By Kathy Cummings
In 1811 Indians still roamed the Ohio River. The War of 1812 was still a year away. James Madison was elected president. Louisville was still more commonly referred to as “The Falls of the Ohio”.
And upon this scene entered an unbelievable site - the first steamboat docked at the wharf in Louisville. It must have been an amazing thing to behold. The dawn of the steamboat age was to change the face of the country.
The first steamboat was actually built in 1787 by John Fitch. But it was Robert Fulton who is best remembered for the first trip on the Hudson River in 1807.
Although river travel had always been important - it was one way travel. The flatboats had come downriver bringing settlers by the thousands. Once into the western territory they dismantled their boats and used the wood to begin building. For to pole back up river was an overwhelming task.
And now steaming into America’s inland waterways came a new form of transportation. In addition to hauling goods the steamboats became common transportation for folks along the rivers. Overnight steamboat travel took on an aura all it’s own. From the sound of the steam played calliope the floating palaces would steam into the river towns - up and down stopping at major cities and private landings. In every era that the steamboats traveled they brought an unrivaled excitement to those waiting on shore.
And now in 2008 - part of that river lore is coming to an end. The Delta Queen, a steamboat built in 1926 is being forced off of the river. For the last 80 years she has plied the Ohio, the Cumberland and the Mississippi Rivers with overnite guests.
Since 1966 the Delta Queen has received an exemption from the law limiting overnite passengers on wooden vessels. This law was enacted after an ocean going vessel burned at sea. (The Delta Queen actually has a steel hull but the remainder is wooden.)
Never out of site of land on the inland waterways - The Delta Queen has been fitted with every safety measure possible and had never had a safety violation. She is a registered historic treasure of the Department of the Interior and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is a National Historic Landmark and also a member of the National Maritime Hall of Fame. Now in what some see as a political move her exemption has not been renewed. A piece of history is coming to an end. The excitement of standing on the wharf, listening to the calliope music and watching the passengers disembark is over.