Historic Delta Queen sold, cruises planned for 2016

The Delta Queen this week was purchased by investors who hope to have the historic steamboat cruising again in 2016. Terms were not disclosed.

Cornel Martin, a former company executive, and his partners plan to spend an estimated $5 million on restorations and renovations including new boilers, the HVAC system and new generators. The hotel side is “in pretty good shape,” Martin said, but they’ve got a lot of work to do on the marine side.

The 176-passenger boat has been tied up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where she was a dockside hotel. Delta Queen Steamboat Company headed by Martin bought the vessel from TAC Cruise, an affiliate of Xanterra Holding Corp, Greenwood Village, Colo., which runs concessions and activities at national and state parks. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, she stopped sailing in 2008 when money-losing Majestic America Line shut down. Xanterra acquired her at a 2011 auction.

Martin said he expects to have the vessel out of Chattanooga by the end of March and on her way to Louisiana for work.

Once back in service, she’ll follow much of her original itinerary and because of her smaller size be able to sail some smaller rivers. As for a homeport, Martin said a number of communities have expressed an interest, but “we’re still a good ways from having to make that decision.”

One major unsettled issue is federal legislation to allow the Delta Queen to cruise again. A Senate bill (S2924) got bogged down and the clock ran out last session, Martin said. The measure would have exempted old vessels operating on inland waters from current fire hazard restrictions if the owners “make annual structural alterations to at least 10 percent of the areas of the vessels that are not constructed of fire-retardant materials.”

Earlier legislation that passed the House but not the Senate gave the historic steamboat a 15-year exemption to regulations that require passenger vessels for 50 or more be made of fire retardant materials. Built in 1926, the steel-hulled Delta Queen with its wood and steel superstructure had been kept alive with a series of exemptions.

“We have to start all over again,” Martin said, but “we have a really good shot at getting it through.”

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