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.

Senate Bill, Media, and Grassroots Activism Gain Steam to Save the Delta Queen

Posted on August 07, 2008 at 04:33 PM

The campaign to save the historic Delta Queen steamboat has gained major momentum, with national and even international media coverage on Fox national TV news, USA Today, and the prestigious British journal The Economist, as well as new legislation just announced in the Senate to keep the Queen operating, and grassroots activists voicing support for the majestic vessel from New Orleans on up the Mississippi River and its tributaries as far as Ohio.

“The Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus commends Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Rep. Mike Ross, Rep. Marion Berry, and Rep. John Boozman in Arkansas and other Members of Congress in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana for supporting the effort to keep the Delta Queen operating. Congress has passed an exemption to the Safety of Life at Sea Act for over 40 years now to keep the Queen afloat, but special interest political pressures in Washington are currently obstructing the exemption, which is set to expire in November. The Delta Queen is a national historic treasure and generates tourist dollars for many communities from New Orleans to Helena-West Helena and beyond, and it would be a travesty if special interests kill this grand old riverboat that is similar to steamboats of Mark Twain’s day, ” said Lee Riley Powell, director of the Delta Grassroots Caucus.

Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) has announced that when Congress reconvenes after Labor Day, he will introduce legislation to continue the Delta Queen ’s 40-year exemption from the Safety of Life at Sea Act. The Delta Grassroots Caucus and other supporters of the Delta Queen will generate grassroots support for this legislation during the August recess. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) sponsored similar legislation in the House, supported by Arkansas Members of Congress and many other US Representatives, including Rep. John Tanner (D-TN), Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA), Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), and others in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, and southern Illinois.

The Delta Queen is the last traditional steamboat carrying overnight passengers on America’s inland waterways. For that reason she has been designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1966, she was inadvertently caught in the technical provisions of the Safety of Life at Sea Act—a piece of legislation that was intended to cover ocean-going ships, not riverboats. Recognizing the difference between boats that operate on rivers, within yards of the shore, and ships that sail the high seas, Congress established an exemption for the Delta Queen in 1968. Since then, the exemption has been renewed nine times, in virtually every case by near-unanimous votes in both the House and the Senate.

The Safety of Life at Sea Act was passed in response to the sinking of a wooden ocean liner in the Caribbean Sea in 1966, to indicate how far removed this law is from the situation of a riverboat. “The Mississippi is a very big river, but it ain’t the high seas, and Congress has recognized that reality in passing exemptions to the Safety of Life at Sea Act for over four decades now,” Powell said.

Without congressional action, the current exemption will expire on November 1, 2008. Bipartisan legislation to extend the exemption, H.R. 3852, was introduced by Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH) on October 16, 2007. It remains in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure because Committee Chairman James Oberstar of Minnesota refuses to release it to be voted on by the entire House of Representatives.

Many people in Arkansas are deeply concerned about the effort to kill the Queen. State Rep. Robert Moore of Arkansas City recently wrote to Senators Lincoln and Pryor urging them to keep active in efforts to keep the Delta Queen afloat, noting it generates tourist dollars in impoverished communities like Helena-West Helena. “In addition to promoting economic development through Mississippi Delta regional tourism in areas such as southeast Arkansas, the steamship represents the historic legacy of our region,” Moore wrote.

Environmentalists like Ken Smith, Vice President of Arkansas Audubodn support this campaign, because having 175 tourists traveling on the Mississippi River and its tributaries enables them to see the spectacular natural beauty and reinforces their desire to preserve that beauty for future generations. “I’ve boated over every mile of the Mississippi River in Arkansas, and there are few more beautiful places than the lower Mississippi River, and traveling on the Delta Queen enables many people to witness that beauty firsthand,” Smith said.

Although the steamboat did not schedule stops in Pine Bluff and Little Rock this year, it has done so in the past. The current ownership is having financial pressures and may sell the riverboat to a company that might reinstate the union, but thus far that has not taken place and as it stands now Congress will have to act to save the Delta Queen.

The Delta Grassroots Caucus has joined forces with a grassroots coalition based in Ohio called the Save the Delta Queen Campaign. Vicki Webster, leader of the Save the Delta Queen Campaign in Cincinnati, Ohio, said, “We’re thrilled that the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus and the Arkansas Congressional delegation are joining Senator Voinovich and many others in Congress to save this historic steamboat. We will be working closely with all the Congressional and grassroots supporters of the Delta Queen from Louisiana and Arkansas on up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to Cincinnati and beyond, including Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.”

