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The Belle of Louisville Steamboat

Updated on September 15, 2014

The Belle of Louisville

You can still hop on a ship and set sail aboard a small piece of history, the Belle of Louisville is a steamboat owned and operated by the city of Louisville, Kentucky and stationed at its downtown wharf when in operation. Originally called the Idlewild, many experts contend the Belle holds the all-time record in her class for miles traveled, years in operation, and number of sites visited.

Public domain photo courtesy Wikimedia/Bo

Creative Commons photo courtesy Wikimedia/Joe Schneid

Launched in 1914, the Belle of Louisville is the oldest commercial steamboat in operation in the U.S. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1972.

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History and Restoration

The Idlewild operated as a passenger ferry between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas. She also hauled cargo such as grain, cotton, lumber. She then came to Louisville in 1931 and ran trips between downtown Louisville and Rose Island, a resort about 14 miles from Louisville. In 1934, she operated a regular excursion schedule through World War II. During the war, she was outfitted with special equipment to push oil barges along the river. She also served as a floating USO nightclub for troops stationed at military bases along the Mississippi River.

After the war, in 1947, she was sold to J. Herod Gorsage, and the name was changed to Avalon. Over the next few years, the Avalon visited ports all along the Mississippi, Missouri, St. Croix, Illinois, Kanawha, Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. Her many stops included Omaha, Nebraska; Stillwater, Minnesota; Montgomery, West Virginia; and Nashville, Tennessee.

By 1962, the Avalon fell into a state of disrepair, and Jefferson County Judge Marlow Cook bought her at an auction for $34,000. She came to Louisville and was renamed the Belle of Louisville.

The restoration of the boat was supervised by marine architect Alan L. Bates (now Captain Bates), whose book, "Str. Belle of Louisville," (1964) remains a primary source on the history of the boat and the crews who worked on her.

Prior to the auction, the boat's hull had been condemned as unfit by the U. S. Coast Guard: concrete patches had added much weight to the oft-damaged hull, as had generations of accumulated modifications to the decks and fittings within her superstructure. These were stripped and repaired in dry dock or removed by volunteers.

What remained was cleaned, surface prepared, supplied with new finish carpentry, and painted in a style consistent with the boat's early 20th century beginnings.

Of these, Capt. Clarke "Doc" Hawley, who had worked aboard the boat during her Avalon days, had salvaged the brass nameplates from the ends of the two massive cylinders, in order to prevent them from being sold for scrap, and now returned them to the boat. Hawley had also, before the auction, at his own cost hired an assistant to drain the boat's water-filled fittings for winter, so that they would not freeze and burst. This meant that the mechanical restoration of the boat was now possible, at far less cost than had extensive refitting of ruined pipe work been necessary.

Volunteers donated materials which could be adapted to use, some of them, such as brass steam-powered bilge clearing pumps known as "siphons," cannibalized from steamboats sunken long-ago, whose hulls could still be seen and dived at low water. Some missing components were custom-fabricated by local foundries in a style copied from photographs of the boat in her earlier days. The degree of preservation was considerable, and the boat is still piloted with a 19th-century skill set, though now with the assistance of modern communications.

Although authentic, the boat has occasionally seen improvements not part of the original restoration. The compressed-air driven calliope which replaced the missing original proved unsatisfying, and was ultimately replaced with the true steam calliope which the boat uses today, audible for many blocks in the surrounding Downtown Louisville area when the boat is preparing to depart.

Belle of Louisville Cruise

History as the River Belle

On April 30, 1963, the Belle made her first cruise in a race against the Delta Queen steamboat. That race was the beginning of an unparalleled river tradition. To this day, the Belle and another competing steamboat, usually the Delta Queen, still square off every year on the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby in the Kentucky Derby Festival event The Great Steamboat Race.

Thousands of spectators line both sides of the river to watch the race: on the first occasion of the running of the race, attendance exceeded that of the Kentucky Derby the same year. Originally, Kentucky Derby officials were said to be reluctant to accept the steamboat race as part of the Derby celebrations, as in old betting parlance, a "boat race" refers to a horse race with an outcome influenced by dishonest means. According to popular Louisville folklore, the annual race may be rigged, but insiders insist that cheating is impossible, as the race has no rules. The only prizes are bragging rights, and a pair of gilded deer antlers which are mounted above the forecastle of the winning boat.

Today, the Belle is recognized as the oldest river steamboat in operation, being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. A new calliope was placed aboard in 1988, built by Morecraft Manufacturing of Peru, Indiana. The instrument is a reproduction of the Nichol instrument that the boat carried when named Avalon.

In August, 1997, the boat was partially sunk at its moorings; a former crew member of the boat was later convicted of sabotage. The proximate cause of the sinking was flooding of the hull via a city water line left connected to a fitting that led into the boat's hull. Thanks to the swift actions of the steamer's crew and other members of the community, the boat was rescued, repaired, and returned to service.

In February 2007, Mark Doty was named as captain of the "Belle of Louisville" replacing Kevin Mullen who retired in 2006. Doty's official title is "Master of the Fleet" or "Port Captain."

On October 17, 2009 the Belle collided with a dock near Six Mile Island on the Ohio River. Witness statements report that the accident occurred as the Belle was making a turnaround about halfway through a cruise. Tugboats were used to pull the Belle to safety. A Belle official was quoted as saying that the wind had caused the Belle to hit the dock. It has been reported that two-thirds of the paddle wheel's boards were damaged in the collision, and the main steel arm, which goes across the paddle wheel was bent. The accident is under investigation, and damage estimates are unknown.


Photos courtesy Creative Commons and Wikimedia.

Ship's history courtesy Wikipedia

Thoughts on the Belle of Louisville? - Feel free to comment here. Thanks for the visit!

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    • GregoryMoore profile image

      Gregory Moore 5 years ago from Louisville, KY

      I am from Louisville and have ridden on the Belle many times. It is a great time and anyone who visits Louisville has to take a ride.

    • askformore lm profile image

      askformore lm 5 years ago

      Great lens about steamboats! Love the photos!

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 5 years ago

      Ah, such a fabulous part of our country's history!

    • Valdacious profile image

      Valdacious 6 years ago

      I love these old boats they are a floating piece of American history.

    • Phillyfreeze profile image

      Ronald Tucker 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      My first cruise on the majestic Belle of Louisville was in 1968. I was a high school senior and worked Derby weekend for a catering company who was hired by Ashland Oil Company. I have had the opportunity to take many cruises on the Belle since that first saturday in Maymany, many years ago.