A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

During a frenzied year (thanks, pandemic) drydocked BELLE OF LOUISVILLE awaits her future


By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to KyForward

What a frenzied year it’s been on the river. For the most part, the COVID-19 Pandemic worked its invisible destruction upon the inland waterways nearly as much as it has anywhere ashore. All the overnight cruise liners tied up and laid off all but a few caretakers soon after the virus began its deadly sweep across the globe where it has hit the U.S. the hardest. A few passenger-carrying day-trippers still offer scaled-down versions of their usual schedules despite the disease’s autumn flareup. But with the approaching winter soon to close down the cruise season, I wonder how many small boat operators will survive until the world eventually returns to “normal?”If there will ever be such normalcy that everyone anticipates.

I watched the passing of the Steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE on her way to be lifted out of the Ohio River for a thorough five-year inspection.

However, the river towing industry continues to move amazingly large quantities of bulk products with clusters of barges called “tows” shoved in front of powerful, diesel-driven vessels aptly named “towboats.” These Herculean workhorses run continuously around the clock, day-by-day, months-on-end, transporting whatever it is that’s best moved in quantity on the inland waterways. So far, the pandemic has failed to shut down the towing industry, but how the viral assault has affected towboats and their crews remain rather quiet.

The towing companies are concerned about their marine workers’ health and well-being as much as any other industry. They seem to be doing what needs getting done without making a big fuss about it. For that, the towboat crewmen and crewwomen deserve the gratitude afforded to any other workers on the front lines of the epidemic during these terribly challenging times.

I watched the passing of the Steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE last week on her way to be lifted out of the Ohio River for a thorough five-year inspection mandated by law for passenger-carrying boats operating in freshwater waters overseen under the authority of the United States Coast Guard. Had the BELLE operated in salt water, the requirement would mandate drydocking after every third year.

As soon as my friend and fellow history buff, Ms. Bonnie Speeg, heard the BELLE would be practically on her doorstep, she rushed to the landing as fast as her set of wheels could fly.

It’s with pleasure that I can report the BELLE arrived safely at the drydock operated by Amherst Industries at Gallipolis, Ohio. She’ll be there for several weeks while the men and women in blue, the Coast Guard’s inspectors, look into every nook and cranny – and then some.

Before the 108-year-old BELLE gets a fresh Certificate of Inspection (COI) for another five years, maintenance and repairs prescribed by the “Coasties” need to be completed. When all is finalized and in good order, I understand the BELLE of LOUISVILLE will be returning home “cooled down” and in tow with a commercial towboat and not paddling to Louisville under her own steam power. Surely, that news will be disappointing to the BELLE’s many fans along the Ohio River who, otherwise, would be eagerly awaiting the return trip with cameras and cell phones poised for another round of spectacular photos like those taken when the BELLE steamed upstream to the drydock.

On the trip from Louisville to Gallipolis, the steamboat ran during the daylight only and tied-up each night before getting underway the next morning at the first crack of dawn. After my son Jonathan and I watched the BELLE steam out of sight on our neck of the river, she still had about 22 more miles to stem the current before arriving at the Cincinnati Public Landing for the night. As soon as my friend and fellow history buff, Ms. Bonnie Speeg, heard the BELLE would be practically on her doorstep, she rushed to the landing as fast as her set of wheels could fly.

The BELLE’s First Mate, Captain Nicholas Lukaszewski, photographically recorded a fair share of his steamboat’s adventures along the water route.

Before long, Bonnie charmed the watchman into welcoming her aboard. In the engine room, Ms. Speeg claimed she tossed my name around among the crew. Still, instead of escorting her to the stage plank, Bonnie became further rooted in the friendship and hospitality of a great group of riverboat men. While aboard, as she had done from ashore, Ms. Speeg recorded several memorable digital images of the BELLE’s return to the Queen City.

