The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

The Ghosts of 1970 Are Trying to Kill the Historic Delta Queen Steamboat

Posted on July 31, 2008 at 01:29 PM

The current obstructionist efforts by Congressman Oberstar of Minnesota to kill the Delta Queen are identical to a similar debate in 1970, when another Member of Congress ranted and raved that if the majestic steamboat continued to travel the Mighty Mississippi and her tributaries, “blood would be on the hands” of the Members of Congress who voted for her continued operation. It is now 38 years later, there has never been one death on the Delta Queen, she has an exemplary safety record including repeatedly passing all Coast Guard inspections with flying colors, and she has even added numerous safety precautions in recent years and is safer than ever. The demagogical efforts to kill the majestic lady were insane then and they are even more insane now.

Well, Congress does not have “blood on its hands” from keeping the Delta Queen afloat the past 38 years. Members of Congress might want to think about what real problems they might have on their hands with their own constituents this November if they allow a national treasure to be docked for absolutely no valid reason. Thousands of petitions have been signed, emails, phone calls and other surges of grassroots and media activities are increasing all the time.

As we conveyed in a message last week, the July 11 national Fox TV coverage shined the light of truth on this issue and made clear that Congressman Oberstar voted for the legislative exemption to keep the Delta Queen operating himself as recently as two years ago. What changed, after Congress has passed this exemption for 40 years? The answer is that the steamboat was purchased by a new company a couple of years ago that institued a non-union policy, and that union has extensive political clout in Oberstar’s district on the Great Lakes. A similar unfortunate situation exists in the Senate, where Sen. Dan Inouye of Hawaii (another state where this union is influential) is chair of the key transportation committee with jurisdiction on this issue, just as Oberstar is transportation chair in the House. Together they are defeating the will of the vast majority of the people who do not want this national historic treasure to be terminated.

The grassroots campaign to Save the Delta Queen has even started to receive international attention, as the British journal The Economist recently published a very sad article on “the demise” of the Delta Queen.

Below in this message we convey an expose in an Ohio newspaper (where the Delta Queen travels) gives a full accounting of this sad situation, if you would like more information on this issue. Also see other articles on the Delta Queen at the Delta Grassroots Caucus website at What we need is for our Senators to lead the way in saving this historic steamboat.

Please contact your US Senators and urge them to take action to pass the legislative exemption that has always been passed for 40 years to keep the Delta Queen plying the inland waters of America’s heartland. PLEASE TALK TO YOUR SENATORS ABOUT THIS DURING THEIR AUGUST RECESS. OUR TIME IS RUNNING OUT. The DQ’s exemption ends in November, 2008.

We do not have to accept the excuse that Sen. Inouye is the key chair in the Senate and Rep. Oberstar in the House, because the day has long since passed when one chair of a committee can obstruct beneficial legislation due to pressure from a narrow special interest. If necessary, a Senator could attach an amendment providing for the DQ exemption to other legislation that is sure to pass that is not controlled by Inouye’s committee.

The in-depth article about the ghosts of the 1970 debate is below. PLEASE HELP US SAVE THE DELTA QUEEN!! Lee Riley Powell, executive director, MDGC (202) 360-6347

“Delta Queen: The Ghosts of Garmatz”

Tuesday, 29 July 2008 By Tom Lotshaw The Marietta, Ohio Register

The 174-passenger Delta Queen traveled along the Ohio and Mississippi river systems in July 1970 much as it does today – as the nation’s last steam-powered “paddlewheel palace” for overnight cruise passengers, and as a boat doomed, not necessarily to fire, but politics in Congress.

Troubles for the Delta Queen stem from the Safety of Life at Seas Act of 1966, which Congress passed to prohibit vessels built with any wood from carrying 50 or more overnight passengers at sea. The Coast Guard quickly extended SOLAS to include inland waterways with public law 89-777, and the steel-hulled Delta Queen, built in 1926 with a wooden superstructure, was the only boat affected.

Not intending to include inland waterways, Congress easily passed SOLAS exemptions for the Delta Queen in 1966 and 1968. But by July 1970 the most recent exemption was set to expire on Nov. 2, 1970, even as the Delta Queen was being placed on the National Register of historic landmarks that should be preserved.

One man, Rep. Edward Garmatz (D-MD), chair of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, killed all on his own 25 bills introduced in the House to grant the Delta Queen another exemption from SOLAS in 1970. Garmatz cited Coast Guard concerns about the Delta Queen being an undue fire risk.

Public support grew as Nov. 2 neared, with more than a quarter million Americans writing their representatives in favor of the Delta Queen exemption or signing petitions. Johnny Cash sang about the Delta Queen and appealed to his ABC-TV viewers to save the boat. News reports were frequent, editorials against Garmatz harsh.

Garmatz had staked his position. He refused to allow any bill for a Delta Queen exemption to reach the House floor, including several sent over from the Senate, and ignored a recommendation from 195 House colleagues in favor of the Delta Queen. One congresswoman from St. Louis was reported as saying, “the cause of the Delta Queen generated more public interest and mail than any other issue since the Cambodian invasion.”

On Nov. 2, 1970 the Delta Queen, full of passengers, concluded a final 2,000 mile trip from St. Paul, MN to New Orleans, LA.

People, whole towns, flocked to riverbanks along the route to see the Delta Queen pass by one last time, waving signs and chanting “SAVE THE QUEEN!” The Delta Queen’s reception at Vicksburg was so warm and tearful, the captain jested, that the Yazoo River rose half a foot, according to one report published in 1971 in American Heritage Magazine.

