LOUISVILLE — Later this month, when the Delta Queen riverboat churns into Louisville for what might be the last time, the city is planning a farewell event and preparing for the loss of one of its competitors in the Great Steamboat Race every spring.
"One of the great rites of spring in Louisville is hearing the Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville chug it out on the Ohio River," said Mayor Jerry Abramson. "But, unfortunately, the Queen's great calliope is being silenced."
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The Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville have met on the waters every year since 1963 as part of the Kentucky Derby Festival. With the Delta Queen being grounded, the festival needs to find a new competitor.
Derby Festival officials will "explore all options," said Mark Shallcross, a festival spokesman.
"We do plan to have a race next year, but we have not finalized plans for which vessels might participate," Shallcross told The Courier-Journal.
The fate of the steam-powered riverboat is uncertain because Congress has not exempted the boat from the regulations in the Safety of Life at Sea Act. The exemption has been approved nine times since 1968, but U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., hasn't released the latest bill from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Without a new bill, the boat's exemption from the safety requirements expires Oct. 31. That would shut down the Delta Queen, which has made stops along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers for 82 years.
The 285-foot sternwheeler can carry 174 passengers and 80 crew members. Supporters of the exemption argue that the wooden vessel should never have been included in a law that they say was intended to protect passengers on the high seas.
The possible shutdown of the boat has prompted cities to celebrate its stops this year and some, such as Maysville, to hold rallies in an effort to try to save the boat, which is designated a National Historic Landmark.
A young western Kentucky boy is trying to save the boat with a letter-writing campaign.
Sam Dunn, 11, enjoyed the sights, smells and tastes of an excursion on the Queen on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers between Cincinnati and Paducah just a few weeks ago.
"It makes me want to go back and take a ride on it again, maybe with my kids someday. Maybe I might want to work on it," Sam told the Paducah Sun, noting he is hoping to send his work to Washington within the next week. "It's about a page, page and a half now, so it's getting there."
Sam has sent essays to U.S. Sens. Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell, hoping they will help keep the Queen from permanent drydock.
"You know, I'm just a kid and most people probably don't expect this to have that much of an impact," Sam said. "But, you know, seeing that a younger person is interested in something like this and wants to do this might give it a different angle."
In case the Oct. 24 stop is the last by the Delta Queen before it goes into drydock in New Orleans, Louisville is planning a farewell for the ship.
City spokesman Chris Poynter said a New Orleans-style party being planned by the staff of the Belle and the city is intended to celebrate the long friendship between the Belle and the Delta Queen.
Officials of the two riverboats are expected to exchange gifts, and Abramson and other officials will talk about the two boats and recall memories of the steamboat race.
"This may be the last time they (the Belle and Delta Queen) are ever together, docked side by side," said David Karem, executive director of the Waterfront Development Corp., which oversees the city-owned Belle.