On May 1, the Belle of Louisville met the Belle of Cincinnati for the 52nd running of the Kentucky Derby Festival Great Steamboat Race. Spectators of what is sometimes referred to as “The Slowest Two Hours in Sports” have long suspected that the outcome is rigged. But this year, there was no question: Belle of Cincinnati Capt. Alan Bernstein immediately conceded.
It was only fitting, he said, that the Belle of Louisville should be the winner in the year she turns 100.
In October, the Belle of Cincinnati will return to Louisville for a weeklong celebration of the Belle of Louisville’s centennial. Built in 1914, she is the only U.S. steamboat produced during the Great Steamboat Era still in operation. Also expected to join the party are the diesel-powered Spirit of Jefferson, the Belle’s wharf-mate; the River Queen from Cincinnati; the Spirit of Peoria; and the American Queen.
From Oct. 14 to 19, the Festival of Riverboats will feature cruises, boat races, a balloon glow, a bourbon pavilion, a calliope contest, live entertainment and fireworks concentrated at Louisville’s Waterfront Park, as well as a display of towboats. At the same time, a boatload of other exhibits and activities in museums and venues across Louisville and Southern Indiana will pay tribute to this grand old lady that has outlasted and out-paddled any other river steamboat in American history.
“Steamboats made Louisville a gateway to the West,” says Louisville historian and Metro Councilman Tom Owen. “The Belle is a genuine article that reminds us of that romantic era.”
The Belle hasn’t always belonged to Louisville, however. She was built as the Idlewild in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by James Rees & Sons Co. as a coal-fired sternwheeler. She was first used as a ferry while a bridge was being built between Memphis, Tennessee, and West Memphis, Arkansas, according to a timeline provided by the Louisville Waterfront Development Corp., which operates the Belle. For the next decade the Idlewild was used as a day packet, or freight, boat. She also was outfitted for excursions, which would prove to be her salvation.
By the early 1930s, packet work had just about dried up as the railways became the primary means of moving goods. The Idlewild shifted to what was known as tramp excursion work, traveling from town to town to offer short pleasure trips on the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio rivers. During this period, windows, additional passenger seating, an open dance floor, a bandstand on the second deck, and crew accommodations were added.
She served as Louisville’s seasonal excursion boat in 1931 after another boat burned, returned in 1934 and remained in Louisville for seasonal work through World War II. In the offseason, the Idlewild helped with the war effort by towing oil barges by day and serving as a USO nightclub on the Mississippi River by night.
In 1947, the boat was sold to J. Herrod Gorsage, who changed her name to the Avalon the following year. He sold the Avalon to a group of Cincinnati investors in 1949.
Because the Avalon could navigate in just 5 feet of water, she could travel just about every navigable inland waterway in the U.S. — and for the next 12 years she did just that, becoming the most widely traveled river steamboat of her size in the nation.
But by 1962, she was in terrible shape. Unwilling to pay for repairs, the owners decided to scrap her. Fortunately, an enterprising Cincinnati newspaper reporter came up with the idea of putting her up for auction instead. A judge granted a court order to halt her demolition just two days before it was scheduled. The winning bid of $34,000 was placed on May 24, 1962, by Marlow Cook, the Jefferson County, Kentucky, judge executive. He had her towed to Louisville and renamed her the Belle of Louisville for his wife, Nancy, who had been called “the Louisville Belle” by college friends in New York.
By April 30, 1963, the Belle of Louisville was ready to run against the Delta Queen in the first-ever Great Steamboat Race and to resume her career as a seasonal excursion boat. She was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 30, 1989. With her bright red paddlewheel and cheery calliope music, she had become a treasured landmark of Louisville’s waterfront long before that.
On an early morning in August 1997, hundreds of people crowded the wharf to view the unhappy sight of the Belle listing to one side, her stern partially underwater. A valve to a freshwater pipe had been left open overnight, filling her with water. “To Louisvillians,” one observer was quoted as saying, “it’s a lot like the Titanic sinking.”
Happily, the Belle was refloated a week later and put in dry dock at Jeffboat, across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Indiana, for repairs. She was back in business by the following spring, operating just as she did when she was built — powered by steam and driven by a paddlewheel. In fact, “parts of the gizzard of the Belle (her engines) go back to the 1880s,” says Owen, “older than the Belle herself.”
With a top speed of 11 mph, the Belle of Louisville isn’t the fastest means of transportation. But as you stand at the stern, feeling the breeze and watching the paddlewheel churn the river water into foam, there is no quicker way to touch history.
IF YOU GO – Centennial Festival of Riverboats
When: Oct. 14-19, 2014
Tickets and info:
Oct. 14: Opening Ceremony, 5:30 p.m. Rechristening of the Belle of Louisville; dinner cruises; fireworks
Oct. 15: Bourbon Pavilion Grand Opening (remains open daily) Race: Spirit of Jefferson vs. Spirit of Peoria, 4:30 p.m.
Oct. 16: Race: Belle of Louisville vs. Spirit of Peoria, 8 p.m.
Oct. 17: Race: River Queen vs. Spirit of Peoria, 1:30 p.m.; Balloon Glow, 7:30-9 p.m.
Oct. 18: Belle’s Birthday Party, with river parade of all six boats, live music, and fireworks
Oct. 19: Race: Belle of Louisville vs. Belle of Cincinnati and American Queen, 3 p.m.; Boat Race Awards Ceremony
Daily: Cruises, boat races, live music, and entertainment