Big Wheel Cease from Turnin’


The steamboat Delta Queen is a well-known and much-loved vessel. Built in 1926, she is 285 feet long, with a steel hull, powered by two steam engines of 2000HP each. She was originally used for passenger service between San Francisco and Sacramento. After being refurbished in 1945, she began service on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and has operated in that role ever since. Thousands of Americans have enjoyed river cruising on the Delta Queen.

Not any more, though. Delta Queen made her last passenger voyage in 2008, and is now tied up as a hotel in Chattanooga. The end of passenger service is not due to any structural or mechanical problems with the vessel, nor is it due to the difficult economy. Rather, the demise of the Delta Queen says a great deal–not much of it very encouraging–about the political and cultural environment now existing in this country.

Delta Queen has long operated under an exemption to the Safety of Life at Sea convention, known as SOLAS. (Technically, SOLAS only applies to international voyages; however, the Safety at Sea Act (P.L. 89-777) requires SOLAS compliance for vessels with overnight accomodations for 50 or more passengers.) Although Delta Queen is a steel-hulled vessel, its wooden superstructure meant that it was out of compliance with the convention.

The exemption from SOLAS was not unreasonable. Delta Queen did not operate “at sea,” it operated on rivers–never more than a mile or so from shore. It is outfitted with sprinklers and with fire sensors, and with fire-retardant paint, and maintained a 24-hour fire watch and emergency response team.

The exemption has been extended multiple times since 1971. What’s different now? According to a 2007 article:

But (the parent company of the ship’s owner) says the real issue is opposition from the Seafarers International Union, which represented most of the steamboat’s employees until last year. At that time, Majestic bought the Delta Queen and two other riverboats for $40 million and forced the union off the boats.

Joseph McCarthy, general counsel for Ambassadors International, said the company had offered to let the union back on the Delta Queen in return for the union’s support for the exemption, but the union would not budge unless it was welcomed back onto all seven of Majestic’s boats.

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee indignantly denies that his opposition to the exemption has anything to do with this labor dispute, and says his views are entirely motivated by safety consideration. Indeed, this Congressman has (rather hysterically, in my view) implied that the operation of the Delta Queen risks a disaster comparable to the General Slocum tragedy of 1904. Five minutes of analysis should be sufficient to show the lameness of this comparison.

A serious analysis of safety would have to consider the fact that people who have been forbidden from cruising on the Delta Queen are probably not spending their vacation time at home in bed. Rather, they are pursuing alternative activities–many of which will involve travel in automobiles. Is a week-long cruise on the Delta Queen more dangerous than a week spent on a driving vacation? It seems most unlikely. No human activities are absolutely risk-free…but riverboating on a well-managed and well-equipped vessel is probably one of the safest things a person can do.

It’s also important to note that–unlike an airliner or a ferryboat–trips on the Delta Queen were planned well in advance, giving passengers time to do their own evaluations of safety considerations and make their own decisions.

I am often reminded, these days, of a passage from Walter Miller’s great novel A Canticle for Leibowitz:

To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.

Americans crossed the ocean in sailing vessels and primitive steamships, without GPS or depth-sounders and even–throughout most of the great era of immigration–without radios. When their decendents are forbidden from traveling on the Delta Queen, the worship of safety has reached to point of idolatry, and the spirit of human freedom is being contemptuously disregarded.

I’m pretty sure, though, that the safety issues would have been overcome and the exemption issued IF there had been a sufficiently large, vocal, and well-funded group of voters lobbying on the ship’s behalf.

With ever-more-pervasive government domination of all spheres of life, and the crushing of the spirit of independence among many Americans, I fear that we’ve entered an era in which nothing will be permitted to exist unless it serves the needs/desires of powerful interest groups.

More information about the Delta Queen here…and here is information about the campaign to save her as a working vessel.

(name of Leibowitz author corrected)

20 thoughts on “Big Wheel Cease from Turnin’”

  1. duuh…can’t believe I did that. Walter Miller, to be sure, and Leibowitz is a book that is well worth reading. Although categorized as “science fiction,” it is really “philosophical fiction” or even “theological fiction.”

