only misery and his sorrows there. These days a Delta Queen passenger will find much to admire in Henderson, from its main street that, as part of a statewide project, works to maintain its commercial vibrancy, to its broad, shady residential blocks, which are filled with wonderfully ample Victorian houses of every style or combination thereof.
The previous day we had stopped at Paducah, Kentucky. With its 185Os market, which holds two museums and a theater and is surrounded by antiques shops, its surprising Edward Durell Stone city hall, a gleaming white replica of Stone’s American Embassy in India, and a remarkable museum of contemporary American quilting, Paducah more than filled out an afternoon’s visit.
Rocking chairs set out on the spacious decks of the Delta Queen promote comradeship among passengers. From the first it’s easy to see that the boat isn’t populated with paying customers as much as with fervent fans. One gentleman, a ten-time repeater, had boarded this vessel for the first time during the Second World War, when it was known as YFB (yard ferryboat) 56 and brought troops from Sacramento to San Francisco to join ships bound for the Pacific. Built in 1926 in Scotland, disassembled, shipped to a yard near Stockton, California, then put back together again, the Delta Queen and her sister ship, the Delta King , spent the pre-war years carrying passengers and cargo along the Sacramento River. Her single stack is a reminder of those days; inland riverboats always wore two stacks. At a cost of nearly one million dollars, the Delta Queen was the grandest steamboat afloat, although very much an anachronism, a heroic bid to capture a lost cause, one riverman called her. After the war Tom Greene, of Cincinnati’s venerable Greene Line Steamers, bought her at auction for a lone bid of $46,250. In an extraordinary effort he arranged to have her towed into the Pacific and through the Panama Canal to reach her new home on the inland rivers. Finally, on June 30, 1948, the Delta Queen was ready to join the other excursion steamers of the Greene fleet. By 1970, when those others had succumbed to old age and modern vacation trends, the Delta Queen carried on as the last surviving overnight steamboat on any American waterway. Then she too was threatened, her wooden superstructure deemed a danger by Coast Guard authorities after a disastrous fire aboard an ocean liner.
Thus began a long, worrisome, but ultimately successful struggle to keep the Delta Queen sailing. Thousands of her fans petitioned their representatives; Oliver Jensen, the former editor of this magazine, testified in Congress on her behalf. The exemption Congress passed in the 1970s continues to need regular renewal. It is based on the understanding that the Delta Queen , unlike oceangoing cruise ships, is never more than a minute or two from shore and that rigorous fire-safety measures will be followed at all times. Happy ending. Not only does the Delta Queen continue to steam along the rivers, but she is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and just four years ago was designated a National Historic Landmark.
You don’t need a historic marker to know this boat is special. Maybe it’s the stained-glass windows, plump Victorian furniture, brass fittings, stampedtin ceilings, and mahogany, walnut, and cedar paneling that help it speak so strongly of the past. And it certainly has something to do with the hypnotic energy of the bright red paddle wheel, that, with some periodic restoration, is original to the 1926 vessel. But this boat is always more than the generous sum of its parts.
On a gentle night, made for strolling an open deck, the full moon hangs straight ahead like a lantern, guiding the Delta Queen through the dark and quiet twists of the river. The steamboat feels so strangely purposeful, as if it were fulfilling an old mission, carrying people and cargo west, slicing through this mysterious, uncharted country. Instead, I remind myself, it’s just taking about a hundred and fifty well-off, mostly aging, late-twentieth-century Americans, plus a few Europeans, on an agreeable five-day jaunt, bounded at each end by airplanes. The archaic America we steam past this night seems to know nothing of gains and losses yet to come. We are of this time, but our journey took place more than a hundred years ago. What does this mean? Probably too much afternoon sun.
At least I thought so when I scribbled those words in a notebook that night. And then, back home, I had the chance to read The Saga of the Delta Queen , by Frederick Way, Jr., the omniscient river pilot who saw to the boat’s successful Pacific Ocean voyage. “A big steamboat is a mysterious creation,” Captain Way writes. “The real aim, the purpose, is incorporated somewhere in the keel line. . . . Meanwhile the Delta Queen blows for her landings and paddles around the bends under new direction. The whole story will not be understood accurately until later, maybe a great while later.”