By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Passengers of the Delta Queen know this: To ride it is to step back in time.
They know at least 90 percent of the steamboat is just as it was in 1926, when it was built.
They know the dining room floor is still the original, as is the Tiffany stained glass in the windows.
They know a vacation can be as simple as a game of chess while drifting down the river.
This is a boat with luxury prices - as much as $1,566 per person for a three-day, two-night trek from today's Tall Stacks celebration to Madison, Ind., and Louisville.
Yet the amenities seem anything but luxurious. The rooms are simple with only enough room for basic beds, a toilet and shower. There's no television. No phone. No radio.
But that's what keeps the folks coming back.
"You go back 150 years as soon as you set foot on this boat," said Glenn Scharp, 78, of Lubbock, Texas.
Scharp and his wife, Gwen, have made 26 trips on the Delta Queen - enough times to instinctively pause every time the boat blows her haunting and distinctive whistle.
The Scharps have a simple routine when they're on the water. They relax on the bow, read a little and scour maps of the area they are drifting past.
"Sitting there is like being on the front porch of America," he said. "It's an adventure to see everything on both sides. It's a different perspective."
The river cruises are most popular with an older, often retired crowd - mostly history buffs. "All of your other cruise lines take you away from America," said Karen "Toots" Maloy, riverlorian for the boat. "We put you right in the heart of it.
"It's like a field trip. Guests can touch and see everything, not just read about it in books."
For those who want to see this country off the beaten path, there's no better place than the river, said Maloy.
"The river tells a new story every day, but also holds onto the old ones that are so near and dear to us," she said.
Beyond that, people are willing to pay big prices for these domestic cruises because the Delta Queen is a significant piece of Americana itself. As a National Historic Landmark, the boat is oldest overnight steam-driven paddle wheeler on the river.
Originally based in the Sacramento River, the Delta Queen was used during World War II to transport military personnel. Since 1948, the boat has traveled the Mississippi and Ohio rivers as the only authentic overnight, fully restored steamboat in the world. It even serves as a U.S. Post Office.
The Delta Queen has also been host to such celebrities as former president Jimmy Carter and actress Helen Hayes.
"We always say we might not be for everyone, but I can't imagine us not being for every American," Maloy said. "This is America."
The boat is owned by the same company that operates the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen. However, there are details that make this boat distinctively different from other vessels.
There's the elaborate staircase, which was rebuilt three times before the architect was satisfied. There's brass everywhere that gleams like slick ice. And hanging from the ceiling are glimmering chandeliers - the crystals are polished individually during routine maintenance.
"Other boats may be the grand hotels, but we're the bed and breakfast," said Annie Lebeaux, an entertainer on the craft, as she admired the dark wood of the lounge. "There's an intimacy here."
Guests are welcome to tour the engine room, where the pistons, pipes and parts chug and huff and fire off steam with every rotation of the paddlewheel.
The Queen's sister boat - the Delta King - is a dry-docked restaurant in Sacramento. Its engine has been gutted and the parts stored, just in case the Queen ever needs repair.
"What's interesting is that this boat is 78 years old and still moves like clockwork," said Alex Heuay, 29, an oiler/fireman. "It's like a floating museum down here."
Beyond the history and majesty of the steamboat, there's something a little more difficult to articulate about it - a sense of family.
It can be seen when cabin attendant Herman Robinson, 30, pauses briefly to play a board game with one of the passengers. It's obvious when Maloy jumps to help a guest open a heavy door.
It's even common among the guests, like Woody and Janice Brundage of San Diego, who have found comfort in the cradling mahogany of the boat.
The two have made 16 Delta Queen cruises - and plan to keep making more. They wear their repeat customer pins proudly. They keep in touch with other passengers who have become old friends. They greet staff members with hugs.
"The whole boat feels like an extended family to us," Janice said. "Every time I step on here, it's like I'm coming home again."
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