The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Bill Eggert

July 5, 2014

Riverboat reverie on ‘uncle time’

— Thoughts of the summer months bring to mind annual weeklong vacations with Granny, Pop-Pop and Uncle Don in Pittsburgh. One memorable summer, “Unck” took me to see the Delta Queen riverboat, sitting majestically in the Monongahela River, moored at the Mon wharf.

The Delta Queen was so tall you could see its top deck while traveling on the adjacent Parkway East/West approaching the wharf.

Mark Twain celebrated the paddle wheel steamboats of the 1800s in his books. His pen name originated in riverboat travel.

The Delta Queen is impressive in size, dwarfing the boats of Pittsburgh’s Gateway Clipper fleet. It is 285 feet long, 58 feet wide and weighs 1,650 tons.

She can hold up to 176 passengers.

Three U.S. presidents have traveled on the Delta Queen: Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter.

The Queen features a three-range octave steam calliope mounted near the pilot house.

The calliope would play as she entered and departed her ports.

There have been reports of a ghost haunting the Queen. The ghost is said to be a female captain of the riverboat during the 1940s named Mary Greene. There have been mysterious reports of sound and activity, especially around Greene’s former quarters onboard.

The Delta Queen has a long and storied history. Its sections were built during two years in Scotland and shipped to California in 1926, where the Queen and its sister, the Delta King, were assembled. The two were the most costly and lavish riverboats sailing at the time.

A highway from San Francisco to Sacramento put the paddle wheelers (making the same trip on the Sacramento River) out of business. The two boats were purchased for service in New Orleans in 1940. Then they were sent back to San Francisco for use by the U.S. Navy in World War II.

The Queen was purchased by an Ohio company in 1946 and was refurbished in Pittsburgh.

In 1948 the Queen began regular passenger service, sailing the Mississippi River and its tributaries (including the Ohio River) from New Orleans to Pittsburgh.

A 1966 federal law regarding sea safety almost grounded the paddle wheeler, but thanks to the efforts of a handful of civic-minded citizens, the Delta Queen received an ongoing exemption. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989. However, Congress used the Queen as a political football and ended the exemption, putting an end to the Queen’s travel service in 2008.

The next year the Delta Queen was sold again and is now moored at Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a floating hotel for overnight guests.

The Delta Queen Hotel recently issued an update saying the riverboat is under contract to be put back in service, hinging on the Senate’s passage of Senate Bill 1022 (contact your senators to support this bill) to extend the aforementioned exemption. The bill passed the House, but is awaiting a decision by the Democratic-led Senate.

One final story about the Delta Queen: After moving back to town, I read that the Queen would visit Pittsburgh one last time, for the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh in 2008.

To honor the Queen, and my late Uncle Don, I took my niece Dee to see her one last time. My nephew Timmy was out of town, so only Dee, who was attending Pitt-Oakland, could make it.

It was a chilly but sunny October Saturday as we crossed the bridge to visit the Queen, moored near Heinz Field. I do not think the experience had the emotional impact for Dee that it did for me.

Seeing the stately paddle wheeler was like seeing an old friend. Memories of Uncle Don taking me to see her at the Mon Wharf came flooding back.

Having served in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War, Unck had an affinity for all things naval. Maybe that is why he liked the Queen, along with her historical connection to Pittsburgh.

But I am grateful he took time to show me this piece of nautical history, and in turn, for the chance for me to share this legacy with my niece by spending quality “uncle time” with her as my Uncle Don did with me.

God save the Queen.

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.

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