It was opening night of last October's Cincinnati Reds-Oakland Athletics World Series, and suspense was in the air -- for more than one reason. Not far from Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, the 64-year-old paddle steamer Delta Queen was tied up at the Public Landing, embarking passengers. On the boat's afterdeck, lazing in unseasonable warmth while waiting to sail, we watched the sun set behind nearby Riverfront Stadium, staining the sky first yellow, then red -- the color of the moment.

The Goodyear blimp circled overhead, and red-clad fans were everywhere. "Go Reds," exhorted a banner atop one skyscraper, while another's crown was bathed in scarlet light for the occasion.

The pre-game activity was an exciting backdrop to our trip on the historic stern-wheeler, a five-night odyssey that would take us 470 miles up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh and at the same time transport us back into the nearly vanished era of river travel. We were to discover that this mode of conveyance, once as ordinary as the automobile is today, has its own very particular pleasures.

Our 7 o'clock sailing neared, and the Delta Queen's throaty, spine-tingling whistle suddenly loosed its traditional pre-departure warning. With this, the 285-foot assemblage of wood, steel and history, previously inanimate, began to come alive. The magnificent red paddle wheel slapped lazily at the Ohio's brown waters -- warming up, like the pitchers in the bullpen -- and steam curled from the donkey engine that would hoist the landing stage.

Almost before we knew it, with hardly any fuss, the Delta Queen was backing out into the river. Then, after the soaring whistle's farewell salute of one long blast followed by three short ones, the calliope -- a joyous instrument unique to circuses, carousels and steamboats -- erupted, billowing steam and raining the water condensed in its pipes on a happy group of celebrants clustered aft on the Sun Deck. Not unaware of the significance of the moment, the calliope player struck up a rollicking "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Capt. Gabriel Chengary in the wheelhouse rang down "full ahead" to the engine room, and the churning stern wheel lifted a rolling wake. Everywhere, from the bank and the spidery bridges under which we passed, the red crowds waved. The skyline twinkled, as did the running lights of the pleasure craft in the impromptu flotilla that followed us out of town. With dusk deepening, candy-hued floodlights colored the steam frothing from the calliope's 32 screaming copper whistles.

As the city receded into the distance, we passengers felt like 19th-century nabobs on the brass-railed observation platform of some private railroad car. The calliopist, ever the clever commentator, ended this first concert with a lively rendition of "If They Could See Me Now."

This was not an ordinary sailing, but then the Delta Queen is not an ordinary boat. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989, it's the last of the authentic overnight river steamboats -- and has been for many decades. In its generally small staterooms, most of which front onto open decks, and the classic wood-paneled elegance of its saloons and lounges, it preserves an era of steamboating that goes back well beyond 1927, the year of its launching.

The Delta Queen has a rich and convoluted history. It and the Delta King, its identical running mate (recently restored as a restaurant in Sacramento, Calif.), were already anachronisms when they began daily overnight "packet boat" service -- for the California Transportation Co. on the Sacramento River between Sacramento and San Francisco.

By making the two boats unusually comfortable and elegant, the company hoped for success in an era that had seen the dwindling of passenger transportation on the rivers of America. The boats did succeed, but only briefly, and by the mid-1930s were tied up. After the Navy used the Delta Queen during World War II, primarily to shuttle troops across San Francisco Bay, it was bought in 1946 by Capt. Tom Greene of the Cincinnati-based Greene Line. The following year, with lower decks boxed in wood for safety during the ocean voyage, she was towed 5,260 miles through the Panama Canal to New Orleans, from there continuing under her own steam up the Mississippi and Ohio to Cincinnati -- and finally on to the Dravo shipyard in Pittsburgh for refitting.

When the Delta Queen was buffed up to begin the most famous phase of its career, cruising on the "inland rivers," relatively few changes were made in its basic configuration -- and virtually none has been made since. Those 1947 changes included moving the dining room down to Main Deck (formerly used for automobiles and freight and thus no longer necessary) from amidships on Cabin Deck (where more staterooms and lounge space were added) and equipping the boat with a landing stage.

The addition of this essential and simple appurtenance -- a long, free-floating gangplank (though not called that), suspended forward when the boat is underway, was perhaps the most telling sign that the stern-wheeler would now call the Mississippi River system home. In its West Coast career the Delta Queen "docked" -- came up alongside a pier and made fast -- but now, like all Mississippi steamers through the years, it would "land" at most stops.

That is, it would nose in gently to shore at a diagonal, then drop its stage onto the bank. Often as not, the boat would then be made fast by wrapping mooring lines around a husky, convenient tree trunk -- just as riverboats had done back in Mark Twain's days as a pilot.

By the time that stage had been hoisted from the cobblestone landing and the Delta Queen had made its dramatic dusk departure from Cincinnati last October, we'd already explored the boat from stem to stern, Sun Deck to engine room. The crossroads is the forward lounge on Cabin Deck, an airy, wood-paneled room lined with windows topped by stained-glass clerestories.

The gift shop is here, and the purser's office, with a blackboard for chalking up requests for wake-up calls. (On it, the first morning out, we would find the notation "Reds 7, A's 0. Go, Reds!") From the lounge, steps lead down to the dining room and -- in a graceful, sweeping grand staircase with curved banisters and brass risers -- up to the Texas Deck and Lounge, where drinks are served from a U-shaped bar and a popcorn machine never sleeps.

Astern are most of the top-rated staterooms, which open into a softly lit, well-upholstered saloon -- the epitome of traditional steamboat design. This elegant, cozy space -- consisting of the aft cabin lounge and the Betty Blake Lounge -- has walls lined with steamboat prints and portraits of the Greene family.

