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Letter From The Editor

July 2024
3min read

In operating a magazine of this kind one gets involved in many projects that might be called the physical side of history. Your editor, for example, has spent some years in trying to have preserved from demolition the old house of Alice Austen, the noted early lady photographer. The old Dutch frame building stands on the Narrows, a once beautiful spot where New York’s upper bay empties into the lower bay and the sea. After infinite maneuverings through city, state, and federal bureaucracies, we believe the place is saved—or almost. Recently we helped rededicate the famous Ancient Burying Ground of our hometown of New London, Connecticut, a beautiful place overlooking a harbor full of history [see “Fort Griswold,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1973]. But it looks down, too, on a vast, ugly, and empty space once full of whalemen’s cottages, where something charitably called Urban Renewal has left a gaping hole, to be filled up with neoplastic housing for welfare families. We made perhaps uncharitable remarks. In our spare time, as has been mentioned before, we help operate the all-steam restored Valley Railroad at Essex, Connecticut. This is indeed very physical history, especially the effort to acquire additional cars and the tracklaying to extend the line, until one wonders whether it will ever all be done.

Now and then, however, there are moments of purest satisfaction, one of which came this summer when we were asked to testify before a Senate committee considering a bill to exempt—once again—the last remaining steam packet on the western rivers from the all-steel construction standards of the Safety at Sea law. Regular readers will notice that this old riverboat, the Delta Queen , appears in A MERICAN H ERITAGE as often as hash in a boarding house. We leapt to our opportunity and give here an excerpt from our testimony:

This historic vessel represents for today’s America one of the few surviving links with one of the most colorful eras in our transportation history. In every mind, the mere mention of the words “Mississippi steamboat” conjures up scenes of colorful steam packets loaded to the water line with cotton bales, riverboat gamblers in their lacy cuffs and pleated shirts, southern belles in flowing crinolines, and the penetrating, nostalgic music of the steam calliope belting out “Dixie” and “Beautiful Ohio.” You find all this in the movies; you find it in prints and paintings; and you find it best of all in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi . As a young man he learned all the snags and bends and tricks of the river in a pilothouse very much like that of the Delta Queen .

Today the Delta Queen remains as the only living link to our river-steamboat heritage. A handful of other paddle-wheel steamers exist, to be sure, but with the exception of a few day-excursion boats they are all by circumstance, age, or economics relegated to housing riverbank restaurants, serving as museums, or simply rotting away. As a matter of fact, all the overnight packets that operated in our eastern rivers, sounds, and bays—the old Fall River Line, the old Bay Line—have all crossed over Jordan. …

We are fortunate that the Delta Queen exists today and is operating in the trade for which she was designed—carrying passengers in river transport. It is true that she was not built until after the demise of most of the steamboat trade. Yet if one were to choose which paddle-wheeler to save for posterity from all the thousands constructed, the Delta Queen would have to rate among the top contenders because she represents the best of her kind—in terms of machinery, her sturdy steel hull, and the appointment of her cabins and lounges.

I am a regular rider on the Delta Queen , and three years ago, before she received a last-minute reprieve, I went sadly along on what was to be the last cruise. We started down from St. Paul, Minnesota, in heavy rain, yet all along the way a vast, damp concourse of people turned out to say farewell. They parked in hundreds on bluffs, blowing on their horns, they crowded on the bridges, they lined up along the great locks. Pulling away, the calliope blew “Auld Lang Syne.” Here and there a passing freight train, the ghost of the old competition with the riverboats, blew a mournful blast on the diesel horn and received that indescribable answering moan from the Delta Queen . Even in the secret parts of the river, which only boat travellers see, the occasional duck hunter or towboat captain paid his last respects. For many of us, steamboats, like fine old buildings, like steam locomotives, have souls.

Sometimes it seems that we never appreciate what we possess, physically or philosophically, until it is almost too late. So many great buildings are rubble now, so much of our railroad system is scrap. In just three years, when we will reach our long-anticipated two hundredth birthday, let us hope that there will be some vestiges of old America left to celebrate. Let us hope that a law which was not even intended to apply to this old river packet will not destroy the only living link with Mark Twain’s world.

I most respectfully urge this committee to report favorably the bills now under consideration so that all of us, the present generation and the coming one, may still enjoy this part of our heritage. For if the hour is late for much of our past and our traditions, it is not too late for the Delta Queen .

It is pleasant to report that after hearing a number of witnesses, pro and con, the Senate passed the bill unanimously by voice vote. Since the bill had already passed the House, the Delta Queen will be steaming the Mississippi for another five years at least.

Oliver Jensen

We are pleased to announce that on Tuesday evening, November 27, the first program will be presented in the new American Heritage Bicentennial television series undertaken by this company in association with The Wolper Organization and sponsored over the A.B.C. television network by Texaco, Inc. The inaugural program is entitled “The World Turned Upside Down” and deals with Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington at Yorktown. Consult your newspaper for the broadcast time.

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