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This article borrowed from this Historic Landmark Study

Construction and Career of Delta Queen

The California Transportation Company began making plans for a pair of steamboats to serve on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers as luxury or "deluxe" overnight transportation between San Francisco and Sacramento, California. The machinery plants of both boats were designed by the prominent naval architectural firm of Charles H. Evans Company, of San Francisco.[17]

Due to the decline of American shipbuilding at the time, and the high costs prevalent in U.S. yards, the hulls and some machinery for the two boats were ordered from the yard of William Denny and Sons, of Dumbarton, Scotland. Denny's offered to build the first of the two vessels on December 14, 1923. Delta King was ordered on April 1, 1924, and Delta Queen was ordered on May 11, 1924.

Denny's was given the dimensions and general particulars of the desired vessel with a free hand to model the hull as they thought best. After extensive hull model tests in their towing tank to determine the best hull form for shallow water, the yard completed the plans and bent, formed, and assembled the hull steel using removable bolts rather than rivets. Denny had built many smaller "knock down" boats for river service in South America and Asia and was well known for the high quality of their work. The hull plates and frames were formed and assembled there, and then numbered and disassembled for shipment. Denny subcontracted some of the major engine forgings and castings to the Krupp Foundry in Germany. The hulls were shipped from Dumbarton on November 8, 1924, and March 9, 1925, with Delta Queen's hull delayed at the owner's request.[18]



Launch of Delta Queen, 1927. Photo courtesy Delta Queen Steamboat Company.

On May 20, 1927, the steamboats were christened Delta Queen and Delta King and launched from the C.N. & L. shipyard in Stockton, California. The new boats were completed in 1927 and began service between San Francisco and Sacramento on a schedule that let the King or Queen leave San Francisco for Sacramento and pass her sister traveling the other way. Each boat left at six in the evening and arrived at six in the morning and returned the next day.[19]

This king and queen live up to their names. They are regal in their appointments, in their outward appearance, and in their inner quality. ... from the stem to end of the paddle guard, Delta King and Delta Queen show intelligent design and capable execution in a thoroughly finished job.
Our hats are off to Captain A. E. Anderson and the organization which he directs. We salute them for a job well done.[20]

Delta Queen was designed to accommodate 234 passengers, 40 automobiles on the main deck, 15 on the outside decks, and 350- 400 tons of cargo. The passengers were accommodated in 117 staterooms for two persons and a large men's dormitory area forward. The vehicles were carried on her restricted foredeck and also on her maindeck alongside the boilers.[21]

By 1941, the passenger trade on the Sacramento had dried up, and the California Transportation Company decided to send Delta King to the Mississippi and made a study of methods of getting her there. She was even sheathed-in with wood to prepare her for the long tow to the Mississippi. The Second World War intervened and Delta Queen, in 1940, was chartered for use as a minesweeping training ship in San Francisco Bay. She and Delta King were requisitioned for use by the U.S. Navy in 1941.

The Navy retained the civilian names of the two vessels but gave them navy classification numbers. USS Delta Queen became YHF-7 on December 15, 1941, and was reclassified YFB-56 on June 5, 1944. She and Delta King were employed carrying large groups of troops about the San Francisco Bay area. They were also used as gigantic lighters to carry 3000 troops at a time out to liners anchored in the bay.[22]



Delta Queen in Navy service on San Francisco Bay, 1942. Photo courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP.

On August 21, 1945, Delta Queen was retired from U.S. Naval service and declared surplus on August 28, 1946, and sold to the Greene Line, of Cincinnati, the highest bidder. The Greene Line was formed in 1890 as the Gordon C. Greene Company with one operating packet steamboat. The Company grew to own more than a dozen boats by 1940, when it became Greene Line Steamers, Incorporated.[23]

The Greene Line prepared her for the long voyage to the Mississippi by removing the paddlewheel, sheathing the first three decks with wood, reinforcing deckhouses, and securing all loose gear aboard. A tug towed Delta Queen down the Pacific to Panama, through the canal, and up the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. There she was returned to sailing condition and steamed up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to the Dravo Shipyard where she was modified to suit her for service on the Western Rivers. When this conversion was completed a new queen of the river began her reign.[24]

The Greene Line sent Delta Queen on passenger cruises west to Omaha, Nebraska, south to New Orleans, north to Stillwater, Minnesota, and Joliet, Illinois, and west to Charleston, West Virginia, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

The Greene Line went through traumatic management changes but continued to operate Delta Queen even though the company sold most of its other steamboats. The Greene Line sold Delta Queen to Edward J. Quinby and Richard S. Simonton on February 22, 1958, but she continued to be operated by the Greene Line. This company operated her on the same sort of strenuous tramping passenger excursion trips as had her earlier owners. Some minor improvements to make the boat more attractive and comfortable to passengers were made.[25]

The Safety at Sea Law of 1966 threatened the continued operation of Delta Queen because one clause of the law forbade operations of vessels with wooden superstructures in overnight passenger service. The first of a series of legal maneuverings fueled by a tremendous public outcry, allowed a special Congressional exemption from the law for Delta Queen in 1970. Several subsequent extensions of this exemption have focussed tremendous national attention on this problem. Many modifications for safety have been made, though short of the complete rebuilding sought by the Coast Guard.[26]

