Historic steamboat to be riverfront hotel in Tenn.

Published 12:52 am Tuesday, February 3, 2009

An 82-year-old steamboat that’s been designated as a National Historic Landmark is poised to make a final trip to its new position as a riverfront hotel.

The Delta Queen, which once ran up and down the Mississippi River but docked in Cincinnati, will leave its winter home in New Orleans on Wednesday for Chattanooga, Tenn. In October, the mostly wooden boat — the last of its kind — lost its exemption to operate overnight river cruises for up to 176 passengers.

Federal law prohibits such boats from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers.

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The boat was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989, but the exemption to continue operations requires annual renewal.

Critics have objected to the exemption, saying that the boat was a fire hazard and that its crew should be unionized.

Vicki Webster, a freelance writer who moved from St. Louis to Cincinnati to help the boat’s preservation efforts, has fought since 1970 to keep the Delta Queen running.

“I can’t imagine the river without her,” said Webster. “When she’s gone, so much will be lost.”

Individual preservation campaigns like Webster’s aren’t unusual, said Peter Brink, senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.

“Historic places are often saved by the efforts of one person,” Brink said.

Webster plans to continue lobbying lawmakers to renew its exemption through a grassroots campaign, “Save the Delta Queen Campaign.”

“She can shoot down any argument against saving the boat in language that is clear and concise,” said former U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican who championed Webster’s cause. “She’s not in this for the money or an ulterior motive. She’s doing this for the love of the boat.”

The riverboat’s California-based owners, Ambassadors International, have not said whether they would continue the cruises or return the boat to Ohio even if the exemption is granted.

On the Net:

Save the Delta Queen, http://www.save-the-delta-queen.org/