Despite his powerful position as head of the Transportation Committee, Rep. Jim Oberstar has been one of the more obscure members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, tucked away as he is in the north country.
For people in the metro, Oberstar's legacy will likely be two things: the light-rail you see, and the riverboats you don't.
Oberstar helped steer millions to Minnesota for light-rail projects, including the soon-to-be-built Central Corridor.
He's also primarily responsible for the disappearance of three big paddlewheelers on the Mississippi River -- the American Queen, the Delta Queen, and the Mississippi Queen. When he became chairman, he refused to let a bill exempting the three from federal law to come to a vote. He considered the paddlewheelers "fire traps," and federal law doesn't allow wooden passenger boats on the river.
So is tonight's reportedly close 8th District race a riverboat referendum? No. The remains of the ships have scattered. Chattanooga got the Delta Queen for a floating hotel, but it's leaking money badly. The Mississippi Queen was sold and sent to a scrapyard. The American Queen is rotting in Beaumont, Texas.
(Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)
Just to avoid misunderstanding: The American Queen is not "rotting" at all but very well maintained by the MARAD and ready to sale. As is the Delta Queen which is being maintained very well, too, and stil able to run as a cruise ship. That makes two great cruise ships for a new cruise line to be formed, hopefully, very soon.
Big Jim Oberstar's legacy will be the removal of the old paddle boats from the Mississippi. It is unlikely any of the old ships will sail again, but an enterprising company will soon launch a much more modest paddle-wheeler that will comply with modern safety measures; surviving Oberstar's obstruction.