  2. David, is it of a kind with Stanislaw Lem? Then I’m putting W.Miller on my reading list.

    A great post. One of the “strange things Americans say” is the social custom to wish a “safe trip”, “safe vacation” or even “a safe ride”, in circumstances that do not imply anything particularly dangerous. Once a coworker shared her plans for a weekend – she was going to drive 1.5hrs to a family country house for a “clan reunion”. Hearing another coworker wishing her a safe weekend brought to mind hot-blooded family feuds, pistols smoking, knives flashing – among dense forest foliage filled with hungry bears and wolves. In reality they are nothing like that, despite their Italian name: architects, doctors, librarians with one firefighter exception.
    Same unhealthy adherence to “safety first” (and quite surprising in the nation of pioneers) is displayed when someone’s wished “a safe vacation”, which is not to be spent in African safari or in the hills of Afghanistan but in Disneyland. Hell, our subways at night are more dangerous!

  3. Tatyana, I haven’t read Lem, so can’t compare the writers. “A Canticle for Leibowitz” takes place in the aftermath of a nuclear war…the surviving population, believing that the pursuit of knowledge led to the disaster, burns books, kills scientists, and generally destroys what is left of civilization. The title character, an electrical engineer, converts to Catholicism and founds a monastery dedicated to the preservation of human knowledge in the new Dark Ages.

  4. The sad demise of the Delta Queen is a story close to my heart because it and I called Cincinnati home for a long time. I have a lot of great memories of the Queen, and it’s passing onto retirement in the hotel business in Chatanooga is a great loss to the culture of the Ohio and Mississippi River valley.

    The bigger story, I believe, is what this has to say about our elected leadership. The utter lack of principles among this crowd is breathtaking. I don’t see this as much different from Congress rushing to force GM to keep every dealership in their district open – the greater good of GM and its stakeholders is of no concern to the typical Congressman compared to keeping a local contributor happy. I read recently that there are 88 different Congressional and Senatorial committees asserting oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, virtually shutting down DHS’ ability to make decisions, or to initiate improvements. Actually assuring national security not as important as the political value of telling the folks back home that the Congressman has played a critical role in assuring national security.

    Congress has been the home of small-time lawyers and sleazy operators since its inception, so it is no real surprise that Congressman Oberstar, a hack from Minnesota, sold out for $5,000 from the Seafarer’s Union. He is a poster boy for why Congress has a 30% approval rating (which is actually high for them in recent years). But the Senate is supposed to be where true Statesmen actually looked out for our long term interests. That is far from the case today.

    The downhill road from the ridge in Italy where Senator Inouye won the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945, to the bottom of the Washington barrel where he sells out the culture and heritage of the Ohion and Mississippi River valleys for a lousy $1,000 contribution from the Seafarers Union is tragic. He is among the last of the ‘greatest generation’ and had the power with a stroke of the pen to avert this, but 47 years in the Senate apparently sapped him of even the litle bit of fortitude it took to do so.

  5. Tatyana,

    I’ve only read Lem’s Cyberiad, and the English translation at that, so I don’t have a very broad picture of him as an author. I’ve never thought of that book as particularly similar to Miller’s, but I very much enjoyed both Cyberiad and Canticle, so I suspect you would too. As a matter of fact, I think I want to reread them both now.

    It’s been a while since I read the Walter Miller work, but I remember that its tone reminded me very much of Ray Bradbury, in the vein of Fahrenheit 451, with maybe a dash of Kurt Vonnegut thrown in.

  6. Miller ≠ Lem, though both were obviously immensely talented. I’ve read only Canticle, though it represents much of Miller’s output, the first section of the book having been assembled from several of his short stories; and (most of) Lem’s The Futurological Congress and Tales of Pirx the Pilot. The key experience of Miller’s life seems to have been participating in the air raid that destroyed Monte Cassino.

  7. Miller and Lem don’t really have much in common, besides writing about deep thoughts. Lem is far more humorous and wide ranging, I think. Miller is quite dark. Both are well worth reading, though.

  8. Those of you who still want a great riverboat experience should head for the Amazon, where riverboat travel is alive and well, even on its tributaries like the Madeira River, which is as large as the Mississippi.

    There are regularly scheduled trips from Belém to Manáus, from Manáus to Porto Velho, from Manáus to Iquitos, and many more that are unscheduled.

    The food is OK, the weather is great, the people are fantastic and the booze and travel are cheap. There is no excuse for putting up with Amerikan control of your life when you can find freedom in Manáus.

    An added benefit is that children there are not attended by helicopter dads and soccer moms; they are as free to explore as we Amerikans were at 10 years old with that long-forgotten freedom of the 50s. Moms and Dads of Amerika: rearing a child here is a form of child abuse.

