Delta Queen

Much loved for more than half a century on the Mississippi, Delta Queen was named not for the Mississippi delta, but for the Sacramento River delta above San Francisco Bay.

The ornate eagle name plate on the pilothouse, facing page, reflects the care with which the boat has been restored to its original elegance.
   Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

America was booming in 1925 when the decision was made to build a pair of classy steam-powered paddle-wheel boats for the run between Sacramento and San Francisco. The stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed were years away. Optimism was the flavor of the day, and a million dollars was budgeted for each boat, a huge amount even in those times of big spending. Plans for the two boats that would become Delta Queen and Delta King called for the steel hulls to be built in the famous Clyde-side shipyards of Scotland and finished in grand fashion in California.

In due time, the riveted hulls — having been assembled and then reduced to sections for shipping through the Panama Canal — were reassembled at a shipyard in Stockton, Calif. Boilers, originally destined for World War I Navy vessels, were acquired and installed forward, with a double-acting compound steam engine aft. The paddle wheel was installed, and a three-deck main cabin was built from wood. The deckhouse almost spelled the end of the paddle-wheeler’s life years later when wooden construction for passenger boats was banned as too flammable.

Delta Queen and her partner, Delta King, were successful on their California run, but the automobile had already had an effect on their viability by the time the Navy took them over in the lead-up to World War II. They spent the war years painted Navy gray. Afterward, they were laid up among the reserve fleet in Suisun Bay, where Capt. Tom Greene of the Greene Line Steamers in Cincinnati found Delta Queen.

He bought her in December 1946 and began preparing her for the now legendary 5,000-mile ocean tow. Delta Queen went to sea on the end of a towline from the San Francisco tug Osage on May 20, 1947. A heavy wooden shield had been built over her decks, and she arrived safely in New Orleans 32 days later.

With the shield removed at Avondale Marine Ways, she traveled under her own power up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to the Dravo marine ways at Neville Island, Pa. There she was brought back to her original splendor and re-entered service in June of 1948. Since that time, under a variety of owners, she has plied most of the navigable waters in the Mississippi system.

In spite of numerous financial and regulatory threats, Delta Queen maintains a steady schedule of cruises on a variety of waterways from Galveston, Texas, to Cincinnati. For safety reasons, her riveted hull has been encased in a new welded hull, but the wooden superstructure remains intact. Delta Queen was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989. That designation allows the vessel to keep operating with its original wooden deckhouse.

In late November 2004 she made a three-night round trip from New Orleans to Baton Rouge 131 miles upriver. As the paddle-wheeler departed Robin Street Wharf at 1930 in winter darkness, her steam whistle wakened old memories in the crumbling warehouses nearby. As some passengers settled in their cabins, on three decks, each with a river view, others assembled in the Texas lounge for an evening drink. They listened to piano there and watched as the tugs and moored ships slipped by the windows, their lights reflected in the main cabin’s 78-year-old brass and woodwork.

After guiding Delta Queen off Robin Street Wharf and setting her course for the Oak Alley Plantation 57 miles upriver, relief Capt. Henry “Buddy” Muirhead looked to his passengers’ comfort. Raised near the river on the Mississippi delta, Muirhead had put in several decades commanding vessels on the river when he retired from his command of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers towboat. But the river called him back as captain for the steamboat company. His wife, Alice, daughter of a cotton plantation blacksmith, travels with the silver-haired master and shares hosting responsibilities at the various social functions for the passengers.

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

he 44-ton sternwheel is 19 feet wide and 28 feet in diameter. Facing page, bottom, Capt. Buddy Muirhead uses a VHF radio to direct the departure from Baton Rouge, La.

Muirhead, who has earned a fine reputation on the river, is quick to praise others with whom he has served. “In the old days they had to do the pilotage for the whole river,” he said. “I had the opportunity to learn from two men, the late Capt. Adrian Hargrove and Capt. Milford Laurence, who just retired at 78. They each had over 4,000 miles of river licenses from the time when you had to draw it all from memory.”

