Grace Under Steam, Part Three

Join Peter Knego for part three of his latest trek aboard Great American Steamboat Company’s freshly revived, lavish AMERICAN QUEEN for a day on the Ohio River and a visit to historic Louisville, KY .  Tour the paddlewheeler BELLE OF LOUISVILLE and hop aboard for the Great Steamboat Race between AMERICAN QUEEN, BELLE OF LOUISVILLE and the BELLE OF CINCINNATI.

American Queen Steamboat Company

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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gordon C. Greene at the podium.

Another full day on the river began with a presentation entitled “Huclkeberry Greene” by Gordon C. Greene, grandson of the founder of the fabled Greene Line, which operated a fleet of paddlewheel boats on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Greene Line purchased and brought the DELTA QUEEN to Cincinnati from San Francisco in 1949 and young Greene gave us a firsthand account of that and many other tales from his youthful days on the river. Were it not for his grandfather (after whom both he and the famous steamboat were named), there might not have been an AMERICAN QUEEN.

The owl is in the detail.
Grand Saloon chandelier.
Blue Tiffany overlook.

There was more time to sit and soak in the details as the scenic Ohio River drifted by. Two Riverlorian talks, including one about steamboat racing and what would soon be AMERICAN QUEEN’s nemesis, the historic steamer BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, were presented in the Grand Saloon. A magic show, Dixieland music, lingering on a swing on the front porch and chatting with fellow guests would round out the day.

Caesar Salad.

Dinner in the J.M. White was the best so far, beginning with a crispy Caesar Salad.

Chicken Marsala.

The main course, a Sauteed Chicken Breast in Marsala Wine Sauce was absolutely perfect, tender and bursting with flavor.

Blue Grass in the Grand Saloon.

Evening entertainment in the Grand Saloon took a 180 degree turn from the Big Band sounds of Harry James to the Bluegrass tones of the Storefront Congregation, a formidable five piece band from Louisville. Their harmonies were tight (and not too twangy), the lyrics were clever and funny and the musicianship was outstanding.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Let them eat Bananas Foster Stuffed French Toast!

It would be a day of “Bells and BELLES” in Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby and bourbon whiskey.  Mags (my darling Aunt Mary) and I got started a bit earlier than usual with a full breakfast in the J.M. White Dining Room. It would probably be the last thing I would ever eat (not that I wouldn’t enjoy it) but I had to see the Bananas Foster Stuffed French Toast with my own eyes.

Seelbach Hotel.

We had tickets for the 9:50 Steamcoach and were soon off to see Louisville, named for France’s King Louis XVI, who, along with his wife, Marie Antoinette, ended their reigns under the blade of a guillotine. After doing the Steamcoach loop, we hopped off at the gorgeous Seelbach Hilton Hotel, which was built in 1905.

Louisville hotel lobby.

It was hard not to think of the great turn-of-the-(20th) century liners like the FRANCE (iv) when pondering the grand staircase in the lobby of the Seelbach. We also visited the Ratskellar in its basement which has some spectacular Bavarian Rookwood Pottery Panels.

LOUIV XVI versus the Clock Tower.

From there it was a relatively short walk to the City Hall, with its famous clock tower, dating from 1873. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, it faces a large marble statue of Louis XVI.

Baseball Museum.

Other Steamcoach stops included the Slugger’s Museum and Factory, fronted by a six story bat and dedicated to America’s most popular pastime and the Glass Factory, which has an interesting exhibit or two and a viewing area overlooking the glass blowing ovens.

Kentucky Center.

Our last stop was  the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Fronted by an Alexander Calder sculpture, it offers a free I-Max style screening of the popular “The Kentucky Show”.  Upcoming headliners in the state-of-the-art theater include a number of country music acts, as well as Bills Maher and Cosby.


Back on board the AMERICAN QUEEN, a historic transfer was about to take place. Stowed on forward Observation Deck, the 865-pound brass bell from the since-scrapped-down-to-a-barge riverboat MISSISSIPPI QUEEN was about to be hoisted away.

MISSISSIPPI QUEEN being lowered to a barge.

The bell, originally cast in 1876 for the Holy Cross Monastery in Cincinnati and gifted to the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN in 1976, will live on at the Howard Steamboat Museum, located near the Jeffboat Shipyard in Jefferson, Indiana, which built the “MQ”.


