Written by Ava Belle Ferree, Social Media and Communications Intern
If you’re a Louisville local, chances are you’ve heard the name “Belle of Louisville.” Whether you grew up cruising the river aboard her decks or have it on your list of things to do, you’re probably aware of her status as an icon of the Louisville waterfront. However, what you may not know about the Belle is that she’s the oldest operating Mississippi River-style steamboat in the world, and she has an impressive history that’s worth pointing out!
History of the Belle
The Idlewild, which was the Belle’s first name, was built in 1914 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the first several years, the boat served as a ferry and day packet between Tennessee and Arkansas. In the 1920s, the Idlewild began serving as a “tramp” vessel (meaning that the schedule was set up “on the fly”), moving along the Ohio, Illinois, Mississippi, and Missouri River systems, also spending a brief season serving as a ferry vessel between Louisville and two local amusement parks: Rose Island and Fontaine Ferry. In 1940, the Idlewild began to offer moonlight cruises during the Big Band era and occasionally served as a USO nightspot, to help the war effort on the Mississippi River. Finally, in 1948, after 33 years of cruising under the name Idlewild, the boat was renamed “Avalon” to grant the deathbed wish of Captain Ben Winters.
In 1949, the Avalon was sold to a group of Cincinnati investors and over the next 13 years, she became the most widely traveled river steamboat of her size in American history. The Avalon underwent extensive restoration in the 1950s, which involved projects such as the Main Deck and Ballroom Deck becoming enclosed, the smokestacks being shortened and more. These restorations were made in order to provide guests with more comfort, as well as to lengthen the amount of time the boat could cruise during the season.
In the fall of 1961, the Avalon was taken out of service and was scheduled for demolition because the company was bankrupt and unable to pay for essential repairs. However, a Cincinnati newspaper reporter sought and was granted a court order to save the vessel, creating a publicity stunt to put the boat up for auction instead. The reporter’s efforts succeeded and in 1962, the Avalon was purchased at auction for $34,000 ($244,677.27 adjusted to today’s money) by Jefferson County Judge Executive, Marlow Cook.
Belle of Louisville (1962-present)
It was in this same year, 1962, that she was renamed “Belle of Louisville.” Over the next year, the Belle underwent necessary refurbishments to ensure that she was still able to operate. On April 30, 1963, she began her next chapter as she competed in the first Great Steamboat Race against the river steamer, Delta Queen. This race became part of the long-standing tradition that is still held today, the Kentucky Derby Festival. Since that first race in 1962, the Belle has raced several other boats including the Belle of Cincinnati, American Duchess and the Natchez.
Years later, in 1988, the Belle was recognized as the nation’s oldest and most authentic river steamboat in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the first celebration of the steamboat era. A year later in 1989, the Belle was named a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of Interior and is now also on the National Register of Historic Places. In August 2005, the Waterfront Development Corporation assumed the operation of the Belle of Louisville on behalf of Louisville Metro.
The Legacy of the Belle of Louisville
Recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1989, the Belle of Louisville has left a very special mark on both American history and the people of her hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. To Louisville locals and out-of-town visitors alike, she’s more than just a boat, but rather is full of decades of fond memories that last a lifetime.
Help Keep Us Cruising for Another 108 Years!
At Belle of Louisville Riverboats, our mission is to connect the community to the river through meaningful, on-the-water experiences! Thanks to our community of donors who support that mission, we have been able to keep the Belle cruising along since 1914, and it is our hope to continue to preserve her legacy for another 108 years and counting! To help support our mission, please consider making a donation to Friends of the Belle, a 501c3 non-profit.