Welcome to the Belle of Louisville! Come take a cruise with us on this very special boat. She is the oldest Mississippi River-style steamboat operating today! Appointed to the National Historic Register, the Belle still uses her original equipment, most of which dates back to 1914.
On this website, you can:
- Watch the video that takes viewers on an exciting fun-filled cruise while explaining the history of river transportation and this unique boat.
- Take an interactive quiz to see how much you learned.
- View a timeline of steam transportation and Belle history.
- Learn about steamboat careers and practice their special vocabulary.
Grade Levels: 3-5
Resource Types: Video
Electronic Field Trip to the Belle of Louisville (Video)
Take a cruise on the famous steamboat, Belle of Louisville, which was built in 1914 and is one of the last of its kind in the world. Learn about the history of river travel and the invention of the steamboat, and how it revolutionized transportation and fueled the growth of cities. Take a tour of the boat and learn how steam propels and powers everything on her, the duties of the various crew members, and how they must all work together as a team to safely and successfully guide the Belle up and down the Ohio.
Timeline for Belle of Louisville's History
Learn about the events leading to the invention of steamboat travel and see a summary of the history of the Belle of Louisville from 1914 to the present. Here is a printable version of the Time Line for Belle of Louisville’s History.
1787 – John Fitch builds a steam-powered vessel, The Steamboat, for the Delaware River in New Jersey
1791 – John Fitch receives the first U.S. patent for his steam-powered riverboat designs
1798 – Even though he has built four successful steamboats by this time, Fitch fails to receive financial backing for his invention and falls into a depression from which he never recovers.
1807 – Robert Fulton and his partners, Robert Livingston and Nicholas Roosevelt build the “North River” using Fitch’s designs. The boat runs successfully on the Hudson River in New York. Fulton erroneously receives historic credit for inventing the steamboat.
1811 – Robert Fulton and his partners build “The New Orleans”, the first steamboat to travel on the Ohio River. The boat miraculously reaches New Orleans, Louisiana, and proves that river travel by steam is possible and profitable.
1820-1880 – Thousands of shallow-draft steam-powered packet (freight) boats and towboats are built and put into service on America’s inland waterways. Nearly 75% of the boats are from shipyards along the Ohio River.
1914 – The Idlewild is christened on October 18th at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She first serves as a ferry between Memphis, Tennessee, and West Memphis, Arkansas, while a bridge is being built. In the off season she moves freight as a day packet.
1920s – The Idlewild “tramps” along the Ohio and Mississippi river systems, going from town to town and running excursion cruises for short periods of time before moving on.
1931 – The Idlewild replaces The America, Louisville, Ky.’s, excursion vessel that burned to the waterline right after Labor Day, 1930, and spends a season running trips between Louisville and Rose Island and Fontaine Ferry amusement parks.
1934 – After leading a vagabond’s life for two years, traveling from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico and from Montana to the East Coast, the Idlewild settles down and makes Louisville her home port through World War II.
1940s – During World War II, the Idlewild continues her excursion trade, offering moonlight cruises during the Big Band era. In the off-season she tows oil barges and occasionally serves as a USO nightspot on the Mississippi River to help the war effort.
1948 – Because of a death-bed wish of Ben Winters, the Idlewild’s master at the time, the boat is renamed the Avalon.
1949 – The boat is sold to a group of Cincinnati, Ohio, investors, and over the next 13 years the Avalon runs on every navigable waterway in the eastern half of the country, becoming the most widely-traveled river steamboat of her size in American history.
1962 – The Avalon is put up for auction at Cincinnati, and she’s purchased for $34,000 by Marlow Cook, Jefferson County Judge Executive, with support from Louisville’s Mayor Charles Farnsley. The boat is brought to her permanent home and renamed the Belle of Louisville on October 14th.
1963 – After countless hours of rebuilding and repairing, the Belle of Louisville begins the rest of her career on April 30th with a time-honored race against the river steamer Delta Queen during the Kentucky Derby Festival. The Great Steamboat Race becomes a featured event of the derby festival, and it carries on a 150-year river tradition.