Jazz bands greeted the Delta Queen in New Orleans with an official funeral, while towboats, excursion boats, and fire boats followed her into dock to pay tribute. “The mournful steam whistle, in one last mighty blast, drowned out the noise with which Americans handle all great events, happy or otherwise. Cameras flashed, television men scurried about, dignitaries maneuvered for position. The steamboat age was over and would be buried in a great burst of sentiment. So everyone thought,” wrote Oliver Jensen.

Delta Queen supporters were happy two months later when the Senate quietly added one paragraph for a three year extension of the SOLAS exemption to a two-paragraph bill to reimburse a postal employee for moving expenses, passed it, and sent it to the House Judiciary Committee, evading the certain death-sentence of Rep. Garmatz.

Rep. William McCulloch (R-OH) brought the bill to the House floor. Garmatz sent out a famous “skull and crossbones letter,” calling the Delta Queen a fire trap, urging his colleagues to vote against the exemption, and warning that blood would be on their hands if the boat ever caught fire. The bill passed 295 to 73 and two weeks later was signed by President Nixon, giving the Delta Queen another three years to operate.

The Delta Queen received SOLAS exemptions easily through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s despite continued opposition from the Coast Guard. In 1979, Garmatz’s “fire trap” was converted into ‘Steamboat One’ for passenger President Jimmy Carter.

Thirty-eight years after 1970 the Delta Queen is traveling the rivers this July with a SOLAS exemption that expires on Nov. 1.

All hopes for another exemption have so far been dashed by Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN8), powerful chair of the House Committee on Transportation, who cites concerns about the risk of fire on the Delta Queen – echoing the 38-year-old concerns of Garmatz nearly word for word.

Many Delta Queen supporters think Oberstar’s opposition has more to do with influence from the International Seafarers Union, a campaign contributor based in Duluth, MN, than safety – since Oberstar voted for a Delta Queen exemption two years ago, before the boat was purchased by Majestic America Line and staffed with a non-union crew for the first time in decades – a charge both Oberstar and the union have denied.

“History does seem to be repeating itself. Oberstar has blocked the passage of a bill. He’s concerned enough over safety to prevent it from going through and he’s been very successful so far,” said Bill Weimuth, a historian on the Delta Queen.

“We’re trying to educate Congress about the safety steps put into place to offset any potential risk. Fire suppression, heat sensors, sprinklers, fire retardant paint, a 24-hour fire crew. I don’t know of any motel in America with wooden halls that has a live-in fire crew. Every week we have a complete fire drill onboard. And as part of this law, every passenger has to be informed of the risk. We allow people to choose, and they don’t choose blind,” Weimuth said.

The Delta Queen is regularly inspected by the Coast Guard. “We’re probably one of the most inspected passenger vessels operating today. The Coast Guard consistently gives us high scores, a clean bill of health, and issues certification for operation,” Weimuth said.

There has never been a fatality aboard the Delta Queen in 82 years of operation, and the only fire, in 2003, started on a dining room table by a chafing dish and was quickly put out.

This time around, however, Congress had a clear chance to bypass Oberstar in April when the House blew it. The Senate has so far been entirely mum on the subject.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH1) of Cincinnati, the Delta Queen’s home port for 37 years, introduced H.R. 3852 last fall to grant the Delta Queen another SOLAS exemption. Sent straight into the House Committee on Transportation, Oberstar has refused to allow it to come to the floor for a vote.

After the House Rules Committee refused to force H.R. 3852 out of committee and onto the floor in April, Chabot made a motion to recommit, allowing for a roll call vote on whether the exemption would be offered as an amendment to a large and uncontroversial Coast Guard reauthorization bill. A vote in the House was held and the motion failed 208-195, with just 22 Democrats breaking with Oberstar to vote for the motion, and just 10 Republicans voting against it, sending the exemption back into Oberstar’s control.

Seven of Ohio’s 18 representatives in the House (enough to have tipped the vote) voted against the measure: Rep. Kaptur (D-OH9); Rep. Kucinich (D-OH10); Rep. Tubbs-Jones (D-OH11); Rep. Sutton (D-OH13); Rep. LaTourette (R-OH14); Rep. Ryan (D-OH17); and Rep. Space (D-OH18).

A spokesman for Rep. Kaptur said she had no position on the Delta Queen yet, but offered nothing to explain her April vote against an exemption. The same for Rep. Kucinich. A spokesman for Rep. Tubbs-Jones did not return phone calls, and a spokesman for Rep. Ryan didn’t believe he would have voted against the Delta Queen, but has never replied as to why Rep. Ryan did.

It could be they’re hoping the whole mess drifts away. It’s unlikely. The Delta Queen exemption was featured on Fox News on July 17, the same day The Economist ran a Requiem for the Queen. The Des Moines Register offered Oberstar a thistle for his scuttling of the Delta Queen last week, when called him the congressional scoundrel of the month.

If Congress would have blood on its hands if the Delta Queen ever burns, it will also have its votes and actions on its hands this Nov., when the Delta Queen gets set to dock for good just a few days before Congress, whose approval rating dipped into the single digits this month, heads into Nov. elections. With thousands of petitions being signed, the Delta Queen is currently scheduled to depart from Marietta, Ohio on Oct. 2 and start making its way back to New Orleans, as it did in back in 1970 from St. Paul.