Life on a Mississippi steamboat is about leisure for the passengers. There are refreshments in the forward lounge, and tables for cards and jigsaw puzzles. The three upper of the boat’s four decks have wide areas outside the cabins, providing ample space for promenades and rocking chairs. After-dinner entertainment is provided in the Orleans room with dining tables moved and chairs set up, or in the Texas bar two decks up.

The boat operates with two crews, one for hotel services and the other to operate the vessel. Watches are, as on towboats, six on and six off. The forward watch runs from 0530 to 1130 and 1730 to 2330, with the after watch taking the alternate hours.

On this trip, First Assistant Engineer Richard Ekstrom took the forward watch in the engine room, and Second Assistant Engineer Al Oswald took the after watch. Chief Engineer Jeff Smith, like Muirhead, is on call and works as required. When the boat was four hours out of New Orleans and making about 8 miles per hour upriver, Oswald relieved Ekstrom.

The boilers on Delta Queen are located forward in the 11.5-foot molded depth of the vessel’s 250-by-44-foot hull and extend up into the main deck. (With the paddle wheel, the hull is 285 feet long.) The boiler and engine rooms are separated by crew’s quarters under the main deck dining room and galley. The steam is piped through this area to the engines located just ahead of the paddle wheel.

While headed upriver, the engine room is a wonderfully quiet place. Even the diesel-powered generators are located forward with the boilers. The lower part of the engine room contains steam-operated auxiliary pumps, a steam-turbine electrical generator, and the condenser and hot-water circulating pump. Mounted on the deck above is the horizontal double-acting compound steam engine with Western-river-style lever-operated valve gear. The two huge cylinders are set fore and aft, one on each side, to align with the side of the paddle wheel.

The starboard high-pressure piston has a 26-inch diameter with a 10-foot stroke and receives the steam first. A crossover pipe takes the steam expelled from the primary piston under the deck to the secondary, or low-pressure, piston on the port side. This piston has a 52-inch diameter and the same 10-foot stroke. In normal operation, the steam in the high-pressure cylinder is at 90 to 180 pounds per square inch and 15 to 20 psi in the low-pressure cylinder.

At cruising speed, the engine turns the wheel at a stately 12 rpm. Muirhead explained that above Memphis they increase to 14 rpm, as “the hill is steeper from there to Cairo.”

The 44-ton paddle wheel, painted a classic bright red, is 19 feet wide and 28 feet in diameter. Reportedly it has reached over 20 rpm in races, but at 0430 while making 7 or 8 miles per hour on the way to the Oak Alley Plantation, the engine room was a place of elegant serenity.

Sitting at his desk between the two great cylinders, Oswald, the young second assistant engineer, watched as oiler Ronnie “Soul” Anderson topped up the brass oilers on the 40-foot-long 10-ton wooden pitman arms. He smiled with pride and satisfaction. “I am like a freak of nature,” he said. “I came out of school in 1989 in New Jersey, and I’ve been on steam ever since, except for maybe five months on diesel boats.”

Oswald went on to describe a wide range of steam-powered vessels on which he has served, from the coal-fired Great Lakes ferry Badger to the twin-turbine USS Shreveport and the triple-expansion cement carrier S.T. Crapo and the 120,000-shaft-hp 946-foot 55,355-ton-displacement fast-deployment logistics ship that could do 33 knots and “sucked oil like an alcoholic locked in a liquor store.”

These days the 33-year-old Oswald prefers something steady, and Delta Queen is, in every sense of the word. A half hour before the watch’s 0530 relief, the watch pilot Capt. Mike Swigert rang the brass telegraph for slow ahead. Oswald moved to the control wheel located on a vertical shaft. Ringing confirmation to the bridge, he turned the control wheel to reduce the steam to the engine. Forward in the boiler room, the fireman watched a telegraph monitor and reduced the fire to match the command.

Muirhead’s voice came over the engine room VHF monitor, asking Swigert for a hard-left rudder and full assist from the bow thruster. The pitman arms were making their elegant slide to turn the big paddle wheel at 3 rpm. Over the next 20 minutes or so, the telegraph rang a dozen or more changes as Muirhead’s voice gave directions from the bridge wing to the pilot to work the vessel’s bow into the levee and secure it.