The BELLE’s First Mate, Captain Nicholas Lukaszewski, photographically recorded a fair share of his steamboat’s adventures along the water route. Via social media, I jokingly told Cap’n Nicholas that when I was a deckhand on his boat when it was called the Steamer Avalon, nearby where the BELLE landed for the night, several bust-out dives were throbbing and jumping at the “top of the hill.” As soon as Captain Wagner gave the “okay,” most AVALON deckhands cut a quick beeline for the noisy joints. Nick laughingly replied that some 60 years earlier, he’d likely have joined the rest of the crew at the Rocket and the Atomic Bars if he’d been there.

The next night, the BELLE of LOUISVILLE stayed at the Maysville, Kentucky waterfront, where Captain Mike Fitzgerald added to the collection of the ever-growing cache of documentary records of the BELLE’s adventures. Several decades earlier, Captain Mike began his steamboat career as a deckhand when Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley, my Mate and Relief Master on the AVALON, continued the same responsibilities abroad the BELLE.
 

Captain Mike Fitzgerald added to the collection of the ever-growing cache of documentary records of the BELLE’s adventures.

In the engine room, my river pals, Chief Engineers Kenny P. Howe, Jr., and Daniel Lewis were making sure the “shovin’ end” of the BELLE was running smoothly. Kenny and I came up together on the DELTA QUEEN during the historic “Save the DELTA QUEEN Year” of 1970. Kenny was a “Striker” in the engine room, and I was Captain Ernie Wagner’s unlicensed  “Second Mate.” Later that year, we both studied in our spare time; tested and received our respective Coast Guard licenses: he for Assistant Engineer and me for Inland Mate. Within another year, Kenny received his coveted license as Chief Engineer while I got my Master’s “ticket” as an Unlimited Master of Steam & Motor Vessels. Quickly said, Chief Kenny Howe and I go back together a long way — and Kenny’s still working on his license while I hung up my ticket several years ago.

Getting closer to Gallipolis, sternwheel boat owner and riverman extraordinaire Cap’n J. D. Pauley started sharing his outstanding pictures of the BELLE. JD also followed the Rafter CLYDE during the eight years I spend restoring the backyard-built sternwheeler after I bought her at Alma, Wisconsin, on the Upper Mississippi River.

Captain Mike Fitzgerald aptly summarized the odyssey of the BELLE of LOUISVILLE with these words:

Chief Engineers Kenny P. Howe, Jr., and Daniel Lewis were making sure the “shovin’ end” of the BELLE was running smoothly.

“We departed Louisville Monday, October 19th, on our way to Gallipolis, Ohio, for the BELLE’s five-year USCG inspection. Seven landings and four locks later, we arrived at our destination, Amherst Madison’s shipyard, Gallipolis, Ohio, on Friday, October 23rd. Thanks to her dedicated crew, the 106-year-old steamer made the journey with ease passing many towns that had not seen her since 1961.”

As this 152nd “The River” column wraps up, the Steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE sits high and dry aboard a floating drydock at the Amherst Madison yard where the government inspectors are already started into their checklist of items requiring review. The shipyard staff and members of the BELLE’s capable crew have several more weeks before everything noted is repaired, replaced, and finished. As promptly as the Coast Guard releases the steamboat with a fresh COI, a towboat crew will return the venerable riverboat home where she’ll wait over the winter for warmer weather and, surely, the outcome of the COVID crisis.

Hopefully, sometime soon after the 2021 steamboat cruising season starts, the pandemic will be contained to the point where I can take advantage of a dinner cruise for two aboard the BELLE as I’ve already paid for the tickets.

You, too, can help the BELLE of LOUISVILLE at their website by becoming a Supporter, as have I: 

Become a Supporter.

Getting closer to Gallipolis, sternwheel boat owner and riverman extraordinaire Cap’n J. D. Pauley started sharing his outstanding pictures of the BELLE.

As this 152nd “The River” column wraps up, the Steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE sits high and dry aboard a floating drydock at the Amherst Madison yard.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller — and an occasional writer for KyForward  


Related Posts

Leave a Comment