Moored at its wharf on the Ohio River along the Riverfront Park Belvedere in Louisville is a sort of floating time machine. It is the Belle of Louisville, the oldest Mississippi River-style steamboat still in operation.
Patrons who step aboard this relic are transported back in time to the golden age of steam-powered riverboats. Launched in 1914, the Belle of Louisville features the flat-bottom hull, paddlewheel power, and superstructure construction typical of the steamboats that once navigated the rivers of the American West, and it is the last of its kind still sailing.
Originally christened as the Idlewild, the steamboat was launched on October 18, 1914, in Pittsburgh. It originally served as a passenger ferry between Memphis, Tennesee, and West Memphis, Arkansas. The vessel then had various other routes and assignments from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and Montana to Pennsylvania. Renamed the Avalon in 1948—a request of shipmaster Ben Winters on his deathbed—the steamboat was eventually put up for auction in 1962 in Cincinnati and christened the Belle of Louisville.
The boat was repaired and refurbished over the next year in preparation for the first Great Steamboat Race against Delta Queen on April 30, 1963. The Belle’s legacy was cemented in 1988 as the “nation’s oldest and most authentic river steamboat” during the first celebration of the steamboat era at Tall Stacks in Cincinnati. The Belle of Louisville celebrated 100 years of service in 2014 by welcoming many of her peers on Louisville’s waterfront for a five-day festival.
Today, the steamboat serves as a living memory of America’s history. With a 650-passenger capacity, the Belle of Louisville offers cruises and events up and down the Ohio River.