Webster said “Public support for our effort is growing by the day from New Orleans and Helena-West Helena up through Missouri and Illinois to southern Minnesota, and east to Ohio and Pennsylvania. We are confident that members of Congress will respond to the wishes of their constituents and vote to keep the Queen alive and plying the rivers for generations to come.”

Powell explained that “Congress has passed this exemption to keep the Delta Queen traveling the Mighty Mississippi and her tributaries for many decades now, so the question is why did Congressman Oberstar of Minnesota vote in favor of this exemption as recently as two years ago, but then suddenly over the past year he has allegedly discovered that the riverboat is a terrible fire hazard? Well, the answer is simple: a couple of years ago the Delta Queen was purchased by a new company that instituted a non-union policy, thus kicking the Seafarers International Union off the boat. Unfortunately, this union is very powerful in Oberstar’s district, which includes the important port of Duluth on the Great Lakes.”

The Delta Queen has an exemplary safety record, has repeatedly passed Coast Guard safety inspections six times each year with flying colors, has a steel hull, fire-retardant materials, extensive sprinkler systems, constant safety patrols, and has never had any deaths, injuries or significant accidents.

“We understand that Rep. Oberstar wants to curry favor with an influential union in his district, but he ought to find a way to do that without killing a national historic treasure. As the national Fox TV report abundantly demonstrated in their recent report in July, 2008, Congressman Oberstar himself voted in favor of this exemption two years ago, before the company versus union conflict flared up, so his warnings of a conflagration leading to deaths and mayhem on the Mississippi River would be comical if this situation weren’t so sad,” said Powell.

Rep. Oberstar has asserted that the union has not contacted him about this issue, but this is misleading because the Seafarers International Union has publicly stated its harsh criticisms of the current ownership.

“Mr. Oberstar is well aware of the union’s position and he ought to be candid enough to say so. He knows that if he dresses this debate up as a great–albeit false–crusade against a terrible fire hazard, he will win, but if the truth comes out about the Delta Queen’s impressive array of safety precautions and its exemplary safety record, its prestige as a historical monument, and its economic impact for tourism, he knows he will lose,” Powell said.

“Don’t let special interest politics kill the Delta Queen,” Powell said.


It is very unfortunate that Rep. Oberstar has made a series of utterly erroneous and irrelevant comparisons in his effort to terminate this steamboat, such as– “In the operation of the trade on the Mississippi River, the worst disaster in history occurred, fire onboard a paddle wheeler. Yes, in the 19th century, but 1,700 people died 100 yards from shore.”

OBERSTAR HAS USED A BOILER-ROOM EXPLOSION THAT HAPPENED IN 1865 TO SCARE PEOPLE ABOUT THE DELTA QUEEN IN 2008: Oberstar’s comment was intended to refute the reality that the Delta Queen is always close to the shore and therefore requirements for vessels on the high seas are not applicable. What Oberstar is referring to is the Sultana steamboat disaster of 1865, which was caused by a boiler explosion in an era when these boats were far more dangerous, something that is not applicable today. At that time due to a lack of safety standards steamboats had an average lifetime of 3-5 years and boiler explosions were relatively common. The Delta Queen now is 82 years old and never had any major incidents in her whole lifetime. The Sultana could carry 376 persons, including crew, about double the Delta Queen today. The captain of the Sultana overloaded the boat with the incredible number of more than 1,700 passengers, mainly Confederate prisoners of war and other soldiers desperate to make their way back home at the end of the Civil War. It is irresponsible to dredge up the Sultana disaster of 143 years ago under completely different circumstances and compare that to the Delta Queen of today. Steamboats in 1865 did not have any of the fire precautions and boiler room safety that we have today.

As if the Sultana incident were not ludicrous enough as a comparison, Mr. Oberstar also dredged up the loss of life on the General Slocum in 1904!? That incident took place 104 years ago. “Earth to Congressman Oberstar, come in please–do you understand that an explosion in New York 104 years ago is not relevant to the situation of the Delta Queen in 2008?” Powell asked.

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.