A ride on the Belle

I’m guessing that deep down most history lovers crave occasional moments where they feel they’ve stepped into a time machine. I think reenactors call it a history rush. So when you give several hundred history geeks (the ones that get paid minimal salaries to preserve the past and educate the public) this opportunity, there is mass euphoria. I suppose a little bourbon punch helps, too.

I was recently in Louisville, Kentucky for the American Association for State and Local History annual conference. One evening event was held at Locust Grove, the restored home of William Clark’s (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) sister. We dined on delicious Kentucky foods and drank bourbon punch.  It was a fun evening, but as the sun set, the excitement grew. The conference organizers and our amazing Kentucky hosts had added a bonus to the evening.

belle of louisville photo

courtesy of Pam Pettengell

We disembarked from our bus onto a grassy area at the Ohio River’s edge. There in front of us, in it’s riverboat splendor was the Belle of Louisville, the oldest river WP_001504steamboat in operation in the world. Its lights beckoned and its steam calliope’s shrill notes cut through the air.  I stopped to greet my friend Kent, the key organizer of this trip. He was giddy with excitement. The calliope began to play Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” and the Kentuckians in the vicinity paused with hands over their hearts. Soon, the signal to board was given and I walked up the gangplank ready to cruise into history.

Originally named the Idlewild, the boat has a storied past. Built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1914, it was designed to be a ferry and freight boat, for mostly day trips. She began service on the Allegheny River. Her huge paddle wheel and 5 foot draft made it able to travel most navigable waterways. Soon she was navigating many of the major rivers in the nation.  However, by 1962 she had fallen into major disrepair and her hull had been condemned by the U.S. Coast Guard.  A Kentucky judge bought her at auction for $34,000, brought her back to Louisville and rechristened her the Belle of Louisville. After extensive restoration, she was ready to cruise again. In 1963 she raced against the famous Delta Queen in the first Great Steamboat Race (the Queen won that one).

220px-BelleOfLouisvilleThe whistle blasted and the crew heaved the large ropes that had tied the boat to trees on the bank. This was not a usual landing site for the boat.  We would be cruising down river to Louisville. Soon the large paddlewheel began slapping the water and we were gaining speed. There were no ladies in hoopskirts or gamblers with a cigar hanging out of their mouth (wrong era anyway). There were also no flappers or jazz musicians, or big bands. All would have ridden on the boat at some point, but this night belonged to the hundreds of historians giddy with delight. Some roamed the boat, some planted themselves on a bench, soaking in the narration broadcast throughout the boat. Some went down to the engine room to marvel at the pistons and vast underbelly of the boat. Others plotted how they might see the pilot house and ship’s wheel, supposedly off limits to passengers. Truth be told, I was one who ended up in the pilot house, gazing in awe at the huge wheel. It was just as I’d imagined.

WP_001512We cruised down the quiet river under bridges and toward the lights of Louisville. Too soon the boat was pulling into her dock and the trip was over. My history geek friends and I had had our history rush and most agreed it was the highlight of the week.

My coworker Pam and her husband were fond of riverboat cruises and had taken several overnight trips on the Delta Queen before it was retired from service. She had wonderful stories from her travels on the rivers of America and this taste of the riverboat life had added fuel to my desire to some day book a tour on a steamboat and experience this distant era when steamboats were a common sight on America’s waters.

Fun photo timeline of the Belle’s history.

Video of the Belle’s engine

Video of the Belle leaving river’s edge

Video of the Belle’s calliope

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: timgrove.net - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: grovehistoryconsulting.com I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at tim@grovehistoryconsulting.com or authortimgrove@gmail.com
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