The Belle of Louisville, still riverboating in the 21st century

The Belle of Louisville is the nation’s oldest steamboat still in operation today.

The Belle of Louisville has been a staple of the metro Louisville area since making it’s maiden voyage in 1963 but did you know that the Belle has served many purposes since it’s construction in 1914? The Belle has a rich and fascinating history and has actually changed names three times in it’s 106 year life. I was recently near this unique place where America’s past meets it’s present and thought that it would be a perfect time to research this one of a kind vessel.

  • The Belle of Louisville was originally constructed in 1914.
  • The Belle of Louisville was initially a ferry in Memphis and was named Idlewild.
  • In 1931, Idlewild would ferry passengers between downtown, Fountain Ferry amusement park and the nearby Rose Island.
  • In 1947, Idlewild was renamed The Avalon and transported passengers and cargo along many of America’s vital waterways.
  • In 1962, Louisville Judge Marlow Cook purchased The Avalon for $34,000, but the boat was in disrepair and deemed unsafe for the water.
  • After many repairs the Belle of Louisville took it’s maiden voyage on April 30, 1963.
  • Today the Belle of Louisville is the nation’s oldest steamboat in operation.

Construction and early usage

The large wheel of paddles coupled with the boats steam engine propel the boat slowly along the river at an average speed of eight miles per hour.

The Belle was initially commissioned in 1914 by the West Memphis Packet Company and was originally named Idlewild. At the time the ferry business was huge along the rivers and waterways in the nations South and Midwest. Idlewild served as a ferry between Memphis Tennessee and West Memphis Arkansas for over 15 years until 1931.

Idlewild comes to Louisville

Part of the docking structure where the Belle of Louisville sits today looking north up the river.

In 1931 the growing city of Louisville was in need of a Ferry to transport passengers to and from the popular Fountain Ferry theme park as well as transport the locals to the once bustling Rose Island resort, 14 miles up the Ohio River.

Fountain Ferry Park

Fountain Ferry was a theme park in Louisville’s west end that was a huge attraction in it’s time. The park had rides and attractions including four wooden rollercoasters that were constructed over the parks life. Fountain Ferry Park was in operation for over 50 years from 1906 to 1969. Some of the parks more popular attractions were it’s swimming pool, skating rink and movie theater. The park was located right up against the Ohio river in the cities northwest corner on over 60 acres of land. A perfect spot for the Idlewild ferry to drop off and pick up passengers traveling between the park and downtown Louisville.

Rose Island

Rose Island was a beautiful amusement park that used to be located in Charlestown Indiana, about 14 miles upstream from the city of Louisville Kentucky. The parks history dates back to the 1880’s when the area was known as Fern Grove. The park was unique in that it was located on a large peninsula in the middle of the Ohio River. The area was purchased in 1923 by David Rose and he quickly commissioned a resort on the land. Rose added an amusement park, hotel and a pool to an area that was already known for it’s pristine beauty and it attracted tourists from around the region. The only thing missing now was ways to transport the masses back and forth, so several ferry’s were soon commissioned. One would ferry patrons back and forth between Cincinnati and the island. Another back and forth from Madison Indiana. The third boat was the Idlewild out of Louisville. At the time a round trip ticket on the Idlewild to Rose Island was 50 cents and the average trip took around 90 minutes due to the boats limited speed capabilities.

Idlewild continued to ferry passengers and supplies through World War 2 and was even outfitted with special hardware so she could help with transporting oil barges along the way. Idlewild even briefly served a floating nightclub for soldiers stationed along the Mississippi river during the war.

The Avalon

In 1947 Idlewild was sold to J. Herod Gorsage and at the request of the ships longtime captain Ben Winters the vessel was renamed the Avalon. Over the better part of the next 15 years the Avalon would transport supplies and passengers along many of the nations major waterways including the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers.

The Belle of Louisville is Born

Far right is the Spirit of Jefferson, a much smaller boat that also offers rides along the waterfront. Center is the Belle of Louisville and far left the docked structure which serves administrative purposes.

By 1962 the old steamboat was in major need of repair. The nearly 50 years of modifications and making trips up and down America’s rivers had taken a toll on the old boat. The U.S. Coastguard actually deemed the Avalon unfit for service due to issues with the ships bow. But Louisville Judge Marlow Cook saw potential in the Avalon and paid $34,000 dollars for it, hoping to pitch the idea of using the boat as an attraction to the city.

First the boat would need several major repairs. Over the years of service many modifications had been made to the original to structure as the boat changed uses. This paired with deteriorating machinery added weight to the point where the boat was no longer able to operate safely. Cook hired Marine Architect Alan Bates to repair and restore the boat to it’s original state. This required placing the newly named Belle of Louisville in a dry dock for a period of time to strip the boat of all of it’s modifications and repair the deck and hull.

A view looking to the north along the Ohio River. Today, this is the part of the Ohio River that the Belle of Louisville regularly navigates on tours and special events.

On April 30th, 1963 the Belle of Louisville made it maiden voyage along the Ohio River as a participant in the Great Steamboat Race. A race that to this day still takes place late in April along Louisville’s waterfront as part of the Kentucky Derby festivities. The Belle of Louisville has served the Louisville community almost continuously since the extensive restoration work was done in the early 60’s. Today the boat operates seasonally and tours along the river that include meals are offered several times per day. The boat also offers V.I.P. rides at special events like the annual Forecastle Music Festival and Thunder over Louisville.

Final Thoughts

The Belle of Louisville is truly a unique piece of history, a modern day fossil if you will and it’s recognized as the oldest operating riverboat in America. If you’re ever in the Louisville area, it’s well worth taking a ride on this piece of our nation’s past. For ticket information and hours of operations check out the Belle of Louisville’s official website belloflouisville.org.

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