This is one of the last journeys aboard the steamboat Gordon C. Greene in 1949. The steamboat Delta Queen replaced the older steamboat in the same year. The Greene Line was a line of river steamships along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The name was later changed to Delta Queen Steamboat Company.
1849: The Steamboat Gordon C. Greene heads down the Mississippi for New Orleans.
(Left: Capt. Mary Greene – co-owner of the Greene Line, and for 50 years the only woman pilot on the river. She also was hostess aboard the steamboat) Social History and Steamboat History – A cruise aboard the GORDON C. GREENE in 1949. A steamboat cruise south on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers – from Cincinnati to New Orleans and back – via Cairo, Paducah, Evansville, Memphis, Baton Rouge. Over 61 years ago. When times were much different.
The speed of the boat – was about that of the average of “Low Pressure” boats of Mark Twain’s time. The “Low Pressure” signs on the wheel housing of the Gordon C. Greene guaranteed that the steam would be kept well within the saftery limits.
(Left: When the river was high – the Gordon C. Greene would fold its smokestacks in the middle duck under bridges).
The Gordon C. Greene was built as “Cape Girardeau” at the Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana, in 1923 for the Eagle Packet Company of Saint Louis. Captain William H. Leyhe hired Thomas Dunbar, an eminent riverboat architect, to design and supervise her construction. She was the last packet boat built at the Howard Yard and she was decorated in the old style with a lot of jig-saw drapery, feathered stacks, and a lofty dome on the pilothouse.
A mock “drag” wedding was one of the activities aboard the Gordon C. Greene cruises. The “chapel” is the dining salon of the steamboat.
Like many another steamboats, she was like a bride in that she wore ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’ when she came out. Her engines came from the Ferd Herold, built by the Iowa Machine Works. Her whistles came from another old Eagle packet, the Calhoun. Her hull and cabin were new. Her pilothouse dome gleamed in a coat of shiny blue paint as she entered her St. Louis – Cape Girardeau trade in April, 1924.
(Scenes from a cruise in 1949. Various views of passengers, the dining room, games – from horse-racing to bingo.)
She made history before she even touched the water. When Ed J. Howard died he left the operation of the shipyard in the hands of his two sons, Clyde and James E. Howard. They agreed that it would be best if Clyde ran the office while Captain Jim bossed the yard. The day for the launch came and Clyde Howard went into the yard to supervise the work, much to his brother’s dismay. He made a good job of it, too. Later they met in the office and agreed that one of them should buy out the other. James E. Howard did the buying and ran the firm until the beginning of World War II.
She served the Eagle Packet Company in their various trades, including Mardi Gras trips from 1925 to 1930, getting a taste of the work in which she was to gain undying fame. By 1935 the pinch of the Depression was so severe that the Eagle Packet Company was forced to do some drastic retrenchment, as they could no longer operate two boats (they also owned the much loved Golden Eagle), but over on the Ohio business was improving. Captain Tom Greene had an idea that he could make money with a tourist boat, so he started looking around for a suitable vessel. The Eagle Packet Company proffered the Golden Eagle, but he wanted no part of a wood-hulled boat. As those were desperate times they sold their fine steel-hulled steamer to the Greene Line for $50.000.
This transaction demonstrated the social unity and integrity of river folk when they faced a bad situation. Captain William H. Leyhe tells the story: “We put a price on her that we thought we would never make with her and we arranged for my brother and me to meet with Captain Chris and Tom on the Tom Greene at Louisville. On the way over my brother said to me, ‘I think we should ask for some earnest money in case they don’t take the boat, for we have a good trip in sight.’ I said, ‘Well, if they don’t take the boat, we would not keep the money,’ so we didn’t mention it.
“After the deal was closed Chris said, ‘I guess it is customary to put up some earnest money,’ and inquired how much. My brother said, ‘We will leave that up to you.’ Chris said, ‘Five thousand dollars?’ We said, ‘O.K.’
Capt. Joseph W. Heath, of the Gordon C. Greene, and Capt. Harry Reardon, a tugboat pilot on a busman’s holiday, discuss a favorite subject – the Mississippi.
“All arrangements had been made how she was to be paid for and when they would send their men to take her over. Captain Mary Greene was sitting up with us and when my brother and I got up to leave Mrs. Greene said, ‘Boys, you will get your money,’ and we did.”
The Gordon C. Greene lands at Paducah, Ky – the home of Southern Humorist IRVIN S. COBB…
In 1936 Captain Tom Greene added a second texas to better accommodate passengers and in 1937 altered it again. The result was to make her less pleasing aesthetically, but more attractive from a revenue standpoint, as these were the choicest rooms on the boat. Along with these changes the names of various decks were revised as a move toward better public relations.
Passengers attended Easter Sunday services in Cairo Ill, while on the Gordon C. Greene cruise.
