Kay and David Scott
The Valdosta Daily Times
A recent trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park allowed us to spend several days exploring the “River City” of Chattanooga, Tenn. Considering we both love trains, our first thought was a stay at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, the historic Terminal Station in Downtown Chattanooga. However, we wound up spending two nights on the Delta Queen, a paddlewheel riverboat currently serving as a hotel while docked on the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga. Having never slept on a riverboat, we decided to give it a try. At least we were consistent in selecting a transportation theme for our two-night stay.
Aboard the Delta Queen
Walking down the gangplank onto the Delta Queen’s main deck is a stroll into the past. Leaded-glass doors open to a stairway that leads to the cabin deck’s attractive lobby with original stained-glass accents. Guests check in at the old purser’s desk where nearby doors lead to cabins and a guest lounge. The lobby centerpiece is the grand staircase that provides entry to a bar and additional cabins on the deck above. Cabins here and on the next deck have exterior entrances.
The main deck’s dining room is accessed via a stairway beneath the grand staircase. The dining room’s wooden floor is Siamese Ironbark, an extinct wood known to be particularly strong. The current dining room was originally designed for use as a cargo hold requiring flooring to support heavy loads.
The Delta Queen Hotel has 88 cabins in seven classifications. All of the cabins have a private bathroom, most with a shower only. None of the cabins has a telephone or television. The two largest cabins — the Captain’s Quarters — each have a king bed and are located in the front of the sun deck. John Price, the purser, said the most popular cabin is 119, one of four Master Suites that is a comfortable size, has a full bathroom with a tub, and large windows that offer a water view.
The next four categories are Deluxe King, Deluxe Queen, Standard Double, and Standard Twin (2 twin beds) with cabin size becoming smaller as the bed size decreases. The smallest cabin on board is the Bunk Cabin that is about twice the size of an Amtrak sleeping compartment. Cabin rates range from $109 to $259, including a full breakfast. Specials are frequently offered at www.deltaqueenhotel.com.
Delta Queen’s History
Using major parts imported from Europe (the hull was constructed in England and then disassembled for shipment to California), the Delta Queen was assembled in 1927 in Stockton, Calif. The boat used two 2000-horsepower steam engines that turned the 28-foot paddlewheel to produce an average speed of eight miles per hour. Use of the past tense is appropriate because the Queen’s boilers are quiet as she no longer offers cruises.
The Delta Queen began her career carrying passengers and cargo between Sacramento and San Francisco until 1940, when, for a short period she served the Navy as a receiving ship for naval reservists. In 1941, the riverboat was sold to a New York company. However, before the riverboat left the San Francisco area, war was declared and the Delta Queen was placed back into military service as an emergency hospital naval transport.
Cincinnati, Ohio, resident, Capt. Tom R. Green purchased the riverboat in 1946 following it being “mothballed” after World War II. It was then moved to Pittsburgh, Pa., for refurbishing and remodeling. It was here that the cargo hold was converted into a dining room, thus allowing all passengers to eat in a single sitting. The walls of the cabin deck’s smoking room and bar were removed to provide open space for a more spacious lobby. The existing dining room was converted into additional cabins plus a guest lounge.
The Delta Queen resumed service on the Mississippi River system with Green Line Steamers in 1948, and subsequently carried more than a million passengers. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989.
Trouble for the Queen
In 1966, Congress passed the Safety of Life at Sea Law that was primarily designed for ocean-going vessels. However, the law’s wording snagged riverboats with wooden superstructures, including the Delta Queen. Thus, the famed riverboat would no longer be permitted to carry overnight passengers.
Friends of the Delta Queen were able to obtain several extensions so the Queen could continue working. However, the extensions ended in 2008, and in February 2009, the Delta Queen was moved to Chattanooga as a stationary “hotel.” Friends of the historic riverboat continue to work with members of Congress, trying to obtain a renewal of the exemption (www.save-the-delta-queen.org). During these turbulent years, the riverboat has been through several owners and is currently again for sale.
Planning a Visit
Chattanooga (www.Chattanoogarun.com) is perhaps best-known as the location of Ruby Falls and Rock City, but there is lots to do in this revitalized city. The Delta Queen is docked on the North Shore beside Coolidge Park, a portion of the extensive Tennessee Riverpark that has undergone a $120 million transformation. The park is part of a 13-mile greenway that includes a 10-mile-long paved walking and bike trail following the river.
Fortunately much of the city is close at hand for guests of the Delta Queen. A free electric shuttle operates throughout the downtown area and the North Shore with a stop near the Delta Queen (www.goCARTA.org). If you prefer biking, Chattanooga offers a low-cost bicycle rental system with bike stands scattered throughout the downtown area. Pick up a bicycle from one stand and drop it off at another (bikeChattanooga.com). It is a great way to explore the city at a more leisurely pace.
A walk across the John Ross/Market Street Bridge leads to the Tennessee Aquarium (tnaqua.org) with both fresh and salt water fish, penguins, and a tropical rainforest with butterflies. The aquarium includes an IMAX 3D Theater and access to the River Gorge Explorer that carries passengers into the Tennessee River Gorge. A few blocks from the aquarium, the Creative Discovery Museum (www.cdmfun.org) includes hands-on exhibits that is likely to delight children.
Walking across pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge leads to the Hunter Museum of American Art (huntermuseum.org) that is perched on a bluff high above the river. The museum houses beautiful artwork in three connected buildings that also include reading rooms where art books and videos are available to visitors. Next to the Hunter Museum is the three-block Bluff View Art District (www.bluffviewartdistrcit.com) that includes a sculpture garden, gallery, bakery, coffee house, chocolate kitchen, restaurants, and a bed and breakfast.
Don’t delay if you have an interest in spending a night or two on the Delta Queen because it faces an uncertain fate in Chattanooga. The steamboat may remain docked at its current location, it may be sold and relocated to a new home as a hotel, or it may undergo an extensive overhaul (among other things it needs new boilers) and return to its roots carrying guests on the river. Let’s hope it is the latter.
Kay and David Scott are the authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). They reside in Valdosta.