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Stately Steamer

Renovated Belle of Louisville
enters 96th season

Rivers Institute plans fall cruises
from Madison, Ind., as part of the the
steamboat’s 2010 season offerings

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

May 2010 Indiana Edition Cover

May 2010
Indiana Edition Cover

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (May 2010) – Mark Doty’s life reads like the pages of a Mark Twain novel: Every day he dons his captain’s hat to navigate slowly down the Ohio River aboard a 96-year-old steamboat, everything around him recalling a more peaceful time. The sound of churning water fills his ears and the sights of the rolling river lay before him as he steers not just any steamboat, but the Belle of Louisville along her designated course.
Doty assumes his role as Head Captain of the Belle as if it were a job made specifically for him. Doty works in what he labeled “a different environment.
“Every day is different; I’m not stuck behind a desk every day.”
Doty anxiously looks forward to the start of the 2010 season, which opens in May – especially after the boat has undergone a significant renovation to add air conditioning to the ballroom deck and other upgrades. Cruises begin Memorial Day Weekend, followed by a season of special events, weddings, dinner and evening events.
Doty has been Head Captain of the Belle since 2007. He was licensed as a Head Captain in 1996, after the city of Louisville had just purchased a second riverboat, the Spirit of Jefferson, for $395,000. He was Head Captain of the Spirit of Jefferson for nine years.
Growing up in Shively, a Louisville suburb, Doty had not even ridden on a boat until July 1981 when he began working on the Belle one year out of high school. “I worked my way through the ranks,” he said.
He basically “grew up on the Belle,” he said. Doty called it a unique opportunity for him just to be able to be in the wheelhouse and steer the steamboat. No modern navigational features are on the Belle except for a radar that was installed last season and two-way radios.
“You have to play the wind and the current all of the time,” Doty said. He accepts the challenge everyday, feeling fortunate to have had the chance to be part of a Louisville legacy.
The Belle of Louisville was built in Pittsburg in 1914 and went by the name the Idlewild. Its well-built frame perched atop a steel hull that only needed five feet of water in which to float.

Belle of Louisville Facts

• Built: James Rees & Sons Co., Pittsburgh, Pa., as Idlewild (1914)
• Maximum Passenger Capacity: 750
• Seasonal Passenger Capacities: May - October 750; November - December 300
• Amenities: Concession stand and bar, dance floor, stage, full on-board sound system, indoor and outdoor seating, air conditioning
• Owned and operated: Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government
• Information: 401 W. River Rd., Louisville, Ky. (502) 574-2992

The Idlewild operated for a time as a passenger ferry between Memphis, Tenn., and West Memphis, Ark. It also carried cotton, lumber and grain over the river passage.
In the 1920s, the Idlewild began “Tramping.” Tramping meant the steamboat traveled from town to town doing excursions from various points along the river. The Idlewild arrived in Louisville in 1931.
The steamboat was chartered by the Rose Island Co. and ran trips between Fountain Ferry amusement park in downtown Louisville and Rose Island, a resort located 14 miles upriver from Louisville.
Throughout World War II, the Idlewild operated on a regular excursion schedule. To serve the war cause, the steamboat was rigged with special equipment needed to push oil barges along the Ohio River. The Idlewild was also used as a floating USO nightclub for troops stationed at military bases along the Mississippi.
By 1947, the Idlewild had been sold to J. Herod Gorsage, who changed the steamboat’s name to the Avalon. In 1949, the Avalon was purchased by a group of Cincinnati-based investors. During the course of the next 13 years, the Avalon became the most widely traveled steamboat in the country, traveling to ports in Nebraska, Minnesota, West Virginia and Tennessee.

Belle of Louisville

Photo by Don Ward

The recently renovated Belle
of Louisville was designated the
2010 Historic Mechanical Engineers
Landmark during an April 23
ceremony organized by the
American Society of Mechanical
Engineers. Below, the Belle sails
past Madison, Ind., during a
rare summertime visit.

