Queen Of The River

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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.

These waterways are almost as unknown to today’s car-bound or airlifted travelers as they were to the first European explorers.

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.”

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP