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The Fight For The Queen, Or Two Cheers For Congress

June 2024
8min read

The wonderfully evocative photograph spread across the two preceding pages has a great deal to say, in the way that pictures do, about America, its heritage, and the importance of historic preservation. And besides all that, it is a good point to begin what starts out as a very unhappy story.

About three in the afternoon of November 2 last, with jazz bands blaring, the steam calliope belting out “AuId Lang Syne,” and fireboats playing their great arching streams of muddy Mississippi water, the last river packet in the United States, the steamboat in our photograph, slowed down to tie up at New Orleans in what was then widely heralded as her last and final stop. The paddlewheel palace Delta Queen , eleven days out of St. Paul, Minnesota, eased up toward the Poydras Street wharf while eager hands stretched out to take her lines. In Captain Ernest Wagner’s pilothouse, where Mark Twain would have felt at home, the engine telegraph signalled back “all stop.” For a moment 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 full load of passengers, 189 strong and from twenty different states, began to disappear into the crowd. Reporters interviewed anyone and everyone. History had come again to New Orleans. The steamboat age was over and would be buried in a great burst of sentiment. So everyone thought.

It had been like this ever since the Delta Queen left her home port of Cincinnati, heading downstream to Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio joins the Mississippi. Then this final voyage turned north to St. Paul. The word had spread that the forty-four-year-old steamboat, with her wooden superstructure, stood condemned as a fire hazard by Coast Guard regulations and that Congress had refused to spare her. And so as the Queen slipped offdownriver from St. Paul and maintained her slow, dignified pace along the shores of state after state, vast crowds turned out. They lined the banks at La Crosse, at Prairie du Chien, Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport and her sister city Rock Island, Burlington, Nauvoo, Hannibal (where Mark Twain grew up watching the steamboats), St. Louis, Memphis—at every stop.

These waving multitudes were not simply steamboat enthusiasts, but the people, often a substantial part of a town’s whole population, and they held the children aloft to witness the end of an era. Even the modern young appeared, in groups as usual and clutching signs—but reading, as if they were some sort of incongruous royalists, “ SAVE THE QUEEN ”! And they would chant her out of sight with those words while the Queen would answer bravely on her calliope, white puffs streaming from the steam pipes, the notes of “Dixie” and “On Wisconsin” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” echoing off the banks and drifting across the levees, fields, and swamps.

Very few people in this age of cities, automobiles, and air travel ever really see the secret parts of the rivers that course through the central half of America—the Tennessee, the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Mississippi—and now no one save a few towboat crews, powerboat owners, and duck hunters would see them anymore. Yet between towns the wide water courses seem much as our riveroriented ancestors knew them—long, wild panoramas of woods, low islands, dramatic bluffs. Signs of human habitation are almost invisible for miles. Occasionally a road or railroad line appears between towns, and the Queen , on this last trip, got a blast of friendship now and then from a long freight train or honking horns from massed lines of cars parked at some high point to see history go by. The crowds were thick at the locks of the upper river; you get a very close look there, and the Army engineers have built scores of these locks. Great, impressive affairs they are for controlling floods and making navigation easy. Indeed, they seem to have reached a kind of apogee of usefulness and efficiency just in time for the last passengers. Mark Twain, a man with a pretty good sense of irony and a gift of prophecy, put these words into the mouth of the mate of a riverboat back in 1882:


Government is doing a deal for the Mississippi now, spending loads of money on her. When there used to be four thousand steamboats and ten thousand acres of coal barges, and rafts, and trading scows, there wasn’t a lantern from St. Paul to New Orleans, and now, when there’s three dozen steamboats and nary a barge or raft, government has snatched out all the snags, and lit up the shores like Broadway, and a boat’s as safe on the river as she’d be in heaven. And I reckon that by the time there ain’t any boats left at all , the Commission will have the old thing all reorganized , and dredged out , and fenced in , and tidied up , to a degree that will make navigation just simply perfect , and absolutely safe and profitable.

As the Queen dropped into the great lock at Keokuk, Twain’s comments seemed apt enough. The works are a marvelous achievement and, from any human standpoint, perfectly useless hereafter unless you are a barge load of coal.

So it went all during this last trip, visitors streaming aboard wherever possible for a last look at the gleaming brass, broad stairways, and the rest of the old-fashioned elegance, passengers glumly contemplating the banks when not diverted by good food, music, and entertainment—all of this in strange counterpoint to the sense of gloom. At Vicksburg the reception was so warm and tearful, the captain jested, that the Yazoo River rose half a foot. Officials of the venerable Greene Line, which operates the Delta Queen , estimated that as many as a quarter of a million people had written their congressmen or signed petitions to keep her on the rivers. Editorial writers mourned her passing all through the Middle West.

Why, with all this support and affection, was the old steamboat in danger? This, as anyone interested in historic preservation will recognize, is a silly question; it takes us back to Washington, where riverboats and sentiment are normally no match for lethargy, bureaucracy, and vested interests. The sword that hung over the Queen ’s, head is called Public Law 89-777, or more popularly if not so accurately, the Safety at Sea Act of 1966. It was passed after a disastrous fire on the S.S. Yarmouth Castle in the Caribbean, during which ninety lives were lost. Hereafter, the Coast Guard had decided, there would be no wood at all in vessels flying the American flag if they carried fifty passengers or more in overnight or longer passage. (The lives of forty-nine or fewer overnighters, apparently, do not concern anyone, and daytime travellers seem to be on their own.) There would be no exceptions, for bureaucracy hates exceptions, even for a riverboat that can always be beached in less than five minutes.