Mid-1960s – Major rebuilding is completed, and the boat is lengthened and widened to a final size of 200′ X 46′.
1966 – A new steam-powered calliope is installed on the Belle’s roof. It is a reminder of steamboat tradition and history beginning in 1855 when the first calliope was installed on a riverboat. The whistles are replaced in 1988.
1988 – The Belle is the Grand Lady of the first Tall Stacks event, a celebration of the steamboat era held at Cincinnati, Ohio. Subsequent events take place in 1992, 1995, 1999, 2003, and 2006, and the Belle is the oldest and most authentic steamboat there. She is the last boat operating that was built as a packet boat.
1989 – She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
1990s – Extensive renovation is done, including to the Captain’s Quarters, the only original cabin built into the boat.
1997 – The Belle is destructively vandalized. It is the only time in her career when she takes on water and partially submerges. The culprit is caught, and extensive repairs are made over a seven-month period. When she returns to the river in April, 1998, she is in excellent condition and ready for excursion trade once again. She comes out of restoration a better boat than she’s ever been.
2005 – In August, the Waterfront Development Corporation, an agency of city government, assumes the operation of the Belle of Louisville. She is still owned by the Louisville Metro government.
Boiler – A large enclosed metal drum in which water is heated to create steam. On a steamboat, steam under pressure becomes energy, and it’s used to operate the engines, pumps, and electrical systems.
Boom – The crane-like device on the front of the boat that the landing stage hangs from. It allows the stage to be raised, lowered, or maneuvered into place.
Bow – The front end of a boat.
Brig – A cage-like small jail; at one time located at the back of the engine room on the Belle. If someone on the boat became a danger to themselves or others while the boat was out on the water, they were locked in up here. The Belle’s brig was on the boat until the 1990s when it was given to the Howard Steamboat Museum in Jeffersonville, IN, where it can be seen today.
Buckets – On a steamboat, the large wooden planks attached to the paddlewheel shaft which push the water away from the boat to move it forward or pull it toward the boat to move it backward.
Calliope – On a steamboat, a steam-powered pipe organ. Used to attract the attention of people on the river bank; its sound can travel up to 4 or 5 miles.
Calliopist – The musician who plays the calliope.
Capstan – A large, rotating, steam-powered spool located on the bow of the Belle; is used to tighten the rope lines that secure the boat to the wharf.
Captain – See “Steamboat Careers” sheet
Collection Drum – Part of the heat exchanger system on the Belle; heats water from the live well using excess steam and exhaust. (see “Heat Exchanger”)
Crosshead – A heavy metal piece that connects the engine piston rod to the pitman arm.
Deckhand – See “Steamboat Careers” sheet
Disembark – To leave a boat after an excursion cruise.
Embark – To leave, as in to leave the wharf for a cruise on a steamboat.
Engineer – See “Steamboat Careers” sheet
Escape Pipes – Usually shortened to “‘scape pipes,” allow excess steam to escape from the engines; gives the engines more power. On the Belle these are located on the roof on either side of the calliope whistles.
Excursion Boat – A boat used for short-term recreational cruises.
Fantail – The exterior deck alongside either side of the paddlewheel
Ferry Boat – A vessel which moves people and vehicles from one bank of the river to the opposite bank. Were typically used to transport wagons, cars, and trucks, but could also move livestock and cargo.
Firebox – Also called the boiler room, the place where water is heated to make steam.
Fireman – See “Steamboat Careers” sheet
First Mate – See “Steamboat Careers” sheet
Flatboat – A river vessel without engines; has a very shallow hull. Used to move cargo down river. Often sold at the end of the trip so the boat’s wood could be used to build homes or other buildings.
Generator – A piece of equipment used to produce (generate) electricity. There are both steam-powered and diesel powered generators on the Belle.
Gingerbread Trim – The name given to decorative architectural features along roof lines and ceilings, especially on fancy steamboats.
H-Bitt – An h-shaped metal structure attached to the bow of the boat; is used to tie off lines when securing the boat to the wharf.
