President can bring Delta Queen back to the Ohio

November 30, 2018

People gather at the riverfront park in Point Pleasant, W.Va., in October 2008 to see the Delta Queen during what could be its last stop there. If President Trump signs a bill passed by Congress that exempts the Delta Queen from safety standards that were meant for oceangoing vessels, the old boat could stop again at Huntington, Point Pleasant and other communities in this area as early as 2020.

The last time the Delta Queen passed Huntington, it was heading down the river toward Cincinnati. The sun had set and darkness was falling as the old steamboat passed under the East End bridge. By the time the Delta Queen passed Virginia Point Park in Kenova and left West Virginia behind, the sky was as dark as the boat’s future.

In 2020, the old boat that is the favorite of people living along the Ohio River could pass Huntington again and even make a trip up the Kanawha River to Charleston. All it needs is President Donald Trump’s signature.

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives approved a bill that had previously passed in the Senate. The bill exempts the Delta Queen from the 1966 Safety at Sea Act, which prohibits vessels from carrying passengers unless the vessel is completely made of noncombustible materials. The act was meant to apply to oceangoing vessels, but its wording meant the Delta Queen needed an exemption to operate.

The Delta Queen’s superstructure is mostly wood, but the boat is rarely far from shore and passengers were aware of the risk, the boat’s supporters say. The Delta Queen received nine exemptions and continued operating on the Mississippi, Ohio and other rivers until its final exemption expired at the end of 2008.

Its final trip down the Ohio was in October of that year. Assuming President Trump signs the bill into law, there is still much to be done.

The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. must secure several million dollars in financing to repair the boat’s engines and paddlewheel. Once that happens, the boat will be taken to a yard at Houma, Louisiana, for a year’s worth of work.

If all goes as planned, the boat will return to service on the Ohio, Kanawha, Mississippi, Tennessee, Cumberland and Arkansas rivers in 2020. Themed voyages will last from three to 10 days. The schedule is not out yet, so no reservations are being taken.

News of the action in Congress pleased Tyson Compton, president of the Cabell-Huntington Convention & Visitors Bureau. He said the news was “very exciting, especially for that boat because it has such a rich history and people are very passionate about that particular vessel.”

Tyson said he would be contacting the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. to see what the city needs to do to be included as a stop on the boat’s 2020 schedule.

Huntington was a frequent stop for the Delta Queen before the last exemption expired, and local residents would drive or walk to Harris Riverfront Park to see it docked there as passengers disembarked and took buses to various sights around town.

On its final trip, few people gathered along the shore to bid the Delta Queen farewell. There were some adolescent boys playing along the river at old Lock and Dam 27, but they paid the boat little notice as it passed. More than likely they didn’t recognize what they were seeing.

If President Trump signs the exemption into law — and he should — people who live along the river will again see a classic steamboat silently plying the river the way it had done for 40 years. You can expect every camera and every drone to record its first trip up the river in more than a decade.

It will be a day worth remembering as long as the president does his part.

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