Heart of Louisiana: The Delta Queen

Heart of Louisiana: The Delta Queen
Updated: Nov. 29, 2016 at 7:59 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - One of the iconic Mississippi River paddle wheelers is waiting for an act of Congress to return to overnight river cruises.

The Delta Queen has carried passengers on rivers all over middle America, with cruises that stretched from New Orleans to Cincinnati and beyond.

It's one of the extra jobs that comes with being the captain of a historic steamboat.

"There are enough captains out there on the steamboats that also play the calliope," former master Gabriel Chengerry said. "It was just another way of entertaining the passengers, which was always my number one priority."

Chengerry was the master, or captain, of the Delta Queen for 32 years. He started as a night watchman and worked his way up to the pilot house, where he left an accidental mark on the boat's telegraph.

Wagner just hit the roof when I dropped this thing right here. I never told anybody the story before. You can see this very day here's the crack that I put in it in 1973, and it's still there," Chengerry said.

The vintage steamboat was built to ferry passengers in California between Sacramento and San Francisco. During World War II, she was pressed into service carrying casualties from Pearl Harbor.

"She shuttled those wounded soldiers from the ships anchored in the bay to waiting ambulances at the docks in San Francisco," Cornel Martin said.

After the war, the Delta Queen moved to Cincinnati and began cruising the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The steamboat carried her last overnight passengers in 2008 and became a dockside hotel in Chattanooga. Now, the 90-year-old paddle wheeler is down the bayou in Houma, Louisiana, tied up alongside the Intracoastal Waterway, awaiting repairs and an act of Congress.

When the Delta Queen was built in 1927, she was constructed of wood. But it's that nostalgic, historic design that fails to meet the newer safety regulations for passenger vessels. Starting in the 1960s, the vessel was granted a series of exemptions that allowed her to keep carrying overnight passengers, even though its superstructure and cabins are made of wood. The vessel's owners are now lobbying Congress for a new exemption.

"All of our folks on the Hill are telling us they are going to revisit the issue and take it up after the election, so we are confident and hopeful we will get the legislation done still before the end of this year," said Martin.

Martin is CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. He said the old vessel will get an overhaul as soon as it gets the exemption.

"We are going to modernize as much as we can to make the vessel as safe as possible but also maintain the historical significance of the vessel," Martin said.

The Delta Queen is a national historic landmark.

"It's the only way that Americans and international visitors alike can actually see our country from the decks of an authentic steamboat," Martin said.

"When you are a master of a vessel like the Delta Queen, you're basically a caretaker of a legacy," Chengerry said.

The Delta Queen's owners hope there will be new passengers soon who can create new memories of cruising on this national treasure. If the vessel get the congressional exemption it needs to cruise with overnight passengers, the owners hope to have it back in service before the end of next year. They say the Port of New Orleans will play a big role in its future.

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