The Belle of Louisville, still riverboating in the 21st century

The Belle of Louisville is the nation’s oldest steamboat still in operation today.

The Belle of Louisville has been a staple of the metro Louisville area since making it’s maiden voyage in 1963 but did you know that the Belle has served many purposes since it’s construction in 1914? The Belle has a rich and fascinating history and has actually changed names three times in it’s 106 year life. I was recently near this unique place where America’s past meets it’s present and thought that it would be a perfect time to research this one of a kind vessel.

  • The Belle of Louisville was originally constructed in 1914.
  • The Belle of Louisville was initially a ferry in Memphis and was named Idlewild.
  • In 1931, Idlewild would ferry passengers between downtown, Fountain Ferry amusement park and the nearby Rose Island.
  • In 1947, Idlewild was renamed The Avalon and transported passengers and cargo along many of America’s vital waterways.
  • In 1962, Louisville Judge Marlow Cook purchased The Avalon for $34,000, but the boat was in disrepair and deemed unsafe for the water.
  • After many repairs the Belle of Louisville took it’s maiden voyage on April 30, 1963.
  • Today the Belle of Louisville is the nation’s oldest steamboat in operation.

Construction and early usage

The large wheel of paddles coupled with the boats steam engine propel the boat slowly along the river at an average speed of eight miles per hour.

The Belle was initially commissioned in 1914 by the West Memphis Packet Company and was originally named Idlewild. At the time the ferry business was huge along the rivers and waterways in the nations South and Midwest. Idlewild served as a ferry between Memphis Tennessee and West Memphis Arkansas for over 15 years until 1931.

Idlewild comes to Louisville

Part of the docking structure where the Belle of Louisville sits today looking north up the river.

In 1931 the growing city of Louisville was in need of a Ferry to transport passengers to and from the popular Fountain Ferry theme park as well as transport the locals to the once bustling Rose Island resort, 14 miles up the Ohio River.

Fountain Ferry Park

Fountain Ferry was a theme park in Louisville’s west end that was a huge attraction in it’s time. The park had rides and attractions including four wooden rollercoasters that were constructed over the parks life. Fountain Ferry Park was in operation for over 50 years from 1906 to 1969. Some of the parks more popular attractions were it’s swimming pool, skating rink and movie theater. The park was located right up against the Ohio river in the cities northwest corner on over 60 acres of land. A perfect spot for the Idlewild ferry to drop off and pick up passengers traveling between the park and downtown Louisville.

Rose Island

Rose Island was a beautiful amusement park that used to be located in Charlestown Indiana, about 14 miles upstream from the city of Louisville Kentucky. The parks history dates back to the 1880’s when the area was known as Fern Grove. The park was unique in that it was located on a large peninsula in the middle of the Ohio River. The area was purchased in 1923 by David Rose and he quickly commissioned a resort on the land. Rose added an amusement park, hotel and a pool to an area that was already known for it’s pristine beauty and it attracted tourists from around the region. The only thing missing now was ways to transport the masses back and forth, so several ferry’s were soon commissioned. One would ferry patrons back and forth between Cincinnati and the island. Another back and forth from Madison Indiana. The third boat was the Idlewild out of Louisville. At the time a round trip ticket on the Idlewild to Rose Island was 50 cents and the average trip took around 90 minutes due to the boats limited speed capabilities.

Idlewild continued to ferry passengers and supplies through World War 2 and was even outfitted with special hardware so she could help with transporting oil barges along the way. Idlewild even briefly served a floating nightclub for soldiers stationed along the Mississippi river during the war.

The Avalon

In 1947 Idlewild was sold to J. Herod Gorsage and at the request of the ships longtime captain Ben Winters the vessel was renamed the Avalon. Over the better part of the next 15 years the Avalon would transport supplies and passengers along many of the nations major waterways including the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers.

The Belle of Louisville is Born

Far right is the Spirit of Jefferson, a much smaller boat that also offers rides along the waterfront. Center is the Belle of Louisville and far left the docked structure which serves administrative purposes.

By 1962 the old steamboat was in major need of repair. The nearly 50 years of modifications and making trips up and down America’s rivers had taken a toll on the old boat. The U.S. Coastguard actually deemed the Avalon unfit for service due to issues with the ships bow. But Louisville Judge Marlow Cook saw potential in the Avalon and paid $34,000 dollars for it, hoping to pitch the idea of using the boat as an attraction to the city.

