Louisville, KY: The Belle of Louisville began her 100th birthday celebration a few months early today as she unveiled newly reconditioned engines that will help to power her through her second hundred years of service. Atlas Machine & Supply, a local company that has operated in Louisville since 1907, donated and performed the work.
When the Belle of Louisville was built in 1914, new steamboats were often fitted with used engines. At nearly 100 years old, the Belle is the exception to the “rule” that steamboats often lasted only 5 years. The industrial steam engines used in riverboats were far hardier than the wooden shells they powered, so as long as they were in good working condition, they were often reused in new vessels. The Belle’s steam engines were already 20+ years old when they were installed in 1914, and they had never been rebuilt in more than 120 years.
In 2013, local industrial machinery specialist Atlas Machine & Supply offered to help get the Belle ready for her second hundred years of service by reconditioning the massive steam engines and installing new pistons and rings. Very simply put, the pistons make the paddlewheel turn. The work that went into making this happen was not simple at all. It involved precise measurements and cylinder boring and detailed computer models and repairs to areas where gas “pockets” formed during the casting process more than 120 years ago. Needless to say, more complicated explanations are available upon demand.
Atlas Machine and the Belle of Louisville share a long history. Atlas president Rich Gimmel is the third generation of the Gimmel family to lead the company since it was established in 1907, making it even older than the Belle itself.
Mr. Gimmel brought a recent Atlas retiree, Robert Furlong, out of retirement to head up the Belle project. Mr. Furlong is an expert in this type of repair, and he had a special interest in this work – early in his career at Atlas, he was involved in fabricating new piston rings for the Belle of Louisville. Through this early work on the Belle, Mr. Furlong developed a deep affection for the steamboat that has lasted throughout his career.
“I was so pleased to be involved in this project,” said Furlong. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help keep this National Historic Landmark healthy and cruising for generations to come.”
“Steamboats played a vital role in the development of Louisville, and the Belle is a symbol of this rich heritage,” added Gimmel. “We are proud to partner with the Belle and to play a part in her preservation.”
The work was especially timely, as the Belle will welcome 8 other riverboats to Louisville’s waterfront in mid-October for the Centennial Festival of Riverboats, a 6-day celebration of riverboat heritage. The festival, which emphasizes preservation and education, will take place October 14-19 with activities on both land and water.
The Belle of Louisville is operated by the Waterfront Development Corporation on behalf of Louisville Metro government.
“Because of the generosity of Atlas Machine, the Belle will open her 100th birthday season in April with new energy and life below her decks,” said Waterfront Development Corporation president David Karem. “At 99, the Belle makes history every day she exists, and she provides the community the opportunity to experience that history first-hand.”
About the Belle of Louisville
The Belle of Louisville, operated by the Waterfront Development Corporation, will celebrate her 100th birthday in October 2014. This birthday is a most unique milestone since the average life expectancy of a riverboat was only 3-5 years. The Belle has travelled on 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 on June 30, 1989, and is known and beloved worldwide. As the oldest operating Mississippi River-style steamboat in the world and a National Historic Landmark, the Belle is a true icon for Louisville. For more information, go to www.belleoflouisville.com or www.festivalofriverboats.com.
About Atlas Machine & Supply Inc.
Atlas is a 107-year old business based in the Jefferson Riverport in Louisville, Kentucky. The fourth-generation, family-owned company designs, repairs, and remanufactures complex equipment and components for industry and municipalities. Atlas Machine and Supply also is a leading supplier of industrial air compressors, related products and has a full-service department for compressed air. Additional Atlas locations are in Cincinnati, OH, Columbus, OH, Evansville, IN, and a soon-to-open facility in Indianapolis, IN. For more information, go to www.atlasmachine.com.
Photo: Atlas Machine metrologist Mike Basham examines the interior bore of one of the Belle’s 16-inch steam cylinders using a laser tracker measuring device. (Photo: John Fitzgerald)