Last month the Belle of Louisville turned 100. There’s a reason to be excited about this birthday. In our lifetime, the Belle is the only true steamboat that has turned 100 years old.
A grand birthday celebration was held in Louisville, Ky., last month. It included a riverboat race between the 650-passenger Belle, the American Queen and the Belle of Cincinnati. Not surprisingly, the Belle of Louisville was victorious.
To add perspective, the average life of a steamboat years ago was approximately 3.5 years. Early steamboats on the inland rivers transported goods, agricultural products and people between far-flung ports and frontier communities. While steamboats were responsible for helping to improve the economic prosperity of the growing nation, they also faced many perils along the rivers. Boiler explosions, fires and sinkings as a result of snags and rocks, damaged or destroyed many of these vessels.
That the Belle of Louisville has made it to 100 is remarkable. In her heyday, the Belle would travel or “tramp,” as it was called, from city to city picking up passengers, entertaining them and then moving on to the next city. She is in incredible condition, and with proper care she will entertain passengers for many more years to come.
The Belle was built in Pittsburgh in 1914 and was originally named the Idlewild. She was designed as a ferry and a day packet vessel to operate between Memphis, Tenn., and West Memphis, Ark. It is completely paddlewheel-driven with a steel hull that draws only 5' of water. This enables the Belle to ply virtually every navigable inland waterway, earning her the distinction of being the most widely traveled river steamboat in the nation. The Belle was named a National Historic Landmark in 1989. In the 1940s she offered moonlight cruises and hosted big bands of the era as well as serving as a USO nightspot during World War II.
The maritime industry has moved beyond steam-powered technology, but it is still important for us to recognize and respect our past. I can’t think of a better way to honor the Belle for her 100 years of faithful service.