First the boat would need several major repairs. Over the years of service many modifications had been made to the original to structure as the boat changed uses. This paired with deteriorating machinery added weight to the point where the boat was no longer able to operate safely. Cook hired Marine Architect Alan Bates to repair and restore the boat to it’s original state. This required placing the newly named Belle of Louisville in a dry dock for a period of time to strip the boat of all of it’s modifications and repair the deck and hull.

A view looking to the north along the Ohio River. Today, this is the part of the Ohio River that the Belle of Louisville regularly navigates on tours and special events.

On April 30th, 1963 the Belle of Louisville made it maiden voyage along the Ohio River as a participant in the Great Steamboat Race. A race that to this day still takes place late in April along Louisville’s waterfront as part of the Kentucky Derby festivities. The Belle of Louisville has served the Louisville community almost continuously since the extensive restoration work was done in the early 60’s. Today the boat operates seasonally and tours along the river that include meals are offered several times per day. The boat also offers V.I.P. rides at special events like the annual Forecastle Music Festival and Thunder over Louisville.

Final Thoughts

The Belle of Louisville is truly a unique piece of history, a modern day fossil if you will and it’s recognized as the oldest operating riverboat in America. If you’re ever in the Louisville area, it’s well worth taking a ride on this piece of our nation’s past. For ticket information and hours of operations check out the Belle of Louisville’s official website

Enjoying our content? Check out another article- Louisville’s U.S. Marine Hospital a unique historic landmark.

Louisville’s U.S. Marine Hospital: A unique historic landmark

The only remaining U.S. Marine Hospital out of the seven commissioned by the United States Government in 1845.

One of my favorite things to do is visit historic buildings. There really isn’t a way to replicate the feeling you get when you see for yourself how things were in different times.

The U.S. Marine Hospital in Louisville is one of those places. I recently took a trip to this historic landmark and thought that I would share some unique facts about the building and it’s history.

  • The Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital was one of 7 hospitals commissioned by the government in 1845.
  • The hospital was designed by Robert Wells, the same man that designed the Washington Monument.
  • The Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital opened in 1852.
  • In 2003 the hospital was named one of the ‘Eleven Most Endangered Places’ according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
  • Today, the Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital is the only one of the seven that remains.

History of Marine Hospitals

Before the Revolution, American sailors paid into a fund called ‘The British Seaman’s Hospital Fund.’ The problem was that the funding all went to one institution in Greenwhich, that many sailors would never use.

In 1798, the United States government enacted a law that required ship owners to pay a monthly tax of 20 cents per sailor under their employment. This money was used by the United States Treasury to build proper healthcare facilities along the nation’s now busy waterways. The fund was also used to contract care in places where hospital care was not accessible. This new tax was extended in 1799 to include Navy personnel.

By 1802, the United States operated 4 marine hospitals, but was still paying third parties in major cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York to take care of patients.

During the first half of the 1800’s most of the Governments healthcare efforts were focused primarily along the eastern seaboard. But by the 1840’s, it was clear that the Great Lakes, Mississippi and Ohio corridors were lacking medical facilities. In 1845, the Federal Government commissioned seven Marine Hospitals spread out, but near these waterways. The locations of the seven hospitals were strategically placed across six states:

  • Pittsburgh Pennsylvania
  • Cleveland Ohio
  • Louisville Kentucky
  • Paducah Kentucky
  • Saint Louis Missouri
  • Natchez Mississippi
  • Napoleon Arkansas


The building features several balconies lined with beautiful wrought iron railings.

The hospital was designed by Robert Wells ( the same man who designed the Washington Monument) and was constructed between 1845 and 1852. It was one of the seven hospitals commissioned (before the civil war) by the ‘Marine Hospital Service’ for the benefit of sick seamen including people from boats on rivers and lakes.

The Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital was considered state of the art at the time and featured indoor plumbing and an open air construction, which was thought to help keep germs to a minimum. The building is over 25,000 square feet and includes a basement where the morgue was located. The buildings second floor has several large balconies and was where patients rooms were located.

Early Usage

The hospital opened in 1852 and serviced patients from the Ohio River and the local area. Typical ailments of the day were fevers, injuries suffered while working on the river and various diseases.

Civil War

During the Civil War the hospital was largely inactive but was used for injured Union soldiers as well as captured Confederate soldiers.

Post Civil War

In 1869 Mother Mary Ignatius Walker and five other ‘Sisters of Mercy” came to Louisville to run the Hospital. The hospital only had a handful of patients when the sisters arrived but by 1871 it was the busiest in the region. The hospitals patient count swelled to over 100, many times more than that of similar hospitals in New Orleans and Saint Louis.