I next headed off to explore the riverfront and get some photos of the three stern wheelers gathered for the Great Race later that day. Right behind the AMERICAN QUEEN was the handsome little BELLE OF CINCINNATI, built in 1991 as the EMERALD LADY. The diesel-powered boat has replaced the now-laid up DELTA QUEEN as the principal competitor with hometown legend, the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, in the annual Great Steamboat Race.



It was great to finally see the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, the 1914-built steamboat that has reportedly traveled more miles and visited more places than any other steamboat in her class. She was originally named IDYLWILD, then became AVALON in 1947. In 1962, she became BELLE OF LOUISVILLE and was completely restored at Louisville. She began “racing” the DELTA QUEEN in the Great Steamboat Race held in conjunction with the Kentucky Derby. Up until this year, BELLE OF LOUISVILLE had won the race 22 times, versus the DELTA QUEEN’s 20.


The boat was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and became a National Landmark in 1976. Although preparations were going on in anticipation of 650 passengers boarding for the Steamboat Race (at a lofty $140 per head), the BELLE’s amiable CEO, Linda Harris, was kind enough to give me a quick tour.


Up on the top deck, the steam calliope is a lovingly restored replacement for the original, which was sold at auction before the boat was refurbished in 1962.

BELLE OF LOUISVILLE control panel.

In the engine room, the control panel still has its beautifully polished brass gauges.


Regular guests can view the engines and paddlewheel mechanism in action.


In the saloon, which now enjoys the benefit of air conditioning, tables were being set for a lavish buffet.

BELLE OF LOUISVILLE ceiling detail.

Shortly before I disembarked, Linda pointed out a part of the hammered tin ceiling that dates from 1914. It was really a privilege to see this remarkable boat on such a high profile day.

For more, please visit: The BELLE OF LOUISVILLE Official Website.

Contenders in the hours prior to the Great Race.

Meanwhile, alongside the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, crew members from all three Great Steamboat Race participants were competing in a number of tournaments. The  Great Steamboat Race is more like a contest with the race being just one of many “tests” to achieve an overall score.

Steamboat Race jousting in the shadows of the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE.

Line tossing and a curious inflatable jousting match were among the skills tested.


Just before 6:00 PM, as the race revved up, the kind owners of BELLE OF CINCINNATI provided a spot for me on the boat’s foredeck so I could document the AMERICAN QUEEN “in action”.

Rhino in reverse:  AMERICAN QUEEN backs under the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge.

The BELLE OF LOUISVILLE was already in position as the AMERICAN QUEEN backed out, funnels collapsed in “rhino” position. The BELLE OF CINCINNATI followed, lining up on the north side of the two steamboats.


AMERICAN QUEEN was clearly the most majestic of the trio but the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE was a vintage marvel of huffing steam.

AMERICAN QUEEN flutes on the rise.

AMERICAN QUEEN had to collapse her funnels a second time to clear a trio of bridges and a series of power lines, raising one at a time afterwards, as she rolled upstream. She crossed behind and then overtook us, backlit by the early evening sun.

AMERICAN QUEEN picks up speed.
AMERICAN QUEEN paddle plough.
Leaving us in the mist.
AMERICAN QUEEN races ahead.

At the six mile point, AMERICAN QUEEN pivoted around and sped back downstream, leaving the BELLE OF CINCINNATI, pirate flag waving, in the mist. Meanwhile, the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE was nowhere in sight. We learned later that she turned around several miles back.

AMERICAN QUEEN returns to Louisville.

Back at the starting point, AMERICAN QUEEN maneuvered into her berth. The CINCINNATI followed and I jumped into the long queue to disembark. Somehow, even though the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE didn’t run the entire race and the BELLE OF CINCINNATI fell far behind AMERICAN QUEEN, the AQ came in third. So much for the “race” part of the Great Steamboat Race…

Lynn Roberts and the Harry James Band.

One thing the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE could not possibly top was the evening entertainment on AMERICAN QUEEN as she made her way up the Ohio River. The Harry James Band was so great, it was hard to imagine anything or anyone that could make it better. But guest singer Lynn Roberts had that magic touch. One of the best performances I have seen on any boat or ship, for that matter.

End of Part Three. Much More To Come…

Very special thanks: Greg Brown, Martin Cox, Nora Farrell, Mary Ferlin, Linda Harris, Mike Hicks, Christopher Kyte, Tim Rubacky,

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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