Sunday, November 2, 2008
HELENA, Arkansas — The Delta Queen crew member who pulled the lanyard on the stern-wheeler’s whistle played a mournful dirge, casting an audible pall on this otherwise spectacular fall afternoon in the Mississippi River port city of Helena. It well may be the last time the sonorous, historic steam whistle is heard at Helena, a regular stop on the legendary cruise vessel’s itinerary.
Unless something changes, when the Delta Queen reaches its home port of New Orleans at the conclusion of this trip, she will be mothballed, or suffer one of several other similarly ignominious terminations to a storied career.
The Delta Queen, a wooden vessel with a metal hull, falls under the rules of the 1966 Safety at Sea Act. Most experts agree that the law, when enacted, mandated safety standards intended only for sea-going vessels, and should never have been applied to the riverine Delta Queen. The law forbids passengers to be carried on wooden vessels.
Mindful of safety standards, Majestic America Cruise Line of Seattle, the operating company of the Delta Queen, has taken extraordinary steps to ensure the safety of its Delta Queen passengers. The exterior is painted with a fire-retardant coating. Sprinklers and fire alarms stand ready in every nook and cranny aboard. And a watchful fire crew constantly roams the boat.
Turns out, the real issue at hand is not safety, but labor union donations to a Minnesota congressman’s campaign fund. Until this year, Congress had granted the Delta Queen an exemption from the Safety at Sea Act every year since 1968. This year, however, the Delta Queen was sold to Majestic America Cruise Line in Seattle, and the crew became non-union.
The plot thickens. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota is chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where the exemption originates. Because unions have salted his campaign larder, Rep. Oberstar has single-handedly stalled renewal of the Delta Queen’s now-expired exemption. The irony should not be lost on the congressman, but apparently it is. By blocking this exemption, he is putting a 120-person Delta Queen crew and supporting cast out of work.
But wait, there’s more. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other jobs will be lost in the tourism industry along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers because the boat will no longer disgorge its happy passengers at various ports-of-call.
No fuel will be sold to fire the Delta Queen’s engines. No food or drink will be taken on board to satisfy passenger’s thirst and hunger. You get the drift.
Well James, ol’ boy, it ain’t hurting anyone in Minnesota, but as I recall, the first two words in your job title are, “United States.”
So much for the problem. Here’s what the American public stands to lose.
The Delta Queen was built in 1926 and has more or less been in continuous service ever since.
She is the last wooden steam-powered stern-wheeler in the nation.
She is a registered historic treasure of the Department of the Interior and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
She is a National Historic Landmark.
She is a member of the National Maritime Hall of Fame.
She is pristine and continues to garner unqualified praise from her passengers and shore-bound observers.
And she is about to suffer a dastardly coup de grace at the hand of partisan politics. In the words of Antoine, “Fats” Domino, “Ain’t that a shame.”
N O T E S:
Most of the time, there is more to the Photo of the Week story than can be told in an essay. And most of the time there are more pictures to be seen. Presuming that some folk will enjoy being privy to this trove of information, I have created a blog, “Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind,” where I am showing and telling “the rest of the story." There are also some blatantly commercial mentions of some of the things we do to earn our beans and taters. Click on the Weekly Grist logo and go to the blog. — J. D.