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The Belle of Louisville was built by James Rees & Sons Company for the West Memphis Packet Company in 1914. Originally named the Idlewild, she was first put into service on the Allegheny River. Constructed with an all-steel superstructure and asphalt main deck, the steamboat is said to hold the record for miles traveled and years in operation for a steamboat of this size and displacement. On April 30, 1963, the Belle of Louisville made her first cruise in a race against the steamboat Delta Queen. That race was the beginning of an unparalleled river tradition. To this day, the Belle of Louisville and another competing steamboat, previously the Delta Queen, still square off every year on the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby in the Kentucky Derby Festival event The Great Steamboat Race. Since 1914, the Belle of Louisville has taken over 7 million people for a cruise on America's inland waterways. The Belle is America's last true Mississippi river steamboat still in operation, and she celebrated her 100th birthday in October 2014.

  • The Belle of Louisville (image from Belle of Louisville website)
  • The Belle of Louisville (image from Belle of Louisville website)
  • The Belle (originally the Idlewild) in her original home port of Memphis, 1915 (image from the National Register of Historic Places)
  • The Idlewild (image from Belle of Louisville website)
  • The Idlewild (Belle) in her 1931 capacity as excursion boat for Rose Island and Fontaine Ferry Amusement Parks (image from the National Register of Historic Places)
  • The Idlewild (Belle) in the 1940s, doubling as a USO nightlife spot and barge tower (image from the National Register of Historic Places)

The Idlewild, the Avalon, and the Belle

On October 18th, 1914, the steamboat known today as the Belle of Louisville was launched under the name of Idlewild from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she was built by the James Rees & Sons Company. The Idlewild served as a 1600-passenger ferry and day freight packet between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas. When a bridge was built connecting the two cities, there was no longer any need for a ferry, so the steamboat was sold in 1925 to the Tri-State Ferry Company of Cairo, Illinois to take passengers to and from Cairo and Bird's Point, Missouri, as well as for excursion trips down the river to New Orleans. Later, she worked on the Illinois, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers for the New St. Louis and Calhoun Packet Company, traveling as far as Montana, Pennsylvania, Canada, and the Gulf of Mexico regularly.

The Rose Island Company, which owned one of Louisville's two major amusement parks of the time period (Rose Island and Fontaine Ferry Parks), chartered the Idlewild as an excursion boat during the summer of 1931, and in the first years of the Great Depression she also ran produce deliveries and towed barges in the "off" season. Louisville became the Idlewild's home port year-round in 1934. During the Second World War, the steamboat took on towing to provide oil for the war effort at Mississipi and Ohio River ports, and in her downtime, the Idlewild provided moonlight USO cruises accompanied by Big Band jazz.

Sold to J. Herod Corsage of Peoria, Illinois in 1947, the Idlewild was renamed the Avalon at the request of long-time captain of the steamboat, Ben Winters, who died in February 1948. Corsage put the Avalon to excursion trip work once again, to destinations in Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, West Virginia, Tennessee, and New Orleans, selling the boat to E.A. Meyer of Cincinnati, who made improvements to the Avalon including the installation of a dance floor, reduction of topside weight by shortening of the Texas and reinforcement of the hull, and modification to the engines to allow the use of oil instead of coal as fuel. When the Steamer Avalon Company went bankrupt in 1962, the steamboat was put up for auction and purchased by Judge Marlo Cook on behalf of Jefferson County and the City of Louisville. Reconditioned by the Jeffersonville Boat and Machine Company (Jeffboat) across the river from Louisville, she was renamed the Belle of Louisville on October 14, 1962.

The Belle of Louisville

Since the first Kentucky Derby season race between the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen on April 30, 1963, The Great Steamboat Race has been an annual celebration. The winner is rewarded each year with a trophy of golden elk horns. At the first (1988) Tall Stacks steamboat era celebration in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Belle of Louisville was recognized as the oldest and most authentic river steamboat in the United States. Though modifications have been made to her in the interest of safety, stability, and changing uses, her historic integrity has been maintained and she remains one of only two sternwheel river passenger steamboats and the only intact Western Rivers day packet boat, a type of transportation which was vital to Westward expansion.

Since 2005, the Belle of Louisville has been operated by the Waterfront Development Corporation on behalf of Louisville Metro, and is used for excursions, educational and promotional tours, and heritage celebrations.
1. Foster, Kevin J. "Belle of Louisville (Riverboat)." National Parks Service, National Register of Historic Places. February 5, 1989. Accessed March 15, 2017.
2. Belle of Louisville. Official website. Accessed March 15, 2017.