Interview with Jerry Sutphin, Expert Aboard the Delta Queen Steamboat

by Jennifer Ciotta

Gerald W. Sutphin has taken his passion of steam boating to an incredible level.  Involved in a variety of river projects since opening his company, Visual Information, Ltd, in 1982, Jerry has written and co-produced a series of short films about modern river operations for the Smithsonian Institution.  This permanent exhibition is now a part of the Maritime Section in The Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  Over the past ten years, Jerry has become a staple on the Delta Queen steamboat, making presentations and acting as the on-board program coordinator.  Currently, he has produced a video history of the Delta Queen named Tested By Time To Become An American Legend: The Steamboat Delta Queen.

Literary Traveler caught up with Jerry, while on land, and asked him about his experiences aboard the world-famous steamboat.

Literary Traveler: We are offering our readers a Mark Twain Steamboat tour (run by the National Trust) down the Mississippi River in July 2007.  Please tell us about your first encounter with the Delta Queen and/or steam boating?  How did you develop this passion?

Jerry Sutphin: My interest in the river and steam boating began while I was employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Huntington, West Virginia.  Although it is the Army, it is one of the few, if not the only, branch in the military with a civil works program that started in the 1800s, which is entirely water-resource management.  I went to work there after coming out of the military, as a civilian employee, in the public relations office.  My interest developed from that point because I ran across some photographs of steamboats which intrigued me and I began to learn more about them.  The next thing I knew, I was deeply involved in the river history and steamboats.

I also have an art degree and minor in journalism, therefore, the art and beauty of the boats had a real draw.

As a child growing up in southern West Virginia, I always loved the water.  The only overnight passenger-carrying steamboat on American waterways was the Delta Queen, and it came by Huntington, where my home is.  I would make a point to find out its schedule and go down to the riverfront to meet the boat.  That is how I primarily became involved with the Delta Queen.  My first real ride on the boat consisted of my friend, who worked for a local television station at the time, and I took a trip upriver about twelve to fourteen miles from Huntington, videotaping the boat and interviewing passengers.   A little later, my good friends Captain C.W. Stoll and his wife Lucy invited my wife and me to go on a trip from St. Louis to St. Paul, the opposite of your trip.  This was my first overnight passage on the Delta Queen.

LT: Tell us about your first tour.

JS:I remember it so vividly.  There were seventeen people on the boat.  It was smothering hot in St. Louis.  That night as we headed upriver, we encountered a huge thunderstorm but it was absolutely beautiful from the river point of view.  And the more interesting part, it broke the heat and for the remainder of the trip on the upper Mississippi River, the weather was just beautiful.   Those who take this particular trip will find that the St. Louis to St. Paul scenery is breathtaking.  The water is blue, I’m talking sky blue, and the current is very slow.  And the little communities and towns along the way are just really pretty to see and go to.

It will be a wonderful trip for your tour-goers as it was for me.

I loved the late afternoon or late evening sunsets, which has always been my favorite time on the river.  It’s just unbelievable.  Travelers will see a lot of pleasure boaters and wildlife.  I can remember telling my wife clearly as we were sitting on deck late one evening and the sun was beginning to set, and the water had been so blue that day, and a great blue heron had flown across the front of the boat and I said, “This is about as close to heaven as you’ll ever get riding upriver on a steamboat with wildlife flying by.”  It was really a great trip, we enjoyed the boat and the people on board the boat, they were so accommodating and the dining room set was unreal.  It’s something you don’t forget.

LT: To date how many steamboat tours have you taken on the Delta Queen or down the Mississippi?

JS:  That is very difficult to say since there have been so many.  Over the past ten years I have been on the Delta Queen either doing or being a part of programs.

LT: What would you tell tour-goers is the most surprising thing about steam boating down the Mississippi?

JS: It changes your life.  You come off a jet plane, you land and you get on the interstate going seventy miles per hours, and you come into the landing.  Then you get off the bus or taxi, and you go on board the boat and all of sudden you step back in time.  It’s not that the boat doesn’t have all the amenities or isn’t up-to-date.  When the boat leaves the landing, you’re running at nine miles per hour.  For many people it is difficult to realize that life goes on at this very pleasant pace.  In fact, three years ago, my college roommate, who was an engineer, came on board and he just wasn’t sure if he was going to like this at all.  He had to have his cell phone and all.  Well, the second day aboard the Delta Queen, he turned his cell phone off and left it off for the remainder of the trip because he began to enjoy himself so much.  It’s a very relaxing thing to do.  You really get to see the beauty of America from the river.  You make stops at the quaint little towns along the way that are historically significant, and the people there really do welcome passengers.  On the boat, they feed you from daylight to dark and well after that.  The last surprising thing is the number of repeat passengers.  I’ve met passengers who it is their 80th or 100th trip on the Delta Queen.

LT: What are your favorite stops and why?

JS: Galena is a beautiful, little town.  It’s not right on the Mississippi; they’ll go off the river.  It has small, narrow streets and has a charm about it that’s quite unique.  Dubuque they will love.  It is a very nice town that has done a great deal to improve their riverfront and also to create the Mississippi River Museum, which has a marina, aquarium, and museum.  Of course, Hannibal is Mark Twain’s hometown, and you can go on shore and take a tour of his home, but there are also things in that town which you can visit.  You have an opportunity to see how the rest of America lives.

LT: Tell us about the nightlife aboard the Delta Queen?

JS: Everyday they have a program at night.  They have two seatings for dinner–early and late.  After dinner they will have a show, which is musically-oriented, usually a group or individual performing.  It could be a comedy, historical or musical act.  After that there is a band on board which plays until midnight, and you are able to dance.  Around eleven o’clock, there is a moonlight buffet.  The longer the cruise goes on, the more people will talk about the food.  One night is chocolate night, another is Mexican; they change the theme of the moonlight buffet as well.  The Mark Twain Bar is up on the second deck.  But the best thing to do in the evening hours is to walk the deck.  You can feel the ambience of the river around you, and everything that goes with it.  You can be alone or with someone you’re really fond of, and that makes it that much better.

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