The boiler deck became the ‘cabin’ deck, thus ending unpleasant connotations of heat and explosion, and the Texas Deck became the ‘sun’ deck. To everyone’s mild amazement, she caught on. People began to come from all over the nation to take long trips on our rivers from Cincinnati to Charleston, West Virginia, New Orleans, Louisiana, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and even to Saint Paul, Minnesota, at prices ranging as high as $275.00 per person!
The Head Waiter and Pantryman prepare the evening meals. The Gordon C. Greene was known for its abundant American and Southern cuisine.
(Left: First mate gives orders) A peculiar manifestation of our time was expressed by nearly everyone who’ rode her: “The first day on that boat I thought I’d go crazy! There was absolutely nothing to do. But after the second day I found myself enjoying, for the first time in my adult life, the luxury of doing nothing.” Entertainment on board was homespun, of the audience participation type, such as bingo, square dancing, and amateur acts by members of the crew. After seven to twenty one days of this each passenger felt like a member of the Greene Family.
Aboard the steamboat – and the deckplan.
(Left: The $10.00 a day plus cruise)
The boat proved to be a paragon of dependability and seemed to acquire a personal pride in her status as queen of the rivers. Various improvements were made from time to time such as converting to oil firing (the coal bunker became a club room) and enclosing the entire cabin deck with wood and glass, and she began to lose her youthful figure. Other boats seemed to resent her high and respected position and one of them even poked her snoot in a fit of pique near Louisville.
She appeared in the famous movies “Steamboat around the Bend”, “Gone with the Wind” and “The Kentuckean”.
In 1946 Captain Tom Greene had an idea, and with him an idea was practically a reality. He wanted to bring the Delta Queen around from Sacramento to the Mississippi, and so he did. On June 30, 1948, the Gordon C. Greene was deposed as the ruler of the rivers by the larger boat. She was placed in Upper Mississippi River tourist service, but this blow seemed to ruin the old girl’s morale. She began to have the most unaccountable difficulties, even breaking her wheel shaft, and began to miss scheduled trips. Her retirement came in 1951.
The Gordon C. Greene was replaced by the Delta Queen.
In 1952 she was sold to Portsmouth (OH) and used as a hotel under the name “Sarah Lee”, in 1955 she was renamed “The Sternwheeler” and used as restaurant and museum at Owensboro (KY). Some time she also spent a period of time as a floating restaurant at Tampa (FL). In 1960 converted to a theatre, bar and tourist attraction at New Orleans (LA). 1961 sold to Hannibal (MO) for $49,100 and renamed to “River Queen”. 1964 moved to St. Louis (MO) and used as restaurant.
HISTORY OF THE GREENE LINE STEAMBOATS…
Greene Line Steamers originated as a family-owned and operated business established by Captain Gordon C. Greene and his wife, Captain Mary Greene. After working his way from deck hand to captain, Gordon Greene purchased his first steamboat with his own savings in 1890. The last years of the 19th century and first years of the 20th were prosperous for steamship lines, and the Greenes purchased several “packet” steamers which carried both passengers and freight. Their riverboats traveled on the Ohio River from the port at Cincinnati to Charleston, Pittsburgh, and other ports along the way, transporting agricultural products to the west and general goods to the east.
In the 1920’s the railroads came to dominate freight transport, and many packet steamer companies folded. Greene Line Steamers, however, survived by building modern steamships which could carry more freight, by capitalizing on shorter trade routes, as well as by initiating passenger pleasure cruises. Though the business of pleasure cruising stalled during the Great Depression, the Greene Line’s freight business endured. Greene Line Steamers directed a fleet of 26 steamboats when Captain Tom Greene, son and successor of Gordon Greene, purchased the Delta Queen in 1946.
Since its inaugural voyage on June 1, 1927, the Delta Queen has become “legendary” as the last original overnight paddlewheel steamboat in full operation. Captain A.E. Anderson, head of the California Transportation Company (CTC), had reportedly defied conventional wisdom when he built the Delta Queen and its twin, the Delta King. They were the largest, most extravagant sternwheel riverboats of their time, built at a cost of $1 million each. A crystal chandelier, stained-glass windows, and a grand staircase with accents of Honduran mahogany and bronze filigree were just some of the adornments to grace the Delta Queen. Though river transportation was in decline, CTC successfully operated both boats on the Sacramento River, offering “Luxury and Comfort Afloat” on overnight passages between San Francisco and Sacramento.
After some years out of service during the Great Depression, the Delta Queen and Delta King were leased to the U.S. Navy in the late 1930’s for barracks, for naval training and, later, to be used to transport men wounded at Pearl Harbor from oceangoing vessels to military hospitals in San Francisco. After extensive electrical and mechanical maintenance and a coat of navy gray paint, the steamboats provided general ferry transportation between naval bases in the San Francisco Bay area. When World War II ended, the Delta Queen and Delta King were sent to the mothball fleet. Tom Greene purchased the Delta Queen from the Maritime Commission with a bid of $46,250. (Another company bid higher for the Delta King, which eventually became a floating conference center in Sacramento.)
