When the three sister steamboats – the Delta Queen, the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen – stopped cruising, Karen “Toots” Maloy not only lost her beloved job, she also lost a piece of her heart.
“I didn’t quit the Delta Queen and she didn’t quit me,” Toots said. “It was Majestic America Line. I thought the Delta Queen would outlast me, I really did.”
As “riverlorian” – a historian specializing in the nation’s rivers and riverboats – Toots had worked the queens for 33 years. She knew every nook and cranny of the boats, the rivers and the towns along them. It was her life.
She had no idea her river journey was about to come to an end. “I really didn’t expect it,” she said. “We had heard rumors but I really didn’t think it would happen.”
When the ships’ owners ran into financial problems, the three popular boats were grounded. In 2008, the Delta Queen lost her exemption from the Safety at Sea Act, a 1966 law prohibiting wooden vessels from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers. Congress needed to provide an exemption for the boat, but that never materialized.
“It didn’t need to happen,” Toots said. “We didn’t just lose a vessel. We lost a way of life and, with just a stroke of a pen, it could have been saved.”
The magnificent Mississippi Queen was scrapped for junk in 2011. And the youngest sister, the American Queen, was pulled from the rivers. “For the first time since 1811,” Toots said, “there were no overnight steamships on America’s rivers.”
Not only did the three Queens have loyal cruisers who would return again and again, the boats were a major economic boost for riverboat stops and were an important home-away-from-home for its many crew members. “Do you realize how many of us met our spouses on the boats?” Toots asked. “I met my husband (banjo player Mike Gentry) on the boat.”
With the loss of her cruise job, Toots retreated to her cabin outside of Everton, Arkansas. To occupy her time and earn a living, Toots turned to a hobby she had started on the boats. “I made cards and decided to take my handcrafted designs to the local farmers market.”
Soon she branched out and began creating her own jewelry, which proved to be even more successful. Called “Out of Sync Designs,” each piece of her jewelry tells its own story through the use of natural gemstones, vintage buttons, crystals, pearls and other elements of nature.
Then – out of the blue – Toots got a phone call that made her soul sing. “I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled,” she said. “I was so happy that I can’t even put it into words.”
The American Queen had been bought by a new company and was going to begin cruising again in April. Toots was asked if she wanted to be a guest lecturer on the cruises. Silly question. With her wealth of information, Toots is a popular speaker. On my cruise, the Grand Saloon was packed for her afternoon program on “Flatboat to Steamboat.”
Toots’s handcrafted jewelry is carried in the ship’s gift shop as is her book “The River: More Your Friend and Less of a Stranger.”
“My jewelry has been selling so much that I can’t keep up with making it,” she said with a happy smile.
Seeing the American Queen once again cruising is a dream come true. “We have to thank those people with vision for doing this,” Toots said. “It’s like my heart has been given an extra beat. I can’t thank them enough.”
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch