CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) -- Banished from America's waterways as a cruise vessel, the 82-year-old sternwheel steamboat Delta Queen arrived Wednesday in Chattanooga to become a floating hotel and lounge on the Tennessee River.
Hundreds of people turned out under gray skies for a welcome ceremony and some were allowed aboard the 285 foot-long Queen that in October lost its exemption to operate overnight river cruises for up to 176 passengers. Due to fire safety concerns, federal law prohibits such boats from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers.
With smokestacks 57 feet high and its steam-powered organ tooting tunes such as "Rocky Top"-the University of Tennessee fight song -- 13-year-old Donna Ann Byrtus of Chattanooga said she had never seen such a sight.
"I just think it's really cool," she said. "I wonder if like any movie stars have been on it."
The owners, Ambassadors International Inc., have chartered the mostly-wooden vessel to Chattanooga Water Taxi owner Harry Phillips while they attempt to find a buyer to again operate it for overnight cruises. The company said in a statement that the Queen is the last of the traditional steamboats to carry overnight guests on inland waterways.
Vessel historian Bill Wiemuth said actress Helen Hayes was a passenger many times and former President Jimmy Carter was a passenger as he campaigned for re-election in 1976.
Don Clemens, 55, of Chattanooga said Wednesday while standing on Chattanooga's redeveloped riverfront that seeing the Queen brought back memories of watching the boat when he was growing up in Cincinnati.
"I used to watch them run up and down the river when I was a kid," said Clemens, a U.S. Navy retiree. "I am thrilled it is coming here. I've never been on it. I sat on the bank and watched it go by. They would have the steam boat races. It was fun just to see the big old thing and listen to the calliope."
Chattanooga fire marshal Craig Haney said the boat, which itself has a history of service in the Navy, has sprinkler and fire alarm systems and will be thoroughly inspected before the planned opening of the 87 cabins, lounge and kitchen at Coolidge Park Landing in April.
The floating hotel will be managed by Sydney Slome, owner of Chattanooga's StoneFort Inn. Historically-themed tours, jazz brunches and entertainment including riverboat gambler card magic acts are planned.
The Delta Queen arrived from New Orleans. It once ran up and down the Mississippi River and docked in Cincinnati. The boat is a National Historic Landmark and a registered historic treasure of the Department of the Interior and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
A twin vessel also completed in 1927, the Delta King, is permanently moored in Sacramento, Calif., as a hotel and restaurant.
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