Handy Line – A lightweight rope that is tossed to a crew member on the wharfboat when the Belle is coming in to land. One end is tied to the heavier landing line, the other is attached to a knot called a “Monkey’s Fist.” (See “Monkey’s Fist”) The handy line is easy to throw because it doesn’t weigh very much, the weight of the Monkey’s Fist will carry the handy line from the bow of the boat to the wharfboat. The crew member uses the handy line to pull the much heavier landing lines onto the wharfboat for tying in.
Head Line – The primary heavy rope used to secure the bow of the boat to the wharf. For security, its backup is an identical rope called the check line.
Heat Exchanger – Is part of the “economizer” system; it uses excess steam and exhaust to preheat river water before it is sent to the boilers, so the boilers won’t be damaged from cold water hitting the hot boiler plates.
Hull – The shell and framework of the lower part of the boat; is the section of the boat that sits below water and allows the boat to float. On the Belle, the hull is made of steel instead of wood like many other steamboats; is one reason the Belle has survived so long.
Jazz – A style of music common in America; New Orleans-style jazz was developed by musicians hired to play on board steamboats traveling long distances, like from New Orleans to Chicago.
Keelboat – A river vessel without engines; has a sharp-pointed prow (the very front of the hull), and is usually larger than a flatboat. Used to move cargo up and down river.
Landing Stage – Also called the boarding stage; is a movable bridge used in boarding or disembarking a boat at a wharf or landing. This “gangway” once served as the only way to transfer passengers or freight onto the boat. It is still used in areas where its length is needed to safely reach a wharf or shore.
Lazy Bench – A raised bench at the rear of the pilothouse where everyone but the pilot sits.
Line – A real catchall word. Anything that connects anything to anything else on a boat is called a line. A pipe is not a pipe. It is a water line or steam line, etc. A rope is a grass line or a rope line. A cable or wire rope is a wire line.
Live Well – Also called the hot well, is a drum located below the main deck of the boat. River water flows from openings in the sides of the boat (called sea chests) into this drum. There, trash solids in the water either settle to the bottom or float to the top. The cleanest water from the center of the well is then pumped into the rest of the steam system.
Monkey’s Fist – A kind of mariner’s knot made by tying thin line around a heavy weight; is attached to the handy line. On the Belle, a tennis ball filled with silicone is used for the weight; in the old days it was tied around things like a baseball or
National Historic Landmark – A site designated by the National Park System as important to America’s history; typically has unique features that make it unusual or unique.
Packet Boat – A river cargo vessel; was a very popular style of steamboat construction in the 19th century. The Belle is the last boat operating in the U.S. that was built as a packet boat.
Paddlewheel – Is the method of propulsion on a steamboat; some steamboats had a paddlewheel on each side of the boat, others had one paddlewheel at the stern (back end) of the boat. Pushes water to make the boat move forward or in reverse.
Paddlewheeler – The common name given to a boat which uses a paddlewheel for propulsion. The Belle is considered a “sternwheel steamboat,” because her paddlewheel is attached to her stern. (See “Stern”)
Pilot – See “Steamboat Careers” sheet
Pilot House – The small “room” on top of the boat where steering the boat takes place.
Pilot Wheel – The large, 7’-diameter wooden wheel in the pilot house that steers the boat; is assisted by the Belle’s original steam-powered power steering system.
Pitman Arm – A long wood and metal arm that attaches an engine to each end of the paddlewheel shaft.
Port – The left side of any boat when you’re facing forward.
Power Steering Levers – Located on each side of the pilot wheel; are attached to the steam power steering system of the boat. They assist in turning the pilot wheel so it is easy to move the rudders in the desired direction to turn the boat.
Propulsion – What moves a boat forward or backward in the water; the paddlewheel is the Belle’s only form of propulsion.
Purser – See “Steamboat Careers” sheet
Roof Bell – A large brass bell located on the forward roof of the boat; is used to communicate instructions to the crew. The number and pattern of rings tells the crew what the captain wants them to do. It’s one of the Belle’s safety features and is used during emergencies.
Rudder – A fin-shaped piece of wood and/or metal underneath the stern of a boat; is used to steer the boat in a particular direction. The Belle uses a system of three connected rudders. The rudder is connected to the pilot wheel of the boat via cables.
