By Rob Moritz
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — Seeing the majestic Delta Queen steamboat chug up and down the sleepy Mississippi River is reminiscent of a scene out of Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn, says Helena-West Helena resident Kevin Smith.
“The steamboat … is sort of emblematic of middle America,” says Smith. “I call it the Statute of Liberty of the heartland.”
For more than 80 years, the Delta Queen made regular stops in Helena-West Helena, bringing thousands of tourists to the region as it traveled up and down The Big Muddy and its tributaries, including the Arkansas River.
But in 2008 the steamboat was taken off the river after U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., citing safety concerns, refused to exempt the steam-powered paddleboat for a 10th time from the 1966 legislation known as the Safety of Life at Sea Act.
The act prohibits wooden boats from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers.
The Delta Queen carries up to 174.
For the past two years the steamboat has been serving as a floating hotel in Chattanooga.
But things may be changing. The boat, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Landmark, may soon be back in the Mississippi and once again bring much needed tourism to Helena-West Helena and other small cities along the Mississippi.
“I hope this works,” said Smith, co-founder of the Delta Grassroots Caucus and a board member of the nonprofit coalition of local leaders from the eight-state Greater Mississippi Delta Region. “Our river communities in the Delta have many businesses that benefited from the Delta Queen and other steamboats that brought tourists to our river fronts, door steps and Main Street.”
A coalition calling itself Save the Delta Queen 2010 has offered to buy the historic steamboat from the current owners, Ambassadors International Inc., and put it back on the river.
The coalition is led by Robert Rintz, former director of the Louisiana Department of Tourism and former senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.
Supporters believe they have a good chance of getting Congress to once again exempt the paddleboat from the Safety of Life at Sea Act because Oberstar was recently defeated in his bid for re-election.
Also, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who will take over as House speaker when the new Congress convenes in January, is a supporter of the Delta Queen, says Lee Powell, director of the Delta Grassroots Caucus.
“We enthusiastically endorse this renewed effort to return the historic Delta Queen to the Mississippi, Ohio and other major rivers of America’s heartland, primarily because the vessel is a National Historic Landmark and has an exemplary safety record,” Powell said.
“The boat brings “tourist dollars to economically distressed communities along the river like Helena-West Helena, New Orleans, up through Missouri and east along the Ohio, and those areas can use all the economic help they can get,” Powell said.
Rintz said in a statement released by the caucus that his goal is make the Delta Queen “live again so that future generations have the chance to travel this quintessentially American treasure, and so the river towns in 17 states can benefit from the revenue she brings to their communities.”