The steamboat now known as the Belle of Louisville first floated on the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh. She was built there by James Rees & Sons Company for the West Memphis Packet Company in 1914. Her original name was the Idlewild, and her sturdy, well-built frame sat atop a steel hull that needed only five feet of water to float. Such a shallow draft allowed her passage on practically every navigable waterway in the country - a feature she has used to its full advantage throughout her remarkable life.
The Idlewild operated as a passenger ferry between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas. She also hauled cargo like cotton, lumber, and grain.
During the 1920's the Idlewild took on a "tramp's" life. "Tramping" was the term used when steamboats traveled from town to town doing excursions from various points along a river. The Idlewild tramped the Ohio, Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri River systems.
Chartered by the Rose Island Company, the Idlewild arrived at Louisville in 1931. She ran trips that season between Fontaine Ferry amusement park near downtown Louisville and Rose Island, a resort about 14 miles upriver from Louisville.
In 1934, the Idlewild returned to Louisville and operated a regular excursion schedule through World War Two. She did her duty like everyone else during the war. The Idlewild was outfitted with special equipment to push oil barges along the river. But she wasn't all work and no play. The steamboat also served as a floating USO nightclub for troops stationed at military bases along the Mississippi.
The Avalon Era
In 1947, the Idlewild was sold to J. Herod Gorsage, and her name was changed to the Avalon the following year. The name change had been the deathbed wish of the boat's master, Captain Ben Winters, whose career had started aboard a different steamboat called the Avalon.
A group of investors based in Cincinnati bought the Avalon in 1949. Over the next 13 years, she became the most widely traveled river steamer in the country. The Avalon pulled into 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.
But by 1962, the Avalon was a sorry sight. In desperate need of major repairs and improvements, the boat was literally days away from the scrap yard when an auctioneer offered to put the doomed steamboat on the auction block. Her salvation came from Kentucky. At the auction, Jefferson County Judge/Executive Marlow Cook offered the highest bid. He bought the boat for $34,000 with county funds.
The Belle of Louisville
Along with her new life on the Louisville waterfront came a new name - the Belle of Louisville. Many hours went into repairing and restoring the boat. She needed a tremendous amount of time and attention before being suitable for passengers again.
With their annual race, the Belle and the Delta Queen keep a unique river tradition alive.
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. The Belle and the Queen still square off every year on the Wednesday before the Derby.
Although some citizens opposed the purchase of the boat in 1962, the Belle quickly endeared herself to the area. She not only belongs to this community, she is also a beloved member of it.
The Belle is now recognized as the oldest river steamboat still in operation. She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989, and celebrated her 88th birthday in 2002. The Belle continues to be owned by Jefferson County, KY but has been operated most recently under contract by Hornblower Marine Services of New Albany, IN.
No other river steamboat in American history has lasted as long, been to as many places, or traveled as many miles as the Belle of Louisville. Her name and outward appearance have changed over the years, but her steam-powered soul and structure are pure turn-of-the-century paddlewheeler. She can't wait to welcome you aboard!
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|This page last updated January 17, 2006 .|