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

The calliope evokes a different era.

At 0535, the gangway was down portside on the levee while the paddle wheel pushed slow ahead and First Engineer Ekstrom took charge of the engine room. Finally at 0557, with a stern line up to the levee, the bridge rang down “stop engine” followed by “finished with engine.” The valves were set, and the steam engine, like a sleeping dragon, counted gentle beats with escaping steam. The oiler made his rounds, turning off six brass and glass oilers per cylinder. The already immaculate wooden deck was mopped once more. The brass gauges on the aft bulkhead shined proudly over the words, “Engines Built 1925 by G.H. Evans and Company San Francisco.”

These may be the oldest commercially operating steam engines in America, but the boilers that power them are still older. The two water-tube boilers sit athwartships. Built by two different firms in 1919 for use in U.S. Navy destroyers, they are essentially identical. With the end of World War I in 1918, vessels on order were canceled, and the boilers sat in storage until bought for Delta Queen as surplus. This represented a significant savings in the original construction of the boat. Their operating pressure has been reduced from the original specification of 300 psi (they were tested to 450 psi) to the current 200 psi (for which they are tested annually to 300 psi).

Fireman Jim Williams, who learned his trade on 1945-built naval aircraft carriers, explained that the boilers still burn the heavy No. 6 bunker fuel for which they were designed, but they have undergone some changes over the years. Each boiler was built with three burners. However, the center burner has been replaced with a blower that increases the temperature on the burner tips to 5,000° F while reducing black smoke from the stack.

Williams, like the rest of the Delta Queen crew, takes pride in showing passengers the heritage features of the boat, especially when visitors have a connection. Williams told of seeing an elderly passenger carefully photographing the rivets in the hull. Asked why, the man replied, “My dad built this boat in Scotland, and he may have driven some of these rivets.”

The river’s heritage is also expressed in the genealogy of Delta Queen’s crew. The pilot on the forward watch, Capt. Lisa Streckfus, carries an important piece of steamboating history in her name, which is well known on the river. She is the fourth generation of her family to become a licensed riverboat captain. An ancestor, Capt. John Streckfus, began the family’s river history in 1886, building and operating a series of packet boats out of Rock Island, Ill. The family subsequently entered the excursion-boat business. Streckfus explained that the women of the family, in addition to acting as pursers on the boats, traveled up and down the rivers ahead of the boats, putting up posters and marketing the excursions. When the boats arrived, the townspeople would take family day trips or board for the moonlight cruise. With three houses of dancing, these cruises on the big boats took decades of Midwesterners onto the magic of the river.

As the family grew, some moved to New Orleans, while others centered in St. Louis to provide excursion boats on the upper and lower Mississippi. In 1938 the family commissioned the 374-by-92-foot art deco steamer Admiral with capacity for more than 4,000 passengers and 200 crew. The boat served until 1979 and is now a gambling ship in St. Louis.

Streckfus has lived up to her family tradition in grand style. First getting her engineer’s license from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, she now has a master’s license — “Master of steam or motor vessels of any gross tons upon the Great Lakes and Inland waters.” It also makes her “First class pilot of vessels of any gross tons upon the lower Mississippi River between Mile 86 AHP and Mile 234.0 AHP.”

“I grew up around riverboats,” she said. “The captain who most influenced my career and taught me the most is my father, Capt. Bill Streckfus, who started working on the family boats at age 5 after his mother died. He started out selling popcorn and worked his way up to president of Streckfus Steamers. He is the person who continually told me that I could achieve anything, regardless of my gender.”

She chose Delta Queen from among the three vessels owned by Delta Queen Steamboat Co., because, as the smallest, it sails the greatest number of routes. “I wanted to increase my knowledge. For example, we even go up the Arkansas every two years as well as the Intracoastal Waterway over to Texas and the Illinois River.”

One gets the feeling, hearing the enthusiasm of people like Streckfus and experiencing the quality of Delta Queen, that the riverboating tradition will survive well into the future.

By Professional Mariner Staff