Belle of Louisville is a
steamboat owned and operated by the city of Louisville,
Kentucky, and moored at its downtown wharf next to the
Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere during its annual operational
period. Originally named Idlewild, she was built by James
Rees & Sons Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the
West Memphis Packet Company in 1914 and was first put into
service on the Allegheny River. Constructed with an
all-steel superstructure and asphalt main deck, the
steamboat is said to hold the all-time record in her class
for miles traveled, years in operation, and places visited.
Belle of Louisville's offices are aboard Mayor Andrew
Broaddus, also a National Historic Landmark.
History in Detail
Idlewild operated as a passenger ferry between Memphis,
Tennessee, and West Memphis, Arkansas. She also hauled cargo
such as cotton, lumber, and grain. She then came to
Louisville in 1931 and ran trips between the Fontaine Ferry
amusement park near downtown Louisville and Rose Island, a
resort about 14 miles (23 km) upriver from Louisville.
Idlewild operated a regular excursion schedule from 1934
through World War II, during which 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.
In 1947, she was sold to J. Herod Gorsage, and honoring the
death-bed wish of Master Ben Winters, long time captain of
Idlewild, was renamed Avalon. Over the next few years,
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,
By 1962, Avalon had fallen into disrepair, and might have
seen the end of her days, when Jefferson County Judge Marlow
Cook bought her at an auction for $34,000 in hopes of
restoring the city's connection to the waterfront. The
relationship between the city of Louisville and its beloved
waterfront had begun to dwindle over the years due to the
advancement in automobiles and the building of the elevated
I-64 roadway, but the purchase of the steamboat that had a
wealth of history with the city was the perfect solution.
She came to Louisville and was re-christened Belle of
The purchase of Belle of Louisville sparked the beginning of
multiple attempts to reform the relationship between the
city of Louisville and the river on which it was located.
Some of these efforts include the creation of the Belvedere,
an elevated outdoor space that overlooks the Ohio River, and
the nationally recognized Waterfront Park that stretches
along a portion of the river.
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 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 origins.
Captain Clarke "Doc" Hawley, had worked aboard the boat
during her Avalon days. He 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 he 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.
Various of her workings, though not her engine and drive
train, had been stripped and sold in separate lots at
auction, including the boat's original steam calliope.
Volunteers donated materials which could be adapted to use.
Some of them, such as brass steam-powered bilge clearing
pumps known as siphons, were cannibalized from sunken
steamboats 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 photos 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
Although authentic to its core, 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 readying to depart. The new
calliope was built by Morecraft Manufacturing of Peru,
Indiana and installed in 1988. The instrument is a
reproduction of the Nichol instrument that the boat carried
when named Avalon.
The ship's bow was also redesigned by Bates in the late
1960s, to make the boat a better contender in the Great
Steamboat Race: the original, blunter bow at maximum speeds
showed the tendency for waves to break over it.
Career as Belle of Louisville
On April 30, 1963, Belle of Louisville made her first cruise
in a race against the steamboat Delta Queen. That race was
the beginning of an unparalleled river tradition. To this
day, Belle of Louisville and another competing steamboat,
previously 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 Louisville folklore, the race
may be rigged, but insiders insist that cheating is
impossible, because 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, Belle of Louisville is recognized as the oldest river
steamboat in operation, placed on the National Register of
Historic Places in 1972, and designated a National Historic
Landmark in 1989.
The annual Forecastle Festival is one of many examples of
how Belle of Louisville has impacted several events
throughout the city of Louisville. Although the music
festival takes place in mid July in Waterfront Park during
the day carrying over into the late evening, Belle of
Louisville acts as the venue for the after shows and parties
that are specifically for Forecastle VIP ticket holders.
During these after shows and parties, select performers act
as the entertainment as people get to experience the
environment of Louisville from the perspective of the river
while they ride around on Belle of Louisville.
In August 1997, Belle of Louisville was partially sunk at
her 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. Due to
the swift actions of the steamer's crew and other members of
the community, the boat was rescued, repaired, and returned
In February 2007, Mark Doty was named as Belle of
Louisville's captain, replacing Kevin Mullen, who left the
position in November 2006. Doty's official title is "Master
of the Fleet" or "Port Captain".
On October 17, 2009, Belle of Louisville collided with a
dock near Six Mile Island on the Ohio River. Witness
statements report that the accident occurred as she was
making a turnaround about halfway through a cruise. Tugboats
were used to pull her to safety. A Belle of Louisville
official was quoted as saying that the wind had caused her
to hit the dock. It has been reported that one-third of the
paddle wheel's bucket planks were damaged in the collision,
and jockey bar (the main steel arm, which goes across the
aft end of the paddle wheel) was bent. The accident is under
investigation, and damage estimates are unknown. The crew,
however, was able to fix the damage without drydocking. The
damaged bucket planks were replaced from stock held in
On October 18, 2014, Belle of Louisville turned 100 years
old. To celebrate, a 5-day riverboat festival named "The
Belle's Big Birthday Bash" was held in Louisville along
parts of Louisville Waterfront Park. Eight other riverboats
from across the country joined Belle of Louisville to help
celebrate her 100th year on the river. The festival
incorporated cruises, fireworks, riverfront concerts, hot
air balloon glows, and more. The other riverboats attending
the festival included Spirit of Jefferson, Anson Northrup,
Belle of Cincinnati, The Colonel, General Jackson, River
Queen, Spirit of Peoria, and Celebration Belle. This
festival was said to be the largest riverboat gathering that
Louisville has seen in over 100 years. A portion of the
proceeds from The Belle's Big Birthday Bash went toward her
Belle of Louisville in fiction
Belle of Louisville appears as a character (powered by an
artificial intelligence) in Rudy Rucker's 1988 novel
Wetware, which takes place on the Moon and in Louisville in
the year 2031.