The Great Steamboat Race goes to the Belle of Louisville

Belle of Louisville

The Belle of Louisville steams upriver during the 2009 Great Steamboat Race

I left a good job in the city
Working for the man every night and day
And I never lost one minute of sleeping
Worrying bout the way things might have been

Big wheel keep on turning
Proud Mary keep on burning
And we’re rolling, rolling
Rolling on the river — John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary” made famous by Tina Turner.

Steamboats have been traveling up and down the Ohio, Mississippi and other rivers for over 200 years. They were a way of life through the industrial revolution and what would have Mark Twain’s stories been like if it were not for the paddle wheelers steaming up and down the Mississippi.

While this is the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby and the focus is on horses, the reality is that Louisville, Kentucky is as tied to life on the river. The winding Ohio River has been a critical part of the community.

Since they like to race things from hot air balloon’s to lab rats during the Kentucky Derby Festival its only logical that the river ties in.

Louisville is home to the Belle of Louisville a paddle wheel steamboat based in Louisville. The Belle was built in 1914, originally named Idlewild to run passengers and cargo on the Allegheny River, then eventually it moved to Memphis, TN to operate as a passenger shuttle. Eventually she landed in Louisville and served the city for several years. After World War II she was sold and renamed to the Avalon and operated on the Mississippi River. She was refurbished in 1962 and re-christened The Belle of Louisville.

The next year, the “Great Steamboat Race” began as a race between the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen, based in Cincinnati. This race has been run continuously for 42 years. Starting from the 2nd street bridge and racing six miles up the Ohio to Six Mile Island and back.

Not all steamboats are made the same so the boats and crews have resulted to “cheating” to help win races. In the classic battles between the Belle and the Delta Queen, the Delta Queen added bow thrusters which helped her turn faster. The next year, the Belle had a tug show up to turn her faster. If there’s a way to cheat during a steamboat race, it’s happened in this race.

The , the Belle’s main competitor is no longer certified for overnight excursions and the Belle of Cincinnati, another frequent competitor was the other boat in the 2009 Great Steamboat Race.

Big Bounce

Contestants bounce their way to the finish during the Big Bounce

The Belle of Cincinnati is not a true steamboat as it’s powered by diesel engines and is faster than the Belle of Louisville. So there were some changes for the 2009 race. Instead of the race being determined solely by the first boat to pass under the Clark Memorial Bridge (2nd Street), the teams had to participate in five tasks. In addition to the actual race, the crews had to compete in an obstacle course at the “Battle of the Bounce” where teams of four went through a rock climb, an inflatable maze, an inflated hamster ball and finally an inflated bouncy horse. There was a calliope contest as well. The team with the most points wins the contest. The changes were to add more intrigue to the race and open up more cheating opportunities.

My wife was born and raised in Louisville but she had never attended the Great Steamboat Race, so it was on our must-do list for the week. We started our day by meeting one of her brothers for lunch at the Chow Wagon, a carnival of food vendors where you could get a deep fried “Snickers” bar if you wanted. The Chow Wagon is part of “Fest-a-ville” on the Great Lawn on the river in downtown Louisville. The Battle of the Bounce was scheduled at lunch time and the first two teams to go were the crews of the two Belles.

Once we were finished there, we drove up River Road looking for a place to watch the race from. We got to Cox Park, a large riverfront park about five miles up the river and in view of the Belle of Louisville’s turning point. We have been away for 15 years and we remember days when Cox Park would hold thousands to watch the race. We got to the park around 2pm for a 6pm race start. With a blanket and a cooler of frozen bottles of water, we sat on the banks of the Ohio watching boating traffic and people-watching as the crowed built. Five plus hours in the sun. E-nuff said.


While waiting on the steamboats, some fans fished the river

It was really nice spending time doing nothing.

The Belle of Cincinnati was the first up the river, but it had a four-mile handicap as it had to travel two more miles up the river to turn at Captain Quarters, a restaurant on the river. This handicap was in place to balance out the large diesel engines of the Belle of Cincinnati verses the original steam engines of the Belle of Louisville. An extra twist was added. Both boats had to dock along the river, pick up a special passenger and a barrel of Four Roses bourbon.

Four Roses Bourbon

Barrels of Four Roses Bourbon

Once the boats passed Cox Park on the way back down the river, we decided to give chase. Needless to say a passenger vehicle cruising at 35mph will out pace a paddle wheeler going at 8mph. We made it to the 2nd street bridge in time to see the Belle of Louisville pass under and the Belle of Cincinnati lagging behind by several boat lengths. The Belle of Louisville also won the points races. The results can be found at the Kentucky Derby Festival news page for a break down in the scoring points.

Next up is the Pegasus Parade. The Pegasus is the official symbol of the Kentucky Derby Festival.

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