It's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. Late tonight, the Delta Queen will leave Memphis for a cruise down the Mississippi River. The paddlewheel has navigated the nation's water ways since 1926. But this voyage is different. It may be the Delta Queen's final commercial trip. For the past four decades, Congress has granted safety exemptions for the wooden vessel, and that last exemption runs out today. Candice Ludlow of member station WKNO sent this story from Memphis.

CANDICE LUDLOW: The Delta Queen may be the Taj Mahal of paddlewheel steamboats.

(Soundbite of steamboat horn)

LUDLOW: Its calliope plays during most port visits, the vessel has ornate crystal chandeliers, curved dark, teek interior and splashed with brass and rich carpet throughout. Gabriel Chengary knows the ship well. He lived and worked on it for 40 years.

Mr. GABRIEL CHENGARY (Former Employee, Delta Queen): And I think it was Mark Twain that once said it's as though you're on a steamboat and you stand on the deck and it's as though the boat is not moving at all, that the shorelines are doing the moving. And you're standing on the deck and you're watching a never-ending panorama, of just God's beauty all up and down the inland water ways.

LUDLOW: Several hundred people gathered along the banks of the Mississippi River at its Memphis stop. They were quiet as if at a funeral. Candy Crosnowe came to say goodbye to a part of her family's past. Her father captained the paddlewheel before it left California in the 1940s.

Ms. CANDY CROSNOWE: That boat is original. It has a meaning to it. It gives the river a meaning.

LUDLOW: In 1966, Congress passed the Safety of Life at Sea Act, which banned overnight passengers on large wooden boats because of fire concerns. But Congress granted an exemption for the Delta Queen and extended it several times. Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar contends it's a fire hazard and as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he has worked to prevent another exemption. Vicki Webster heads the group called Save the Delta Queen. She says the steel-hulled vessel with the elaborate wooden superstructure is safe.

Ms. VICKI WEBSTER (Save the Delta Queen): The Delta Queen has up-to-the-minute fire detection and suppression equipment - sprinklers, fire detectors, smoke detectors, heat detectors. If you take a shower and you don't close the door before you come out to your stateroom, the heat alarm sounds.

LUDLOW: Ohio Congressman Steve Chabot says the issue is not about safety. It's about a non-union crew. The Seafarers International Union had represented the Delta Queen's workers until a new owner bought the vessel and removed the union. The union and Congressman Oberstar denied that has anything to do with it. Chabot says he hopes Congress will reverse course when it reconvenes in January.

Representative STEVE CHABOT (Republican, Ohio): You know, we've been working now for almost two years on it and we're going to continue to fight the battle until we get the exemption.

LUDLOW: Back along the Mississippi River, Dale Loshier(ph) is frustrated. She says the Delta Queen is a piece of living history and she made a farewell wreath to say goodbye.

Ms. DALE LOSHIER(ph) (Painter, Memphis): One of my sketches was about Delta Queen back in high school in the 60s. I've even painted pictures of it. In fact, I have two pictures of the Delta Queen right now in my car.

(Soundbite of steamboat horn)

LUDLOW: The Delta Queen leaves for New Orleans tonight where it will dock and see if it can win another Congressional reprieve. Its backers hope they will so they can continue to carry passengers on a historic paddle wheeler, which is now a rarity on American water ways. For NPR News, I'm Candice Ludlow in Memphis.

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