At 5:15 a.m. in the wheelhouse of the Delta Queen, the river’s shadows are so soft that they beg to be touched.
Soon, dawn will arrive with a spongy glow to tell the world, “Here is the sun for another day.”
On watch is Capt. Lisa Streckfus. She repeats the hallowed words of Mark Twain: “One cannot see enough dawns on the river.”
Streckfus beams, her eyes sparkling in the dawn light of Davenport where the Delta Queen recently tied up for a visit. “Here is where I belong,” she says. “I finally landed the job I’ve always wanted — steamboat pilot.”
A woman in a man’s field
There are few of her kind. Rarely are women steamboat captains. One of them is her third cousin, Sister Mary Jo Manthey, who works boats on the lower Mississippi River.
“The river flows in the Streckfus blood — Mary Jo is a Streckfus, too,” she says.
Streckfus is a storied name on the Mississippi River. The family’s roots are in this region, and the family home was in Rock Island for years when Streckfus excursion boats ruled the river with jazz and joy.
I stretch out on the liar’s bench in the wheelhouse. Every steamboat worthy of the name has such a bench, where visiting pilots lounge and lie about the virtues of their boats and their personal abilities in knowing every shoal and snag on the river.
On a shelf behind Streckfus perks a pot of coffee. Every wheelhouse has steaming coffee so strong that a spoon will stand upright in it.
The vision of a steamboat pilot on a grand old steamboat like the Delta Queen is of a stately god-like being with puffy sideburns and a walrus moustache. Those expectancies are shocked to see Capt. Lisa Streckfus in control. She is in neatly pressed white shorts, and there are gold earrings beneath her pixie haircut.
Streckfus has been a captain aboard the Delta Queen for 18 months. Before that, she served on ocean-going vessels and was in command of a cruising gambling boat.
“But this is where I belong,” she says. “Like all the Streckfus family, we are steamboat people.”
From her briefcase she pulls a “baby” picture of herself at the ship’s telegraph, a brassy levered control device that dispatches to the engine room commands such as “stand by” and “stop.”
She is an adorable three-year-old in the wheelhouse of the Steamer Admiral at St. Louis.
Beside her, handling the steering arm for the boat, is her father, Capt. Bill Streckfus. He is semi-retired, but brought the Mississippi Queen to Oneida Landing at the Port of Davenport Oct. 7.
Living with a “friendly” ghost
“You can understand how I ended up on the river,” Streckfus says, fingering a gold initialed ring on her finger.
“In kindergarten, I honestly began learning to read by studying ‘Rules of the Road,’ a riverman’s bible, to know the lights and shapes of the river and such important things as passing on the two-whistle side.”
She twists the ring on her finger as a good luck omen. The initials are J.G., for Jane Greene, the granddaughter of Mary “Ma” Greene, the legendary pilot whose ghost — many are convinced — haunts the Delta Queen.
“Jane gave me her personal ring at the time I became a pilot and captain on the Delta Queen. She intended it to bring good luck to me, and to the boat. I’m thinking that she had the boat in mind, more than me,” she laughs.
Ma Greene piloted the Delta Queen when it was owned by Greene Line. After her death, crew members began seeing her ghost, often sitting in the grand salon.
Passengers soon reported the appearance of a kindly, wispy figure on deck.
The ghost of Ma Greene is a respected myth on the river, and most crew members believe in her. She owned the Delta Queen at one time.
“I’ve never seen her ghost, but I’ve sensed her many times in the pilot house,” she says. “Ma Greene may be right up here today, looking over our shoulders.”
An ideal career
Lisa Streckfus is all-business, commanding the respect of her crew, but she also has a warm, twinkly way. In the wheelhouse — best known to land-lubbers as the pilot house — she smiles a lot.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time I’m smiling. I can’t stand it to spend a day in an office. There is no better life than this, piloting a steamboat,” she says.
“Working the river, there are no crowds, no bustle. It’s easy going. This is the way life should be. I work six hours on, six hours off, for 30 days at a time. After that, 30 days is enough.”
When her 30-day hitch is over, her life is a turnover. She runs a nine-room bed and breakfast — Duneland Beach Inn — nestled on the southern shore of Lake Michigan near the Indiana Dunes.
“I call that my home, but deep down, I know the river is my real home,” she says.
Streckfus stares out the wide windows of the wheelhouse at the brightening dawn. “Where else could I have a front-row seat on the world’s most beautiful sunrises and sunsets?”
But riding a luxury riverboat such as the Delta Queen is not entirely a life on the water.
“I always have my bicycle aboard with me. I’m ready to try the Davenport bike path before we shove off,” she says. “Next to riding on the river, I like riding on a bike.”
Capt. Lisa Streckfus puts her credentials on the line in a short sentence: “I’ve been around boats for a little while.”
As great granddaughter of “commodore” John Streckfus, who founded the Streckfus steamboat line in 1884, she says, “I always knew that I would end up on the waters.”
She graduated from the U.S. States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., with a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering. She then became a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
“I went aboard merchant vessels as a chief engineer, working oceans and waters all over the place — the west coast of Africa, South America,” she says.
“I came on with Delta Queen Steamboat Co. as an engineer aboard the steamboat Mississippi Queen, handling the throttle in the engine room and standing watch in the boiler room.
“It wasn’t an expected place to find a woman. I left the company to get navigation time, sailing aboard the cruising Empress Casino riverboat. I got my master’s license, and then — ah — I was promoted in license to captain,” she says.
Streckfus also watched over the building of a new cruising casino vessel and spent eight years in casino management.
“But you know how it goes with me – I wanted to be back, working the river as a pilot. I took a huge cut in pay to become a captain on the Delta Queen,” she says. “But it’s worth it.”
Streckfus pats the wheelhouse door of the Delta Queen, as if that grand empress of a riverboat is her child.
“Isn’t she lovely? Like a grand dame, she has a mind of her own,” she says.
“But she’s not tough to handle.”
Bill Wundram can be contacted at (563) 383-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.