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Getting on U.S. list of endangered places could help save Delta Queen

CINCINNATI — She's tied next to her sister on a dock south of New Orleans, where she wears a "For Sale" sign.

Federal law now bans the Delta Queen from earning her keep by taking passengers on overnight river cruises. But the grand old steamboat with the words, "Delta Queen, Port of Cincinnati," emblazoned on her stern could get a new lease on life by steaming onto a high-profile endangered list.

Every year at this time, the National Trust for Historic Preservation solicits nominations for its annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This year, the Delta Queen has been nominated.

But, just being nominated doesn't mean the boat will land in the top 11. Supporters of the nation's last steamboat, with a wood superstructure capable of carrying 176 overnight passengers, need to second that nomination.

The Delta Queen's nomination came from Don Clare, an emergency room nurse and historian from Rabbit Hash, Ky. As a member of the Boone County Historic Preservation Review Board, he is schooled in the art of saving America's heritage. He is also a fan of the steamboat that turns 82 this year.

"I've been on 20 trips on the Delta Queen," Clare said. "It's an American icon like the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore. It is one of a kind. When it's gone, it's gone."

In his nomination, Clare notes the boat's place in history and its current predicament.

The Delta Queen is a National Historic Landmark, along with the Statue of Liberty and 2,424 other shrines of American history.

The 1966 Safety at Sea Act outlawed steamboats with wooden superstructures from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers. A congressional exemption allowed the Delta Queen to carry 176. The exemption expired Oct. 31.

With no exemption, the boat's owners say, hauling 50 overnight passengers would not keep the Delta Queen financially afloat.

So, the regal boat sits down river from New Orleans. She is tied next to her younger sister, the Mississippi Queen. The newer boat, Clare said, is being dismantled.

"For the Delta Queen, this amounts to demolition by neglect," Clare said. "Mold and mildew are going to set in. This boat needs to be running, carrying overnight passengers to stay alive. That's why I nominated the Delta Queen for the endangered list."

When the trust began the list in 1988, the intent was to make it a top-10 lineup.

"But there were so many worthy candidates, we usually get around 60 nominations a year, the jury was deadlocked at 11," said Peter Brink, a senior vice-president of the federally founded and privately funded trust. "So it has been 11 ever since."

To make the endangered list, sites must meet three criteria: historical significance; urgently threatened; possible solutions.

"There is no doubt, the Delta Queen is historically significant, and it is threatened," Brink said.

As for solving the problem, he feels the list "would shine the light of publicity on the boat's plight and serve as a wake-up call that America could lose a vital link to its past that cannot be replaced."

Clare's nomination pleased Vicki Webster, the Cincinnati-based leader of the Save the Delta Queen Campaign.

"This is a great opportunity to call nationwide attention to saving the Delta Queen," Webster said.

Clare believes there is only one way to save the steamboat. And, it does not involve turning it into a dockside hotel or a floating casino.

"For the Delta Queen to be kept alive," he said, "someone has to buy it and use it as it's meant to be used, carrying passengers on overnight cruises on rivers in the heart of America."