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Celebrating the History Surrounding the Belle of Louisville

Beginning on Tuesday, Louisville will see the largest collection of passenger steamships gathered at its wharf in many years. The Festival of Steamboats, which continues through Oct. 19, is the city’s celebration of the 100th birthday of the Belle of Louisville.Roughly half of the steamboat's lifetime has been spent as the Belle. In 1962, then-Judge-Executive Marlow W. Cook took the bold step of buying the steamboat (at that time known as the Avalon) at auction for what many in town considered the outrageous price of $34,000.It was quickly dubbed “Marlow’s Folly,” but, 52 years later, our community can only be grateful to Judge (and later Senator) Cook for his vision.I was 12 when the Belle first settled in town, although my family had known the Avalon in earlier times. But this is a steamboat that really is the little engine that could. Built by James Rees & Sons Co. in Pittsburgh in 1914, it was designed as a freight carrier on the Allegheny River. Its first name was the Idlewild.In time, the Idlewild became famous because of its all-steel superstructure and asphalt main deck. It transported passengers in Memphis and hauled cotton, lumber and grain. In 1931, she came to Louisville where she was a river taxi or sorts, transporting amusement park-goers downriver to Fontaine Ferry Park and to Rose Island, a resort upriver.Like the rest of America, the Idlewild was put to work in the war effort after 1941. She was employed to push barges of oil—and to serve as a USO nightclub for troops who were stationed at various points along the Mississippi River. With peacetime, the boat was sold again, and renamed the Avalon. Her next 15 years were busy ones with excursions hither and yon—from St. Croix to Minnesota.

Riverboats were highly romantic when I was a boy growing up in Louisville. Every summer, the showboat Majestic would dock for performances at the foot of Fourth Street. For at least some of those years, the actors on board were students at Indiana University, and they performed some of the old warhorses of American theater including “The Drunkard” and “Abie’s Irish Rose.” My grandparents, parents and aunt loved the evenings on the river, where you could smell the river as you enjoyed the cavorting onstage. The benches were hard and the salt-water taffy they peddled was stale, but even so it was an experience out of an earlier time. In the late 1950s, there was a popular television series from 1959-1961 called “Riverboat,” which starred Darren McGavin and a very young Burt Reynolds.One has to remember that in 1962, Louisville’s links to its waterfront were far different from what we know today. Although ships docked there (including the Delta Queen from Cincinnati), life along the waterfront was virtually all commercial and unattractive—shipbuilders, sand and gravel companies, oil tanks and junkyards. Some of the city’s visionaries, including Archibald Cochran, the aluminum magnate, and Al J. Schneider, future developer of the Galt House and other waterfront sites, were already talking about reclaiming the waterfront. (It is fitting that Cochran’s grandson, Neville Blakemore III, is the chairman of the riverboat celebration.)So Marlow’s Folly became a focus for the entire community, and from its first season after being refurbished, its cruises have been highly popular with locals as well as visitors. In the early days, I can remember outings with church youth groups and my school classes. To be honest, though, they were rather tedious trips. The views were generally unappealing—all those sand piles and junkyards, remember? And the snail’s pace at which the Belle cruised made me wish that halfway through we could just get off and return to town by bus.We were standing on the wharf—my mother, brother and I, on April 30, 1963, when the Belle made her first race against the Cincinnati-based Delta Queen. The DQ was a bigger boat, and at least in that race, a faster one. It was the beginning of a unique American tradition, now an integral part of the Kentucky Derby Festival. Even after the Delta Queen dropped out of the race for legal and safety reasons, other competitors have cruised up to the plate to race. Over the years the Belle has enjoyed several refurbishments, most notably after August 1997, when the Belle partially sank into the Ohio River. The crew saved the day and with community support the Belle was repaired and sent back into action.In 1972, the steamboat was named to the National Register of American Places, and, in 1989, became a National Landmark. Today, those fortunate enough to enjoy cruises have more to see on that journey upriver and back. The beautiful Waterfront Park, as well as other residential developments and open spaces make Louisville’s Ohio River landscape a true joy to behold.There are a number of activities planned, including cruises on several of the steamboats, a birthday bash and a fireworks show. To learn more about the Festival of Riverboats, gohere.Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He'll speak about this commentary Thursday afternoon on 89.3 WFPL during Here & Now. Read his past WFPL commentaries  here.  

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