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Save the Queen

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By Dimitri Vassilaros
Friday, May 2, 2008

Congress is on the verge of scuttling the Delta Queen. But Pittsburghers can do something to help this historic paddle-wheel steamboat remain afloat. A lot of things, actually.

Built in 1926 on the Clyde River in Scotland and refitted in 1947 in Pittsburgh by Dravo Corp., the Delta Queen is a registered historic treasure of the Department of the Interior and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a National Historic Landmark, and a member of the National Maritime Hall of Fame. It's the last original paddle-wheel steamboat offering overnight cruises.

The Delta Queen has a steel hull and a wooden top structure that includes 87 charming staterooms with sprinklers and other fire-prevention and -suppression features. And let's not forget the calliope, a big treat for passengers and residents at its many ports of call.

Including Pittsburgh.

Since 1968, Congress has authorized fire-safety exemptions from an arbitrary law prohibiting vessels with wooden superstructures from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers.

The Delta Queen always has passed its fire inspections with flying colors, says Vicki Webster, a 1969 Duquesne University grad raised in White Oak and now living downriver in Cincinnati who heads the Save the Delta Queen Campaign.

Without that exemption, the Queen can't earn her keep. Alas, in what clearly seems to be a sop to Big Labor, the Democrat-controlled House Transportation Committee is bottling up the vessel's exemption.

Some think Democrats oppose another waiver because current ownership did not accept the collective bargaining contract with the Seafarers International Union when the company bought the Delta Queen.

"This remains more a labor issue than anything to do with safety and efforts will continue to keep the Delta Queen a working, living piece of American history," says Jeff Urbanchuk, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

In a written statement, the union takes exception:

"Despite occasional newspaper reports and Internet chatter to the contrary, the SIU no longer has any stake in the Delta Queen and is not involved in efforts concerning the proposed waiver extension.

"Although many SIU members and their families were a critical part of the vessel's success for more than 30 years, the union does not have a contract with Majestic America Line -- not for the Delta Queen, nor any other Majestic vessel."

The House Rules Committee last week rejected a vote on a bill to renew the Queen's exemption. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, has another bill to save her (with 30 co-sponsors, including 12 Democrats) floating around the House.

To its credit, Webster's group and other defenders of the Delta Queen are rallying their forces to put pressure on the House and Senate to stop this outrageous abuse of power by Big Government.

A Save the Delta Queen rally will be in Cincinnati on Monday. And a Pittsburgh rally will be at 5 p.m. on May 10, where she docks, perhaps for the last time, when she comes to the 'Burgh at the North Shore Riverfront Park, near the Fort Duquesne Bridge by the water steps fountain.

Come one, come all. Save the Queen!

Webster has about 10,000 signatures on petitions to save this grand piece of Americana. With enough outraged calls, letters, faxes and e-mails to each member of Congress, the Delta Queen still may be allowed to reign.

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