Tom Greene’s vision to place the Delta Queen into operation on the Mississippi River faced many challenges. To transport the flat-bottomed boat without damage over rough ocean waters–from northern California, along the coast of Mexico, through the Panama Canal to New Orleans–the Delta Queen would have to be towed. Most of the mechanical parts were dismantled and wood planks were mounted on the external framework of the first two decks to protect the ship’s interior. The Delta Queen arrived safely in New Orleans on May 19, 1947, after a month-long voyage. With the steamboat’s paddlewheel reinstalled and its steam engine realigned, the Delta Queen powered itself to the Dravo Shipyard in Pittsburgh for a complete refurbishment and overhaul. On June 30, 1948, the Delta Queen made its inaugural voyage under the banner of Greene Line Steamers from its port at Cincinnati.
A variety of problems beset Greene Line Steamers in the following years. The company had incurred a large debt from the $750,000 renovation of the Delta Queen, while competition from the trucking industry reduced freight rates, exacerbating the company’s financial difficulties. Frequent engine problems on the Delta Queen were also a hindrance. The company eventually purchased internal mechanical components from the owner of the Delta King for use as replacement parts, including the paddlewheel shaft which was replaced in 1980.
The premature death of Tom Greene in 1950 placed his wife Letha in charge of the company. To stay in business, Greene Line Steamers eventually sold all of the boats in its fleet except for the Delta Queen, including family namesakes, the Chris Greene, the Tom Greene, and the Gordon C. Greene. In 1958, without funds to market the company for the next steamboating season, Letha Greene decided to fold the company and put the Delta Queen up for auction.
The fate of the Delta Queen and Greene Line Steamers changed unexpectedly with the involvement of Richard Simonton. Letha Greene had returned this man’s check for a reservation in early 1958 with a letter explaining that the company was going out of business. Simonton had relished a steamboat trip with his family the previous season and was disappointed to learn of the company’s imminent demise. Simonton rescued the company with a $25,000 loan, a $25,000 stock purchase, and the assumption of $70,000 of the company’s debt. His friend E. Jay Quinby was named chairman of the board, with the primary responsibility for publicizing the company.
Quinby purchased an antique calliope, a steam-pipe organ, and installed it on the Delta Queen, making it the centerpiece of his efforts to promote steamboating. Quinby played the calliope for passengers as well as to attract the attention of the people in the shore towns who could hear the music as the paddlewheel boat traveled along the Mississippi River. Dressed in vintage clothing, Quinby traveled in advance of the Delta Queen to distribute old-style handbills and to promote the riverboat to the local media. Quinby’s formula successfully increased passenger bookings so that by 1962 the company’s mortgage and other debts were paid in full.
However, new legislation in 1966, the Safety of Life at Sea Law (SOLAS), threatened the Delta Queen’s existence as an overnight passenger ship. The law was enacted to prevent the risk of fire danger on overnight vessels carrying 50 or more passengers; the wooden superstructure of the Delta Queen was considered unsafe under the law. Two consecutive two-year exemptions were granted, but the company did not have funds to build an all-steel replacement. Overseas National Airways (ONA) purchased Greene Line Steamers in 1969 with the intention of building a new steamboat.
At the same time, company president Bill Muster and publicist Betty Blake continued the fight to maintain the Delta Queen’s presence on the Mississippi River by securing it a place on the Register of Historic Places in 1970. They fought for permanent exemption from SOLAS based on the Delta Queen’s perfect safety record, its on-board fire safety devices and the fact that it was not on ocean-going vessel but was always in sight of land. Public officials in support of a permanent exemption from the law included members of Congress, governors and other government officials in the cities and states along the Mississippi River. Public outcry to preserve the Delta Queen and river steamboating heritage included thousands of signatures on petitions to “Save the Queen.”
All was to no avail, however, and a final voyage was planned for October 1970. Publicity by Muster and Blake attracted large crowds to watch the Delta Queen’s final passage on the Mississippi River. This public support won the Delta Queen an exemption to 1973 after a rider was placed on unrelated legislation and by-passed the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. (Exemption status continued to be renewed; in 1998 it was extended to 2008.)
The 1970’s brought many changes to Greene Line Steamers. No longer a family-owned and -operated business, in 1973 the company changed its name to the Delta Queen Steamboat Company (DQSC) in honor of the Delta Queen. Under financial duress due to another renovation of the Delta Queen, new boat construction, and problems at ONA, the DQSC was sold to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York in 1973, and Betty Blake became president.
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