The Sisters of Mercy operated the hospital for almost seven years until 1875 when the Marine Hospital Service re-established the Hospital.

The Sisters of Mercy were highly respected throughout the community and in 1885 they founded the prestigious all girls school Mercy Academy.

World War One

During World War One the hospital primarily cared for soliders with amputations.

Post World War One

After the war the hospital was deemed to small and served as housing for medical workers during construction of a new facility right behind the original one. In 1933 the building closed for good but the basement was converted to a boiler room for the new hospital, which sat mere yards away.

The New Hospital

The new hospital opened in 1933 and still serves as a healthcare facility today.

In 1933 the new hospital opened about 50 yards to the south of the original Marine hospital. The original Marine Hospital dwarfs in comparison to the new structure, but has a certain charm that the new towering building failed to replicate. Today the newer building still serves as a healthcare facility for the residents of the Portland neighborhood.

The U.S. Marine Hospital today

After closing in 1933 the building served as the boiler room for the new hospital for several decades. Then the building sat vacant and deteriorated over a number of years. In 2003 the hospital was declared a national landmark after being called one of the nations ‘Eleven Most Endangered Places’ according to the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Shortly after being placed on the list the National Park Service granted the building “Save America’s Treasures’ status. The parks then issued a check to the city of Louisville for $375,000, to be applied to the buildings restoration. The plan called for the removal of a smokestack that had been added to the building and the demolition of several small structures nearby. The goal was to make the old hospital look as close to the original structure as possible. The funds were also used to hire the same company to restore the wrought iron railings that installed them in 1850.

Since 2004, the building has undergone further renovations and has been painted to look like it did in the early 1900’s. The hospital was also given a new roof sometime over the past 15 years. As of 2020, the property remains fenced off and the restoration of the interior has yet to be finished because the project needs a further five or six million dollars in funding to complete.

Several ideas have been considered for future use of the old hospital including a welcome center for the state of Kentucky because of it’s close proximity to interstate 64. Another proposal would renovate the basement that was once a morgue into a ballroom that could be rented out for events by the public. Most recently it was rumored that the University of Louisville had reached out to city officials about turning the old hospital into a health care facility. However, none of the proposed plans have been agreed on or most importantly funded as of 2020.

Having been past this property several times throughout my life I feel like I should have taken the time to learn more about the property before now. I had no idea that the building had served for so many years and shaped so many lives. The fact that the Louisville U.S. Marine Hospital is the best example of an Antebellum style hospital and was a precursor to the nation’s healthcare system as we know it today, definitely makes the place worth the visit.

Enjoying our content? Check out another article- Old Louisville, America’s best preserved Victorian community.

Old Louisville: America’s best preserved Victorian Community

Louisville Kentucky is home to the nation’s oldest and best preserved Victorian community. Seeing these hollowed streets first hand is akin to walking back in time, to a long forgotten era. A time when horse drawn carriages lined the streets and electricity wasn’t the norm.

I recently took this stroll back through time to historic old Louisville and thought I would share a couple of interesting facts that I learned along the way.

  • Old Louisville is America’s oldest preserved Victorian community.
  • The Southern Exposition was held in what is modern day Central Park from 1883 to 1887.
  • Thomas Edison’s light bulb was displayed publicly for the first time at the Exposition.
  • St. James Court is home to America’s largest annual outdoor art fair.
  • The Pink Palace and the Conrad-Caldwell House are two of the most recognizable homes in Old Louisville.
  • Louisville’s Central Park was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the same man that designed New York’s Central park.

History of Old Louisville

House across from the Pink Palace in St. James Court

Old Louisville isn’t old in a sense that it’s the oldest part of the city. Most of the 48 blocks actually began construction in the 1870’s. In the 1830’s, the land was home to country estates and farms. In 1839, in what is now Old Louisville (near 7th street) Oakland Race Track was constructed. Oakland served as the cities horse racing venue prior to construction of Churchill Downs. From 1850-1870 the western part of Old Louisville was constructed. Finally, the land south of Broadway was annexed by the city in 1868.

Southern Exposition

Leading up to 1883, the area was growing but at a slow rate. Seeing the potential in the region, Courier Journal editor Henry Watterson urged city officials to hold an annual Exposition in this developing part of town. This in part led to the city hosting the ‘Southern Exposition’ from 1883 to 1887. The area chosen for the annual event was the grounds that would later become Louisville’s Central Park.

