For roughly 40 years the legendary and lovely Delta Queen made Cincinnati her home port. She was, and is, one of the last of her breed, a true Western River Steamboat with an elegant wooden superstructure capable of housing more than 150 passengers. The Delta Queen is a portal into the city’s past, a time when Cincinnati was not simply a city beside a river but a River City—the Queen of the Ohio. Since leaving in 1985, the boat has come down in the world, relegated in recent years to the true ignominy of serving as a “floating hotel” in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Now there is talk along the waterfront of bringing her home to the city whose name still graces her stern. Unless, that is, competing suitors in Louisville, Sacramento, or New York lure the landmark their way.
According to local advocates, including City Councilman P. G. Sittenfeld, the potential economic boost is considerable. Sittenfeld says he’s hoping for a maiden voyage in June 2014. “The Delta Queen is such an important part of our heritage; there’s so much pride wrapped up in it,” he says. Beyond that it means jobs—150 vessel jobs and perhaps 25 corporate jobs and around $9.3 million of annual economic impact.”
But it will only happen with the kind of public loans and infrastructure investment from the city, county, and state that are likely to drive certain elements of the body politic to swarm the decks and dump whatever tea they can into the Ohio River. Already in corners of the chatosphere protestors have taken a break from fuming about the streetcar to argue over public investment for the Delta Queen.
“Check your facts [you] suburbanite troll before posting ridiculous comments,” wrote one deep thinker. “Maybe you can post at an elementary school...” riposted his adversary.
I have spent the past few years researching and exploring the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, and the rest of the great waterways that wind up in New Orleans for my book Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History. I can report with certainty that there is nothing new about Cincinnatians blowing steam over the allocation of public largesse for local development. The traditional cry, however, was always “Send more money!” More than 200 years ago the very first highway project funded by the federal government was the National Road, to facilitate travel between the Potomac and Ohio rivers. Similarly the first significant river improvement expenditure—a whopping $75,000 appropriated in 1824—was directed to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The first federal disaster relief went a little further downstream, to New Madrid, on the Mississippi. The first industrial safety regulation for transportation vessels passed by congress was intended to stop steamboats from blowing themselves, and their passengers, sky-high.
In terms of prosperity, public investment appears to have paid off quite handsomely. Thanks to navigational improvements and other factors, a steamboat trip from New Orleans up to Cincinnati that might have taken a month in 1816 on Henry Shreve’s Washington was down to less than five days by 1853. The price of moving freight, meanwhile, dropped from dollars per hundredweight to pennies, spurring a torrent of development. The population of Cincinnati in 1810 was 2,500; in 1850 it was nearly 50 times that, engaged in heavy manufacturing and well supplied with the wonders of the world.
“A steamboat coming from New Orleans brings to the remotest villages of our streams, and the very doors of our cabins, a little Paris, a section of Broadway, or a slice of Philadelphia,” a writer for the Cincinnati-based Western Monthly Review wrote as early as 1827. “With pianos and stocks of novels, and cards, and dice, and flirting, and love-making, and drinking, and champagne, and on the deck, perhaps, three hundred fellows, who have seen alligators, and neither fear whiskey, nor gunpowder.”
None of this means, of course, that a successful public-private effort to bring the Queen back to the Queen City will automatically reap the promised rewards. No one can really say that for sure. Except perhaps, the members of the Chamber of Commerce of New Bedford, Massachusetts. In 1941, New Bedford balked at the cost of maintaining the Charles W. Morgan, and allowed the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship to leave the Whaling City and move to Mystic, Connecticut. Nearly 30 million ticket-buying, restaurant-eating, T-shirt wearing, parking-ticket-paying visitors later, does New Bedford wish they had the floating symbol of their city’s heyday back?
Yup. Will New Bedford ever get the ship back to enliven their struggling waterfront? Nope.
A year ago in the spring I set off from Pittsburgh in a 14-foot aluminum boat with a small outboard motor bound down the Ohio, toward Memphis, as I researched my book. Down from the tree-lined narrows, past the great huffing towers of industry, under the storied bridges and past the ballparks of Cincinnati, through the locks of the Army Corps of Engineers with their eerie whalesong sounds, on into the widening cornfields and beyond: If I could find a reason to travel the Ohio again in a boat of any size I would not pass it up. Far be it from me to rank the world’s places, but it was not for nothing that Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the Ohio is the most beautiful river on earth.” Full steam ahead.
Ohio senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, along with congressmen Steve Chabot, Brad Wenstrup, and Kentucky’s Thomas Massie, have recently teamed up to push for a waiver on the federal safety law that bars overnight passengers on large wooden ships, including the Delta Queen.
The city of Louisville owns and operates the Belle of Louisville, a 98-year-old steamship purchased from Cincinnati owners in 1962. It famously raced the Delta Queen in 1963; the Queen won the highly-prized golden antlers trophy.
By the 1840s, Cincinnatians were so accustomed to their national investment that it came as a personal affront when President Polk vetoed an appropriation for navigational improvements. The Cincinnati Gazette howled that “Every boat that is snagged... will forcibly remind us of this destructive blow aimed by a Locofoco President against our prosperity.”
Originally published in the September 2013 issue.