  9. Thank you, David, Setbit, Jay and John.
    Setbit: Fahrenheit 451 immediately came to my mind, too, after David’s description. With the difference in plot that the depository for collected world literature/knowledge @ Bradbury are the minds of living people and return to verbal tale-telling tradition. Syberiada: I know somebody in the blogosphere whose nickname is Trurle. It’s like a password “for the initiated”…

    Jay: I had a crush on Pirx the Pilot when I was 13!
    And I love the Highcastle – I had a chance to follow his routes around the city; was especially exciting to place the correct (Polish) street names into place, at the time it was considered “unpatriotic”, at best.

    David, sorry for this diversion.

  10. Lem = awesome. So many styles. Chicagoboyz might appreciate a brief passage I recall — I think it was in the Cyberiad — about the structure of a robot society. Traditionally, the robots were arranged in series, so each worked very hard to maintain his voltage. Then some robot got the bright idea to wire everyone in parallel so that all the robots would light up with the same bright potential. But when it was done, each robot decided, “Why should I work so hard when I can receive the same voltage while my neighbor does all the work?” Thereupon the robot society collapsed, and the instigator was tormented by his fellows.

    I presume Lem must have had to get this passage by some low-voltage censors in 1967 Poland. (Is this right Tatyana?)

  11. Few people give any thought to how the real-world political process manages the power given to it in the name of “safety” or “the children.” In this case, we have a well intentioned grant of power to the state intended to insure that American ships don’t suffer the kind of tragedies that we see routinely in other parts of the world. I’ll bet the original legislation passed without to much controversy.

    If you had told the supporters that down the road corrupt politicians would use this well intentioned power to punish their political enemies and reward their friends, you would have been scoffed at. Yet, here we are.

    People don’t understand the concept of emergent oppression. Hmmm. I feel a post coming on.

  12. The title of my post is of course a play on a line from John Fogarty’s 1969 song Proud Mary:

    “Big wheel keep on turnin'”

    The song begins:

    “Left a good job in the city
    Working for the man every night and day”

    The whole late-1960s thing was motivated largely by the feeling on the part of many young people that their individual freedom would be unacceptably circumscribed by middle-class roles–“working for the man.”

    Ironically, today’s “progressive” political movement–a direct descendent of 60s activism–is now circumscribing individual freedom, tightly, directly, and perhaps irreversably.

    Fogarty’s character had the option to quit his job and stop working for “the man,” or at least find another “man” to work for. In the world now being prepared for us, “the man” will have you in his grip, whoever you are and whatever you’re doing.

  13. David: “Revolutions end up eating their children”. The more radical the revolution, the more oppressive it becomes, opposite to its stated original goals.
    It has been like that at least from the times of Paris Commune.

  14. Also, be sure to read this. It’s about what’s being done to children’s books–in bookstores, secondhand shops, and libraries–due to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. (Link from Bookworm, who has a discussion)

    The implication in the WashPost article that the only thing wrong with the CPSIA is “one small part of the law” is ridiculous–although grievous harm is being done to books, greivous harm is being done in many other areas as well. “Reporting” like this is a primary reason why I no longer subscribe to the WP.

  15. “….one small part of the law…”

    Such a statement brings to mind certain others about equally small, inconsequential things, such as: “For want of a nail…” etc. It’s ALWAYS the fine print, the “minor” detail stuff, isn’t it? Admittedly always “minor” stuff indeed, but equally ALWAYS with MAJOR consequences. Especially for the unwary in a society of 1000 page pieces of legislation and a basically functionally illiterate polity.

    BTW, have fond memories of the Delta Queen also. I was working as a security guard in New Orleans when in grad school there 73-76. One of my various details was as gangway guard when the DQ was in port tied up at the foot of the French Quarter. The galley crew served us GREAT food on board down in the kitchen galley crews quarters as an unofficial, “off-the-books” fringe benefit. Fond memories indeed. Plus got the “Cooks Tour” (pun intended–apologies to Sir Thomas) of the whole boat. A nice experience overall.

    The entire affair is a total shame and, as only one of many representative cultural weather vanes indicating the direction this country’s sociopolitical wind is blowing, is highly disspiriting insofar as it seems to confirm all the others as to the velocity at which we are currently circling the proverbial drain of history as a free people.

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