The daily grind of constantly working finally took its toll on the steamer. By 1962, the worn-out steamboat was in need of major repairs. The Avalon was put on the auction block where Jefferson County Judge-Executive Marlow Cook bought the steamer with county funds at a price of $34,000. She is currently owned and operated by Louisville Metro Government.
The steamer was christened the Belle of Louisville and underwent many hours of restoration to regain her original 1914 appearance. On April 30, 1963, the Belle tested the waters of the Ohio River in a race against another steamboat, the Delta Queen. This race quickly became a Kentucky Derby tradition.
The Belle of Louisville was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. Since that time, “there has been no exterior change in design to the Belle,” said Belle of Louisville CEO Linda Harris. Her marketing skills led Harris to come on board in the summer of 2005, after having served many years in the hospitality and development field.
“I learned a lot about the mechanical aspects” of a riverboat, said Harris. Although some modern amenities have been added to the Belle of Louisville, its historic character has been preserved. “A lot of the boat is still as pure as it was in 1914.”
Passengers who experience the steamboat seem to enjoy the history of the Belle the best, said Harris. “It’s a laid-back environment of slowly cruising down the Ohio River.”
Harris said the Belle is “very unique.” The steamboat has endeared herself to Louisvillians and visitors alike. The Belle exemplifies the “significance of the river community and how Louisville has developed over the years.”
Plans are being made to celebrate the Belle’s 100th birthday in 2014. “We just formed a Centennial Committee,” Harris said. Comprised of community professionals and knowledgeable individuals, the committee will focus on a varying agenda, which includes events and fundraising. The 100th birthday celebration will be “huge,” according to Harris.

Belle's paddlewheel

Photo courtesy of the Louisville CVB

The Belle’s paddlewheel is one
of its most impressive features.

And fittingly so. By today’s monetary standards, the Belle is priceless, Harris said. “She is such an icon for the city,” especially in terms of marketing. “When she’s gone, there will be no other like her.”
The Belle has been in need of a new air conditioning system “for a very long time,” she said. A loan was worked out with the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau for funding. A new heating system has also been installed.
Hampton-Hilton Hotels provided a $10,000 grant to upgrade fans and lighting, and renovate the Captain’s Suite. The later amenity is available for private bookings. The ballroom ceiling was insulated, as well.
An additional improvement was a glass and mahogany enclosure around the staircases to keep cool and warm air from escaping. “The upgrades make her look tremendous,” said Harris. “She looks more beautiful than she’s ever been.”
On Friday, April 23, the Belle received an award from a national engineering group, The New York-based American Society of Mechanial Engineers, for its recent renovation. During a special ceremony, the group designated the Belle a 2010 Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

Mark Doty

"Every day is different; I’m not stuck behind a desk every day."
– Belle of Louisville Capt. Mark Doty

A future upgrade project that will be considered over the next five years involves the Belle’s steamboilers. Various grants will have to be applied for to help with the upkeep.
The Belle offers many different two-hour public excursion options from Memorial Day through the end of October, which includes family oriented cruises, dances, dinners and sunset cruises. A special cruise opportunity will take place on Oct. 8-9.
The Rivers Institute at Hanover College and the Belle of Louisville have partnered for a unique event that will celebrate the bicentennial of the first successful steamboat voyage, said Marissa Austen, Director of External Relations for The Rivers Institute. Austin said both Hanover and the Belle are trying to get the word out now. “The steamboat era had such a huge impact on our history and our lives today,” she said.
On Friday, Oct. 8, 200 passengers will be able to take a trip from Louisville to Madison, Ind. A same-day dinner cruise is sold out, but evening sight-seeing tour spots are still available. All cruises will have music by local artists, said Austen.
The trip from Louisville to Madison will feature the Rob House Quartet and Sounds of Dixieland. Friday night the Doctors Band will be performing. On Saturday during the re-turn trip from Madison to Louisville, musicians Greg Ziesemer, Kriss Luckett and Rusty Bladen will entertain passengers.
Austen said an educational cruise is in the planning stages for Saturday, Oct. 9, for area children. “The Belle is the last steamboat of its era still functioning. Most steamboats did not last more than four or five years because of dangerous traveling conditions. There’s not much opportunity anymore for children to see such a boat and understand the importance of the era,” she said.

• For more information, visit: www.BelleOfLouisville.org. For more information or to make reservations for the Rivers Institute’s Louisville to Madison cruises in October, call (812) 866-6846 or visit: http://rivers.hanover.edu/.

Back to May 2010 Articles.

 

 

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