Although she has a steel hull, the upper works of the Delta Queen are indeed of wood. That fire-retardant paints have been used; that every room and space has sprinklers (just as in the new Queen Elizabeth II); that she has passed every inspection; that the fire underwriters are satisfied with her hydrants, pumps, warning systems, and all the other precautions; that the Greene Line, after eighty years in business with twenty-eight ships, has never lost a passenger—none of this seemed to make a difference.

The Yarmouth Castle , as President William Muster of the Greene Line was quick to point out, had been recently remodelled in 1965 to Coast Guard specifications of the time, which dictated that sprinklers need be installed only in passenger spaces. Yet the fire began in an unprotected storeroom and thus got beyond control. The Coast Guard ridiculed the business of simply beaching the Queen in case of fire by citing the tragic fire in 1904 on the New York excursion steamer General Slocum , which cost about a thousand lives. She had been beached, hadn’t she? But the staff work behind the Coast Guard argument was sketchy: it failed to mention that the Slocum was a deep-water boat, whose bow went high on beaching, unlike a flat-bottomed river steamer, which is built to nose up to shore on an even keel as a regular procedure. But most importantly, the Slocum had fatally postponed seeking the beach and foolishly steamed on into the wind for many agonizing minutes, which only spread the flames on the overcrowded decks. To make matters worse, the crew was inept, the life preservers and hoses had rotted, pumps had failed to work, lifeboats were wired down, and there had been no fire precautions at all.

So went the argument; this and much more. But the problem for the Delta Queen , whose time would soon run out, was neither the sentimental nor the common-sense arguments for saving her. Legislators who had written the 1966 law made plain that they had meant it for saltwater vessels, not riverboats. The Senate passed three bills to exempt the Delta Queen , two unanimously, one by 68 to 1. The Department of the Interior, only four months before the Queen ’s operating life would expire on November 2, placed her on the National Register of historic landmarks that should be preserved. What stopped the wheel and stilled the whistle of the Queen was that remarkable instrument of absolutism, the committee system of the United States House of Representatives, a supposedly democratic institution that can be in fact about as responsive to the public will as the Politburo or the court of Louis XVI. Perhaps a little less.

The committee concerned with the Queen was that on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, presided over by the somewhat strange figure of Edward A. Garmatz, a representative from Maryland. Elevated to his imperial powers over matters maritime by the inexorable House rules of seniority, Chairman Garmatz is not only the congressional echo of the Coast Guard but the voice of the shipping industry and its powerful unions, for whom, in carefully watered and tended maritime bills, he obtains the annual subsidies amounting to half or more of the annual outlays for our fast-vanishing merchant fleet. It no doubt irritated Congressman Garmatz last fall when the New York Times printed an account of how he had accepted thirty-seven thousand dollars from his shipping friends as “campaign contributions,” even though he was unopposed in both the primary and the November election itself. And about the same time it clearly infuriated him to have a Senate amendment that would spare the Delta Queen tacked on to his omnibus maritime bill. He killed the amendment in committee, as only a chairman can, knowing it would pass if he ever permitted it to reach the floor of the House. In fact, twenty-five Delta Queen bills, all dutifully referred to the Merchant Marine Committee, disappeared in similar fashion, spurlos versenkt , in his dusty pigeonholes. His prestige was at stake; he had taken his position. The Greene Line should build a new, all-steel riverboat, he said; he had even given them extensions of time to do so. The price, when the line despairingly sought bids among American shipbuilders, was a preposterous ten million dollars; shopping among the congressman’s industrial welfare clients is not for bargain hunters.∗ On the same specifications a Dutch shipyard bid only four million, but another handy U.S. maritime law, the Jones Act, stipulates that American-flag vessels of any great size must be built in the United States.

Yet democracy does have its occasional day in court, even in Washington, although its ends must sometimes be achieved by means as furtive as those employed by the opposition. The friends of the Queen in the Senate quietly added a three-year extension of her life to a private bill (it reimbursed a postal employee for his moving expenses), passed it, and sent it, in a kind of end run, to the House Judiciary Committee, thus evading Mr. Garmatz. There Congressman William M. McCulloch, of Ohio, ranking minority Republican on the Judiciary Committee, shepherded it at length to the floor for debate—a rare thing indeed for a private bill. It was all over in an hour, with a vote of 295 to 73 to give the Queen three more years. The last-minute outcries of Congressman Garmatz, who warned of “blood” and disaster and quoted his Coast Guard sources, lost some of their conviction in the face of the headlines of the moment. Just a few days before the vote the Coast Guard, in its most bureaucratic and shameful hour, had returned the now famous Lithuanian defector to his Soviet tormentors.

Most congressmen, if given the chance, would have made the exemption permanent; indeed, so the Senate originally voted. But “getting the chance” is the heart of the matter. Getting to a vote is the great defect of our slow-moving institutions; it is the problem that over and over again faces those who, like the friends of the Delta Queen , like all lovers of historic preservation, like (we suspect) most readers of this magazine and certainly its staff, strive to save what is good in past and present from the mindless forces of supergovernment, superlabor, superindustry, and the faceless future. And so, finishing our instructive tale, we must note that the battle will come up again in three years, that Mark Twain’s prophecy may still come totally true, that there will almost certainly be another last trip down the great river of the West, and another mad delay—and what will the outcome be? O navis!

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