ST. LOUIS (AP) — An effort to get the legendary Delta Queen riverboat back afloat on the Mississippi River and its tributaries got a boost Wednesday when the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee agreed to reinstate an exemption for the 89-year-old vessel.
The Delta Queen is expected to move to the small St. Louis-area town of Kimmswick, Missouri, later this year, and both of Missouri's senators said the 285-foot-long riverboat, immortalized in poems and songs, has the potential to be a big benefit for the region's tourism and economy.
But first, Congress must allow it to cruise the river. The Safety of Life at Sea Act, enacted in 1966, prohibits overnight excursions on wooden vessels. The Delta Queen was given an exemption, but the exemption expired in 2008.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, sponsored the bill to reinstate the exemption. It now goes to the full Senate for approval.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, called the Delta Queen "a national treasure."
"Today, we took an important step toward getting the Delta Queen back in full operation, and allowing more Americans to experience a taste of history along the Mississippi," Blunt said in a statement.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, said the bill "will allow the Delta Queen to serve as far more than an historic landmark and tourist attraction — it'll be a real boon to jobs and economic expansion in Jefferson County."
The Delta Queen began operation in 1927. Over the years, tens of thousands of people have taken cruises on the riverboat along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including three presidents. It also served as a naval ship during World War II. The riverboat is a designated National Historic Landmark.
But the end of the exemption grounded the Delta Queen. It is currently moored in Louisiana, where about $10 million in repairs will be completed once the exemption get final approval, said Cornel Martin, president and CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. After that, it will be moved to its new home in Kimmswick.
Once fixed, the goal is to have the boat cruise not only the Mississippi but its tributaries, visiting up to 80 ports ranging from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, Martin said. The length of cruises will vary from three to 10 days.
Restoration of the riverboat and restarting cruising is expected to create around 170 jobs and generate more than $36 million in annual revenue for the St. Louis area, according to the Jefferson County Economic Development Corp.