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Kentucky: a road trip through the state - Part 4 - Orlando / Florida Guide

Florida Guide > Travelling

There are a number of different types of trip you can take on the Ohio river while you are in Louisville, but whether it’s afternoon or evening you should really only been looking to go on the ‘The Belle’.

The Belle of Louisville is the oldest operating Mississippi River style steamboat in the world. Her current name is the Belle of Louisville which reflects her location but she has had a number of names over the years since she was built. She was first named as the Idlewild when she was built in 1914 at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was designed originally to be both a ferry and a freight vessel but was later refitted for her new job as an excursion boat. The river boat is completely driven by the rear paddlewheel and has a steel hull that draws only 5' of water. It was this low draft in the water that enabled her to travel on virtually every navigable inland waterway. This earned her the distinction of being recognised as the most widely travelled river steamboat within the U. S. It was therefore with great pride that the people of Louisville on June 30, 1989 saw The Belle named as a National Historic Landmark. Much of her antique interior remains intact, including the grand ballroom and timber-lined captain’s quarters.

The wharf area for the ‘The Belle’ also has two other pieces of maritime history available for viewing. The first is ‘The Spirit of Jefferson’ is a slightly more modern diesel powered riverboat and is an example of the renewed interest in the steamboat era. She was built after nearly all the river steamboats were gone and arrived in Louisville after working in many different areas about 15 years ago. The other piece of river history that can be seen is a unique wharfboat. Today she is called the ‘Mayor Andrew Broaddus’ but was originally known as ‘Life-Saving Station #10’. In the mid-19 century, the Federal government established a life-saving service with stations along the coastal and Great Lakes regions of the country and this was one of the boats that provided that service.

Today, the Belle of Louisville is the last river steamboat operating and a cruise on board is a return to a time when traveling by steamboat was a commonplace way of life. Twice a day she chugs out on to the Ohio River for sightseeing excursions and dinner cruises. This is very different to her original use when boats like the Belle were used as much for freight as for passengers. The lower decks were most often used for animals and people who could not afford to pay more which is where you get the term cattle class.

If you go for an evening cruise you arrive around dusk as the boat is preparing for its evening excursion. Once under way you can see down in the engine room where the boilers belch steam and drive pistons which spin the huge paddle wheel.

Mark Doty the boats captain will explain to you that “The Belle is really a floating museum”. He has worked on the Belle for three decades, graduating from the engine room to the bridge, where he’s served as captain since 2007. As he’ll tell you “We still use the original engines which were built in the 1880”. Certainly a night cruise with the foghorn sounding brings back a lot of the feeling of how the river was used 100 years ago.

The next section of our trip continues in part 5

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