Jim Blum says there’s something special—almost human—about a real steamboat. And to Blum, no steamboat is more special than the Delta Queen.
Blum was finishing his junior year at the University in 1968 when he saw a bulletin-board ad for a summer job on the Queen. He applied and enjoyed it so much that he came back for another summer after graduation in 1969, with an eye toward returning to Xavier for graduate school in the fall. “The summer turned into a longer stretch,” he says. “I guess I got bit by the river bug.”
Blum started working in the boat’s purser’s office and “hanging around the pilothouse as much as I could.” After five years, he left the Delta Queen for a job piloting the steamboat Admiral, where he met his wife Annie. He spent a year on the Belle of Louisville and then returned to St. Louis to work in the towing business.
But the Queen kept calling him back. Blum returned to the boat, eventually spending five years as her master, or captain, a run broken only by a brief stint as master of the Mississippi Queen. In 1992, Blum left the pilot’s house in the face of shifting ownership and changing philosophies and took his current job as a civilian in the U.S. Coast Guard’s St. Louis licensing office.
These days, the federal Safety at Sea Act and her own wooden decks threaten the Queen’s life as an overnight cruise ship, and Blum’s government job precludes joining the campaign for her exemption. But he is cheering from the sidelines, perhaps still smelling traces of the fire and the oil that make her special.
“The Delta Queen is very unique,” he says. “It’s all real. It’s not Disneyland.”