The Greene Line was founded in 1890 by Capt. Gordon C. Greene, and its centennial last year prompted a season-long "century of steamboating" celebration by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. (as the Greene Line came to be called in 1973). Portraits of all the Greenes hang there in the saloon, including Capt. Mary Becker Greene, Gordon Greene's wife and a river pilot herself. She lived with her husband aboard the 28 different steamboats that they jointly operated over the years, and stayed on the river another two decades after his death in 1927 with her sons, Tom and Chris.

Main Deck holds the Orleans Dining Room and the engine room. The latter, open at all times to passengers, is the pulsating heart of the vessel, all steam and hot oil and grease and syncopated machinery. Paint shines and polished brass gleams. We particularly liked to drop in on chilly evenings, when the fragrant warmth of steam was especially welcome, and any time the boat was maneuvering -- "locking through," for instance -- so we could watch the engineer respond to the commands rung down from the bridge on the telegraph.

Reputedly, the best coffee aboard is brewed in the engine room -- and offered to passengers by the crew, who really are pleased to have visitors. But other treats for the taste buds are presented in the dining room.

The cuisine aboard is New Orleans-based, slightly spicy, with an emphasis on seafood, but there are plenty of choices at each meal. Portions are ample but not overwhelming, so we could afford to have an appetizer and soup and still enjoy the entree and even dessert. The soups, hallmark of a good kitchen, were excellent and varied from a wonderfully spicy French chowder to a hearty bean and sausage, to a velvety cream of five onions.

For breakfast and lunch there are buffet selections along with choices from the menu. The service was always prompt and friendly.

Of all the Delta Queen's physical attractions, none is more significant than the abundant open decks -- three in all, each of which wraps fully around the vessel. On these decks are chairs and tables for socializing and swings for swinging. We spent countless hours strolling there, watching the huge tows -- bunches of barges lashed together and shoved from behind -- gliding downstream past us, generally loaded with coal; checking out the little river towns that slid slowly by as we advanced at a stately 7 miles per hour; or noting the procedures for negotiating the navigational locks.

Often we'd just stop to stare, mesmerized, at the endlessly churning paddle wheel, listening to the rush and slosh of water it stirred.

Other passengers took advantage of more structured activities. Nadine Louviere, the peripatetic cruise director, organized kite flying, conducted knowledgeable wheelhouse tours and taught Victorian parlor crafts. In addition, the line often brings aboard experts to lecture on pertinent subjects. Our trip was billed as one for fall foliage (though sluggish nature had in fact failed to provide much color), and an urban forester from Cincinnati lectured and led a nature walk.

The best times of all, we thought, were sailings, whether from port or lock. Passengers gathered in the stern under the steam-wreathed pipes of the wailing calliope to wave and listen and, led by Louviere, blow bubbles as onlookers waved from the shore.

Though the chief keyboard artist was Prof. Tom Hook -- like pianists in brothels, all riverboat calliope players are professors -- Louviere played too, and at times Capt. Chengary himself would take his turn with the chirping pipes, particularly when Hook was busy playing Dixieland in the Texas Lounge with the Riverboat Five, the excellent combo led by Louviere's husband, Dave.

The upper Ohio, our route, is perhaps Chengary's favorite stretch in the vast river network the Delta Queen plies each season: the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee. It's his home water, but beyond that he likes its relative intimacy, "the banks close on both sides."

Our ports of call were friendly, small-town and middle-American. In Maysville, Ky., we set out on foot, armed with a map identifying the highlights of the town's historic district. We found Rosemary Clooney's childhood home, unmarked, and Rosemary Clooney Street -- the former Cow Street, one block long. Along the way, a shopkeeper insisted we take her copy of the morning paper when we asked about the details of the previous night's ball game.

Marietta, Ohio, our second port, is home to the excellent Ohio River Museum, within walking distance of the landing. From Wellsburg, W. Va., the third port, we took an overlong bus trip to Wheeling, W. Va., to visit Oglebay Park. But our arrival at Wellsburg had been spectacular, with the sun burning through dense morning fog to reveal the townspeople setting up a flea market to the sounds of a local Dixieland band.

The river itself, though, is best of all, a peaceful but endlessly stimulating kaleidoscope of hills and small towns, of factories and bridges, of businesslike towboats and frivolous pleasure craft. "You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable" on the river, as Huck Finn said of his most famous of all floats. "Other places do feel so cramped up and smothery."

WAYS AND MEANS

The Delta Queen begins its 1991 season -- the second century for the Greene Line and its successor company -- March 16 with a three-night cruise from New Orleans. By the time the boat ties up for the year in that same port Dec. 1, it will have made 50sailings, ranging from three to 12 nights in duration, from eight ports -- New Orleans; Memphis; Cincinnati; Nashville; St. Louis; Pittsburgh; St. Paul, Minn.; and Chattanooga, Tenn. -- on four rivers.

In 1976, the company launched a new steamboat -- a genuine stern-wheeler -- called the Mississippi Queen, which today sails as the elder Queen's running mate on similar itineraries. Much bigger -- about twice the tonnage, and carrying 436 passengers as opposed to 176 -- the new boat offers a somewhat different experience, with more modern amenities but less history. Many of the top-rated cabins have private decks, for instance, but this has sharply curtailed the open public deck space that is such a part of the Delta Queen's charm.

Cabins aboard the Delta Queen in 1991 range from $460 to $1,650 per person, double occupancy, for three-night cruises; and from $1,870 to $6,500 for 12 nights. (If you don't mind being a bit cramped, the minimum-rate cabins -- all outside -- are perfectly acceptable and a great buy.) Fares aboard the Mississippi Queen are similar, though they top out higher because of its luxury suites.

INFORMATION: For information or reservations, call a travel agent or the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. at 800-543-1949.

Karl Zimmermann is a freelance writer in Norwood, N.J.