‘Scape Pipes – See “Escape Pipes.”
Sea Chest – A watertight box built inside the hull of the boat; allows river water in to feed the live well. The water is then used for ballast, steam production, and firefighting purposes.
Smokestacks – The tall stacks on a steamboat that let smoke (and burning cinders, on 19th century steamboats) safely escape from the boiler fires.
Starboard – The right side of any boat when you’re facing forward.
Steam Whistle – Is a 3-chamber brass whistle powered by steam; used to communicate between boats, also identifies departures and landings to people on a wharf or landing.
Stern – The rear or back end of a boat; is where the paddlewheel is located on the Belle.
Telegraph – Is a communication system that allows the pilot to tell the engineers the direction and speed he wants to go. The engineer then communicates with the fireman using a similar system.
Throttle – A valve system that allows the engineer to speed the boat up or slow it down; controls how much steam is delivered to the engines.
Transport – To carry, to move people or cargo from place to place.
Western River Communications System – Also called the bells-and-gongs system, is the Belle’s original communication system between the pilot house and the engine room. Replaced by the current telegraph system in 1954, but is still intact.
Wharf – A stopping place for boats; is built to accommodate the needs of the boats that tie in there.
Wharfboat – A floating, non-motorized vessel that serves as storage and workspace for a boat’s crew; is also what a boat ties to while she’s at the wharf.
Wing Bridge – A walkway which projects out from the front of the boat’s roof. Allows the captain to clearly see the bow of the boat and the wharf or landing in order to give directions to the pilot and deck crew for landing and embarking. On the Belle, searchlights are attached to the port and starboard wing bridges.
Belle of Louisville Steamboat Careers!
There are all kinds of jobs on a steamboat. They can be done by either men or women. People who work on a boat are called “crew members.” Here are some of their jobs. Here is a printable version of Steamboat Careers!
The CAPTAIN – The captain is responsible for the whole boat, including the passengers and crew members. The captain has a really BIG job! He
supervises all boat operations and works with the Coast Guard, the organization that sets the rules the boat follows.
The PILOT – The pilot steers the boat. Steering is done in the pilothouse on the
top of the boat. The pilot has to know a lot about the river!
The FIRST MATE – The first mate is the captain’s “right hand man” or woman. He or she keeps track of all work the deckhands do to maintain the boat, helps with landing and launching, and takes care of all the work the captain wants
The ENGINEER – On a steamboat like the Belle, the engineer starts and stops the boat’s engines. The engines turn the paddlewheel. The engineer also makes sure that all electrical and mechanical systems work on the boat. Because of the engineer, the lights turn on and all the water faucets work.
The FIREMAN – Steamboats need a fireman to make sure there is enough fire to heat the water in the boilers to make steam. Steam makes the whistle blow and the paddlewheel turn. If there wasn’t any steam, the boat wouldn’t go anywhere, the lights wouldn’t light, water wouldn’t flow, popcorn wouldn’t pop, and toilets wouldn’t flush!
The PURSER – The purser watches over the things that are sold on the boat and is responsible for all the money. Food, soft drinks, souvenirs, and tickets are all things that are sold.
The DECKHANDS – The deckhands paint the boat, do repairs, clean up, and help passengers who are taking a cruise. They teach passengers about boat safety, and they can rescue people, too!
The CONCESSION and SOUVENIR workers – These workers sell food, soft drinks, and souvenirs to the passengers who are taking a cruise.
More Steamboat Careers!
For the Belle of Louisville, some careers are done in the boat’s office, and they are really important jobs, too. Just like on the boat, these jobs can be done by both women and men. Here are some of them.
The CEO – The CEO (the Corporate Executive Officer) oversees the administrative end of the Belle’s business. She or he helps raise money for
the boat and talks to people around town so they will see how important the Belle is to our community.
The SALES AND MARKETING DIRECTOR – The Sales and Marketing director tells people about the boats and plans cruises with special themes. This person also works with TV, radio, and newspaper reporters to help them tell everyone about our wonderful boat! He also supervises the office workers and the Education Coordinator. The Sales and Marketing Director
has a lot to do!