One of the most important activities engaged in by Delta Queen every year began on June 5, 1962, when Delta Queen raced the only other surviving sternwheel passenger steamboat during the celebrations surrounding the Kentucky Derby. She won and played the tune of "Goodbye Little Girl, Goodbye" on the calliope as she ran away from Belle of Louisville to win. A racing tradition was begun. Partisans of the Belle claim that the bow thruster of the Queen confers an unfair advantage in turning. Fans of the Queen claim that the light draft of the Belle allows her to cut inside on turns. Both sides have resorted to various outrageous forms of guile, ruse, and outright cheating over the years in the effort to win. Since the races began, the golden elkhorns have been about evenly awarded to each of the two boats with tremendous hoopla surrounding the event, no matter which boat wins.[27]

In 1973, the company was sold to Overseas National Airways and renamed the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. This and subsequent owners have maintained the same high standards as when the vessel was built. The Delta Queen Steamboat Company was acquired by the Coca Cola Bottling Company of New York in 1976. In 1980, the company became publicly owned, but Delta Queen returned to private ownership in 1986, when the present owners, The Equity Group Investments, Inc., bought the company.[28]

As a luxury steamboat and the last traditional overnight steamboat on the Western Rivers, Delta Queen has attracted many distinguished passengers. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter and his family took a cruise on the upper Mississippi from St. Paul, Minnesota, to St. Louis, Missouri. This cruise received considerable publicity as the President worked on his energy policy and prepared for the upcoming election. A popular photograph of President Carter on the bridge of Delta Queen with a large sign reading "Steamboat 1" was reproduced in papers across the country. Princess Margaret Rose of Great Britain and a royal party made a similar cruise in 1986.[29]

Today Delta Queen plays an important part in the cultural and historical heritage of the entire region, where she is regarded with deep and abiding affection. Delta Queen is also of great importance as the sole remaining example of her type, which played an important part in America's westward expansion.[30]

Return to National Historic Landmark Study, Delta Queen, Part 1


1. United States Department of Commerce, Merchant Vessels of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1929) pp. 54-55, and James P. Delgado, et al., "Evaluative Inventory of Large Preserved Historic Vessels In The United States" (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1988) passim.

2. Francis S. Philbrick, The Rise of the West: 1754-1860 (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965) pp. 312-315.

3. Leland D. Baldwin, The Keelboat Age on Western Waters (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980) p. 41.

4. Ibid., pp. 42-44 and pp. 50-51.

5. Ibid., pp. 175-177.

6. Philbrick, op. cit., pp. 313-314.

7. Baldwin, op. cit., pp. 44-46.

8. Jean Baptiste Marestier, Memoir on Steamboats of the United States of America (Mystic, Connecticut: The Marine Historical Association, Inc. 1957) pp. 1-19, pp. 54-57.

9. "Preventive Safety," Commandant's Bulletin (Washington, D.C., U.S. Coast Guard publication, Aug. 4, 1988) p. 32.

10. John H. Morrison, History of American Steam Navigation (New York: Stephen Daye Press, 1958) pp. 207-209.

11. Alan L. Bates, The Western Rivers Steamboat Cyclopoedium (Leonia, New Jersey: Hustle Press, 1968) passim.

12. Jerome E. Petsche, The Steamboat Bertrand: History, Excavation, and Architecture (Washington,D.C.: National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 1974) pp. 1-5.

13. Bates, Steamboat Cyclopoedium, pp. 105-107.

14. Ibid., pp. 8-9, pp. 4-7.

15. Derek Pethick, S.S. Beaver; The Ship That Saved The West (Vancouver, B.C.: Mitchell Press Limited, 1970) passim.

16. Jerry MacMullen, Paddlewheel Days In California (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1944) pp. 118-119.

17. "King and Queen of the Delta," Pacific Marine Review (July, 1927) pp. 320-324.

18. David J. Lyon, The Denny List (Greenwich, London: National Maritime Museum, 1975) Hull no. 1169-1169, and Fred M. Walker, Song of the Clyde, A History of Clyde Shipbuilding (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985) pp. 118-121.

19. MacMullen, op. cit., pp. 118-119.

20. "King and Queen," op. cit., p. 324.

21. Ibid., p. 323.

22. Lt. (JG) Barry Stephenson, USNR, "Famed Delta Queen Served With Navy In World War II," Navy Times (October 28, 1970).

23. Letha C. Greene, Long Live The Delta Queen (New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1973) p. 14.

24. Frederick Way, Jr., The Saga of the Delta Queen (Cincinnati: Picture Marine Publishing Company, 1951), and Greene, op. cit., pp. 14-28.

25. Greene, op. cit., pp. 20-104.

26. Frank H. Mayfield, Jr., "The Big Exemption, Betty Blake and the Delta Queen," S & D Reflector (Vol. 23, no. 3, Marietta, Ohio: Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, September, 1986) pp. 7-8.

27. Kevin J. Foster, Oral History Interview with Captain C.W. Stoll, Louisville, Kentucky, October 21, 1988. (unpublished notes on file in History Division, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.)

28. (Delta Queen Steamboat Company,) "Profile - Clia" (Typescript, single-page administrative history of Delta Queen owners)

29. "Steamboat Stumping, Carter Shows His Stuff," U.S. News & World Report (September 3, 1979) pp. 22-23 and "The Presidential Cruise of the Steamboat Delta Queen, Souvenir Passenger List, Aug. 17- 24, 1979."

30. Frederick Way, Jr., Way's Packet Directory: 1848-1983 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University, 1983) pp. 123-124.

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