The Exposition was a huge success and attracted nearly one million visitors in the first year alone. The Southern Exposition was also the first place that Thomas Edison’s light bulb was displayed publicly. Another notable attraction was a light display that included over 4,600 lamps, in a time when the majority of homes were without electricity.

Old Louisville flourished

After the success of the Southern Exposition the area quickly filled with wealthy residents. It was a time of decadence, a modern day renaissance if you will, and most of the upscale Victorian Style homes reflect that sentiment.

St. James Court’s orgins

The entrance to St. James Court

St. James court was constructed in the 1890’s with one thought in mind. Luxury! Construction was finished by 1905 and the extravagant homes quickly filled with residents the same year. The court is the home of two of Old Louisville’s most famous houses, the easily recognizable Pink Palace and the Conrad-Caldwell House.

Old Louisville Today

Over the past 20 years Old Louisville is experiencing somewhat of another renaissance. The city has worked with residents and contractors to restrore and preserve this unique piece of our nation’s history.

St. James Court Today

The Fountain at the center of St. James Court

By the mid 20th century, Old Lousiville was in a period of decline. The city was looking for a way to reinvigorate the area, similar to the way the Southern Exposition had over 60 years prior. In 1957 the city began holding the St. James Art Fair, mere yards from the place the original Expositions were held in the 1800’s. Once again the plan worked to perfection and the now world famous event has been held annually since.

St. James Court Lamplighter sculpture located in the court

Today, St. James court is home to the nation’s largest annual outdoor art festival. The art fair has been held every year since 1957 and attracts over 300,00 visitors annually. In 1975 the city declared Old Louisville a historic district, thanks in part to the success of the St. James Art Fair.

The weekend art fair includes over 700 artists and vendors from all over the world, selling items that range from landscape paintings to one of a kind sculptures.

Conrad-Caldwell House

The Conrad-Caldwell House

One of the more unique homes constructed on St. James court is located at the entrance, on the corner of Magnolia Avenue. The Conrad-Caldwell House (also known as ‘Conrad’s Castle’) was constructed by Theophile Conrad for his wife and himself in 1893, for about $35,000. Conrad, who had amassed a small fortune in the tanning business, spared no expense in the mansions construction. After Conrad passed away in 1905, the house was purchased by William Caldwell. The home later served as a Retirement home for over 40 years.

Aside from the houses eye catching castle like appearance it also has other bizare features, like carvings of animals and gargoyles engraved in random places around the structure. Today the historic mansion serves as a museum, tours are available if you schedule in advance.

The Pink Palace

The Pink Palace

Built in 1891, the Pink Palace is possibly the single most popular mansion in all of Old Louisville. The ‘Pink Palace’ has been painted pink since 1912. The house originally served as a gentleman’s club and casino for the courts residents to unwind and socialize.

The house also has somewhat of a haunted history. When researching for his book ‘Phantoms of Old Louisville’ Author David Domie interviewed current and past residents of the Pink Palace. Domie concluded that the mansion is haunted by a friendly spirit named Avery. Avery is described as a six foot tall southern gentleman, clean shaven with white hair who looks over the mansion and those who call it home.

Louisville’s Central Park

Louisville’s Central Park

The park was originally part of the Dupont family’s country estate and used as the site of the Southern Exposition. On June 15, 1872, The Dupont family opened their estate up for public use and the 17 acres became the cities first public park.

During the Exposition the majority of the park was covered with a roof to house the attractions and inventions. Later the structures were demolished and a trolley was installed, that would take visitors around a lake allowing them to see various exhibits along the way.

In 1904, after years of negotiations the city of Louisville purchased the park from the Dupont family for $297,500. The family had undergone tumultuous times since the heir to the fortune Alfred was murdered by a scorned lover and the sale marked a new beginning for the land.

In the years prior to the Dupont family selling the park they commissioned Fredrick Law Olmsted (the same man who designed New York’s central park) to design a park on the grounds. The project began in 1905 when the old Dupont Mansion was tore down to break ground on Central Park.

Central Park is famous for it’s annual Shakespeare in the park plays. Shakespeare plays have been performed in the park dating back as far as 1895.

Beautiful Southern Charm

If you haven’t had a chance to check out old Louisville, Shakespeare in the Park or the St. James Art Fair, you should, it’s well worth the time. There’s not another place in America where you can walk through an old Victorian neighborhood on a cool fall weekend, look at beautiful art and eat amazing food. Enjoying our content? Check out another article- Fort Duffield, Kentucky’s impenetrable Civil War Fort.