The OFFICE WORKERS – There are quite a few of these people! Some of them help groups who want to have parties or meetings on the boat.
Others answer the phones, mail letters, make things on the computer, and sell tickets and souvenirs to people who want to cruise on a boat. They are busy people!
The EDUCATION COORDINATOR – The Education Coordinator helps people learn more about the history of the Belle of Louisville and the Ohio River. Sometimes he or she gives tours, sets up exhibits on the boat or at special events, participates in events sponsored by other organizations, and gives talks or programs to children and adults.
We hope you had fun while you learned something about careers on a steamboat. Someday, you might like to have a career on the Belle of Louisville too!
Teacher Lesson Plans
These lessons are designed to help you use the Electronic Field Trip to the Belle of Louisville video and website in your classroom.
All lesson plans are aligned with Kentucky state education standards, which are based on national standards.
See “Related Instructional Resources” for more helpful materials, some of which are referred to in the lesson plans and some that are stand-alone resources.
- Belle Lesson Plan: River Travel Math – ‘Rithmetic math worksheets and answer keys (PDF)
- Belle Lesson Plan: Belle of Louisville Diagram Math – Boat diagram with math problems to solve (PDF)
- Belle Lesson Plan: In My Own Words – Read “Steamboat Adventure” and practice personal writing skills (PDF)
- Belle Lesson Plan: Feature Articles- Life on the River – News articles and student writing exercises (PDF)
- Belle Lesson Plan: All Hands on Deck!– Study job duties and vocabulary used on the Belle (PDF)
Related Instructional Resources
Here is a host of instructional resources, some of which are referred to in the Teacher Lesson Plans web page, and that are stand-alone resources which can be used in a variety of ways in your classroom.
Thanks to Belle Education Director Kadie Engstrom, who designed the majority of them. See the “More Resources” (pdf) for a listing of other resources available from the Belle of Louisville education office along with the contact information needed for acquiring them.
- Belle: A Brief History (PDF)
- Belle: A Little Bit of History (PDF)
- Belle: History Facts (PDF)
- Belle: Additional Resources (PDF)
- Belle: All About the Belle’s Engines and Steam System (PDF)
- Belle: Steamboats and the Ohio River (PDF)
- Belle: Steamboat Vocabulary (PDF)
- Belle: Steamboat Careers (PDF)
- Belle: How the Belle of Louisville Steam Calliope Works (PDF)
- Belle activity: Steamboat Math and Science (PDF)
Content Producer: Larry Moore
Producer/Director: Tom Bickel
Scriptwriter: Kelli Burton
Videographers: Jason Robinson and Warren Mace
Field Audio: Roger Tremaine
Audio Post: Roger Tremaine and Brent Abshear
Graphics/Animation: Clark Bradshaw, boat model: Mike Ginter
Lighting: Don Dean
Photographer: Steve Shaffer
Editor: Tom Bickel
Financial Officer: Susan Kanis
Executive Producer: Nancy Carpenter
For the Belle of Louisville
CEO: Linda Harris
Director of Sales & Marketing: Kelly Gream
Education Coordinator: Kadie Engstrom
Master: Mark Doty
Alternate Master: Pete OConnell
Captain: Jamie Donohue
Chief Mate: Drew Cederholm
Pilots: Mike Fitzgerald and Eddie Mattingly
Chief Engineer: Jim McCoy
Alternate Chief Engineer: Steve Mattingly
Engineer: Dan Lewis
Fireman: Wayne McDole
Food & Beverage Manager : Julia Hammel-Furlong
Calliopist: Martha Gibbs
Special thanks to teacher Clara Mackin Fulkerson and her 5th grade gifted and talented students from Cox’s Creek Elementary, Nelson Co. KY. for appearing in the video.
Waterfront Development Corporation
All members of the Belle of Louisville on-board crew and administrative staff
Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen – for their generous financial support
Agencies supplying images for this production
The Belle of Louisville
Cincinnati Museum Center-Cincinnati Historical Society Library
Library of Congress
The Filson Historical Society
The Howard Steamboat Museum