By Jerry Sutphin
Early one evening in the fall of 1996 I received an unexpected telephone call from David Snow, Special Programs Director for the Delta Queen Steamboat Company of New Orleans.
David began our conversation by telling me that 1997 would be the 70th anniversary of the Delta Queen’s construction and initial service on the Sacramento River in California. As he continued to talk, David explained the events being planned for this year-long celebration. It was during this point in the discussion that I began to wonder why he had called me and why he was taking so much time to detail some of the planned events, since I had only met him one time prior to this call. The festivities, he stated, would be highlighted by a special cruise on the Delta Queen from New Orleans to St. Louis and that the highlight of the cruise would be the premier showing of an hour long documentary history of the Delta Queen.
It was then that David took me by complete surprise by asking if I would be interested in producing this video history of the steamboat. As stunned as I was by this unexpected request, I quickly responded with a yes that left no doubt about my interest in producing the history of what at one time had been America’s last overnight passenger-carrying steamboat.
Later that evening as I thought about my surprising conversation with David Snow it dawned on me just what I had agreed to do and the time frame in which I had to do it. As I thought about the Delta Queen my mind raced back to the few times I had traveled on her, and to Captain Frederick Way, Jr. who had been so instrumental in developing my interest in the history of American’s Western Rivers and the steamboats that operated on their waters. It was Captain Way who Captain Tom Greene of the Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, Ohio had asked to bring the Delta Queen to Cincinnati from California after purchasing her from the United States Maritime Commission in 1947. Unfortunately, Captain Way had passed away in 1992 but his book, The Saga of the Delta Queen; his stories about the boat that appeared in the S&D Reflector – the quarterly journal of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen – and our countless conversations about his experiences with the boat would prove to be the foundation for my film.
As I began my research I soon realized that this historic sternwheel steamboat tended to have a life-altering impact on a select number of individuals who responded to her siren song.
The first of those to fall under her spell was her builder, Captain A.E. Anderson, president and majority stockholder of The California Transportation Company. At a time when automobiles, trucks and even airplanes were quickly becoming the public’s choice for transportation, Captain Anderson, against the advice of some of his most trusted associates, decided to build not one but two luxury steamboats to operate on California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. The building of Anderson’s new steamboats, the Delta King and the Delta Queen, would create a heavy financial burden for the company but for over thirteen years both boats would prosper. It would take a world-wide economic depression and violent labor union struggles to cause the company to put the boat up for sale.
Acquired by the U.S. Navy for service as a ferryboat in the San Francisco harbor during World War II, both boats were sold to the highest bidder at the end of the war by the National Maritime Commission.
Captain Tom Greene of the Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati was the next person to be captured by the charms of the Delta Queen. Captain Greene had been aware of the two million dollar California riverboats since they were built and he was looking for a first class overnight passenger boat to replace the aging Gordon C. Greene to insure the future of the Greene Line on the Mississippi River System. A trip to California to see the Delta King and Delta Queen was enough to convince Captain Greene that he had to have one of these boats. He first bid on the Delta King but lost out to a firm in Siam (Thailand). He then bid on the Delta Queen and since his was the only bid, he bought her for the sum of $46,250.00.
Enter the next individual to be captivated by the Delta Queen, Captain Frederick Way, Jr. Captain Way and Captain Greene had become very close friends as they competed for the river trade between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati during the 1920s and 1930s. Because of this close friendship, it was Captain Way that Tom Greene turned to and asked him to bring the Delta Queen from California to Cincinnati. Captain Way, in his book, The Saga of the Delta Queen, recounts his experiences in moving a flat-bottom sternwheel steamboat from San Francisco Bay down the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal, across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River. From this experience, Captain Way would have a life long relationship with the Delta Queen and would also find that he and the boat would become synonymous with each other for the rest of his life.
Captain Tom Greene did not have long to enjoy his new flagship of the Greene Line. On July 10, 1950 after having a heart attack on the Delta Queen, Captain Greene died at Evansville, Indiana at the age of forty-six.
Now it would be Captain Greene’s widow, Letha, who would decide what the fate of America’s last overnight passenger carrying steamboat would be. Letha Greene, the mother of four, decided to continue to operate the Greene Line and to try to make her husband’s dream for the Delta Queen a reality. It was not long before Letha too, found herself under the spell of the Delta Queen. With the support of her family and devoted employees, Letha was able to manage the Greene Line fleet from 1950 to 1958 when due to a series of financial reversals, she felt it was necessary to close the business and sell the Delta Queen. However, a phone call from Richard Simonton, a successful California businessman, offering to join Letha in keeping the steamboat running changed everything. Simonton and his family had cruised on the Delta Queen in 1957 and all had fallen in love with the boat. They could not envision a world without her. With Simonton’s financial and management support the future of the Delta Queen was assured. Simonton’s role as well as that of his friend E. J. Quinby and the general manager of his California businesses, William Muster, are detailed in Letha Greene’s 1973 book, Long Live The Delta Queen.
By 1962 the company was healthy financially and business was better than ever. It would take an act of Congress to again threaten the continued operation of the Delta Queen. In 1966 the Safety of Life at Sea Law was passed by Congress after the disastrous fire on the ocean going cruise ship Yarmouth Castle in the Caribbean Sea. The law prohibited boats constructed of wood to sail in American waters. Although the Delta Queen did have an iron hull and supports, most of her super structure was made of wood thereby including her in violation of the new law.
This time it was not only the management and owners of the Delta Queen that came to the rescue, it was thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans that appealed to members of Congress to exclude their beloved Delta Queen from this unfair law. She did have a wooden superstructure but she also had a state of the art sprinkler system, numerous other safety devices, including hourly watchmen and she was never out of sight of land. With great effort on the part of thousands who had become enamored by this boat through the years, she was exempted by Congress in 1970. Once more the Delta Queen had worked her magic on a group of dedicated individuals as well as a large portion of the American public to keep steam boating alive on America’s Inland Rivers.
Although the Delta Queen has been owned and operated by several cruise lines since 1970, she continues to capture the hearts and imaginations of thousands from around the world. Yes, I too sometimes feel that I have been pulled into the mystical connection between selected individuals and this wonderful steamboat.
After producing the hour-long history, Tested By Time To Become An American Legend The Steamboat Delta Queen, I spent ten summers presenting and/or hosting programs aboard her highness. I continue to frequently receive requests to speak or write about the history of the Delta Queen and to answer questions about her future. And it all began because of an unexpected phone call in 1996. I have had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of people, traveling on every major American Inland River and expanding my knowledge about the history of America’s first super highway aboard the steamboat Delta Queen.