Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

After 83 years of cruising America's inland waterways, the Delta Queen on Feb. 4 is making what could be its last journey from New Orleans, to its new home at Coolidge Park Landing in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Ambassadors International has chartered the historic steamship to Harry Phillips, owner of Chattanooga Water Taxi and Fat Cat Ferry, who will operate it as an 87-room boutique hotel starting in April.

If someone offers to buy the ship and operate it as an overnight cruise vessel, the charter will be terminated, Ambassadors said.

But with little to no progress being made in Congress to pass an exemption from fire safety laws that would enable the Delta Queen to cruise again, the Delta Queen Hotel could become a permanent fixture on the Tennessee River waterfront.

"This is the most optimistic ending for this venerable and beloved vessel," Rod McLeod, who served from 1999 to 2001 as president and COO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.'s then-parent, American Classic Voyages, said in an email. "The likelihood that its ... exemption will be restored and that it will be sold and returned to overnight cruise service on the Mississippi River system is simply not in the realm of commercial reality."

Advocates for the Delta Queen, namely the Save the Delta Queen campaign, are still rallying for support from Congress to keep the Queen operating as a cruise vessel. Their concern is that certain components and mechanics of the vessel would have to be fundamentally altered in order to convert the steamer into a floating hotel.

Not so, according to the new charterer. The only change, Phillips said, is that he and the hotel operator, Sydney Slome, will need to add an auxiliary boiler.

And as a national historic landmark, the Delta Queen is protected against any major changes or renovations, provisions that were written into the hotel charter agreement, according to Ambassadors.

In fact, the Delta King, the Queen's identical brother ship, has been operating as a successful hotel in Sacramento, Calif., since 1989.

And in fairness, while some may be disappointed in the fate of the old paddlewheeler, the Delta Queen is probably better off than some of her fellow vessels at the now dissolved Majestic America Line.

"Only thing you can do with the [Delta Queen] currently is to run her as a hotel or restaurant or attraction," Bruce Nierenberg, who served for four years as president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. when it was owned by Delaware North Cos., wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, he added, the American Queen "is in mothballs with [the Maritime Administration] and is awaiting a new owner." And as for the Mississippi Queen, she "is a disaster," wrote Nierenberg. "Totally gutted and rotting on the river. Probably will end up as a hotel or casino boat somewhere."

But at the very least, starting sometime in April people can stay the night on the signature ship of the former Delta Queen Steamboat fleet and get a sense of what river cruising on America's waterways must have been like.

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