A Look Back at the Belle of Louisville’s 100 Year History

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If you’re in Louisville, love our history, and are a fan of steamboats, you may have heard that the Belle of Louisville is turning 100 this year. The city of Louisville is putting on a grand celebration in honor of this iconic piece of Louisville’s past, present, and future. One hundred years is a long time to be rolling, paddlewheel-style, down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and every tributary in between. Here’s a look back into the history about this beautiful steamboat, the Belle of Louisville, a journey that has brought so much pride and heritage to Louisville, Kentucky.

The First 25 Years

The Belle of Louisville was built in 1914 and launched on October 18, 1914 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; she was originally named Idlewild. The Belle made many trips throughout those first 25 years, serving as a ferry boat and a packet boat, carrying cargo and cattle between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas. She ran trips to Rose Island and Fontaine Ferry amusement parks, and spent many years traveling from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and Montana to Pennsylvania.

1940s and 1950s

During WWII, Idlewild served America proudly as a tow boat, pushing oil barges for the war effort. She also provided entertainment for the soldiers and U.S. troops, becoming a nightclub spot for parties. Idlewild was renamed Avalon in 1948 and spend much of her time along the Mississippi River. She was sold to some Cincinnati investors and over a thirteen-year span became the most widely traveled river steamboat in the history of the United States. During those 13 years, she became a tramper steam, which meant she traveled from town to town, playing her calliope and giving excursions that really wore her down. She was nearly at a point of destruction that would have devastated her lasting legend, had it not been for a hopeful soul who rescued her from the scrap heap pile. She is now worth millions.

1960-1989

In 1962, the Avalon was bought by Jefferson County Judge Executive Marlow Cook, and was renamed the Belle of Louisville. For the past 50 years and counting, the Belle of Louisville has docked at the Louisville waterfront and has given Louisvillians and thousands upon thousands of tourists and spectators tours on her grand establishment. On April 30, 1963, a race was born. The first Great Steamboat Race between the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen commenced and has been happening ever since.

The Last 25 Years, and Counting

Since laying claim to the honor of a National Historic Landmark on June 30, 1989, the Belle of Louisville hasn’t rested as the steam continues to rise and her paddlewheel is ever turning, churning the great waters of the Ohio River. She is completely steam-powered and paddle-wheel propelled. The Belle of Louisville is the oldest steamboat of her kind in the United States, and the second oldest in the entire world. Reaching 100 years is truly a monumental milestone, as many steamboats of her caliber only made it three to five years. Because of the extreme care that has gone into the Belle, Marine Architects believe she has another 100 years left in her. The Belle of Louisville is the only remaining steamboat of her era: the 1900s when steamboats were the way of transportation for industrial commerce. Her 100th birthday is truly a testimony to her perseverance and the people who kept her afloat for an entire century. This October, celebrate along with countless others at the Centennial Festival of Riverboats at Waterfront Park in Louisville. Belle’s Big Birthday Bash is October 18; the 5 day festival takes place from October 15-19.

References: BelleofLouisville.org, Linda Harris, CEO Belle of Louisville

Photos courtesy of Jerry Farese and Belle of Louisville  

About Erin Nevitt
Longtime Louisvillian, I am a children's librarian at heart and have a passion for children's lit. I am most recently a stay-at-home mom who is always on the move, searching for family fun in Louisville. If it's free, it's preferable!
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