October 2014 represented the 100th anniversary of a unique steamboat, the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, ex-IDLEWILD and AVALON, in a dramatic history of firsts including most rivers and mileage logged. Capt. Doc Hawley calculates it was some 12,000 miles per year as the AVALON. A gala celebration was set for October of this year. There were several belles present including the BELLE OF CINCINNATI and SPIRIT OF PEORIA, many with two legs, but when the BELLE is spoken of here, it is the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE.
Both the pretty little sternwheel paddle boat CLYDE. belonging to Captain Don Sanders of Aurora, and my 22 foot steam launch MISS BLUE, were recruited to augment an industry presence there. The MV J. S. LEWIS of Madison Coal brought down the W. P. SNYDER JR, a dormant steam towboat belonging to Ohio Historical Society and under the protective wing of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen. They also brought their whistle barge, ANNA MARIE, well remembered from Tall Stacks. They could not have been entrusted to better hands in my estimation. It enabled thousands of school kids and adults to tour it. These were people outside the normal venue of visitation.
Personal logistics demanded a complicated method of getting MISS BLUE to Louisville. We trailered her to Marine Builders in Utica, IN where she was stored safely while brother John and I returned to Aurora, IN. Once there, we joined Chief Philip Johnson and Captain Don Sanders to crew the CLYDE. on its meandering way to Louisville via Ohio River. This fulfilled a life-long dream of taking a small boat (if a fifty-footer can be considered small) down the river to Louisville, and BACK!
We left on Saturday morning, October 11. All was serene until we were making entrance to Markland’s 600 foot lock when a hydraulic hose burst, stopping us cold. We dropped anchor, Capt Don ran a line ashore in the dingy and a friend, Dan Back, stuck his head out of the weeds ashore offering help. Meanwhile Chief Engineer Philip Johnson removed the offending hose, and was driven by Dan to KOI Motors in Warsaw, who repaired it tout suite. It cost us some two and a half hours so we stopped at Carrollton instead of Madison for the night. Next morning saw us in the middle of a thirty-boat fishing contest that delayed our early start to 7:30 AM. Cooperation of friends, lock personnel and lady luck saw us in Louisville by the appointed time.
I elected to leave MISS BLUE on her trailer in front of the CLYDE. all week instead of launching her. This was due to the poor facilities for mooring small craft at the Louisville waterfront. This has the added advantage of allowing countless kids of all ages to climb aboard, blow the whistle and see the engine run under the influence of live steam. MISS BLUE was the oldest boat there at 104 years. She was built in 1910 by L. E. Fry, Clayton, NY, and rebuilt by Harry Card in 2006, the only active steam vessel in the industry display, and, arguably the prettiest boat there. MISS BLUE, the CLYDE. and the whistle barge held down the farthest up-river position at the display. Aaron Richardson, my brother John and Cap’n Don assisted in running a “class” in handling lines and heaving lines ashore. Aaron Richardson, and Errin Howard scurried about in the rain early on to get things organized and hammering the kinks out. Brother John, Aaron and Cap’n Don camped aboard the CLYDE. all week. Philip had to return to work.
The weather cleared by mid-week and things got into high gear. Highlights for me and others were calliope concerts and we had the finest seat in the house for that and the fireworks on Saturday night. The latter filled the decks of the CLYDE. with paper debris off the shells bursting overhead. Notable among the “Perfessors” at the keyboard were Travis Vasconcelos, Zach Morecraft, Bubba Dow, Capt. Doc Hawley, David and Jonathan Tschiggfrie and Anthony Benedetto. Doc and Martha Gibbs held forth on the BELLE’s calliope, but the big concerts were from the whistle barge. Comfortable seats on the top deck of the CLYDE. overlooked the whistle barge and it don’t get no better than that, with a steady parade of boats on cruise going by. The throaty whistle of the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, authoritative as the MGM lion, never fails to lift the hair on the back of my neck and the whistle barge had one to answer it … and did! Coming down river in Markland Lock, the floating pins offered up a SQUEEEEEEEEE, SQUAAAAAAAAAAAAWWW of unlubricated, rusty steel-on-steel as they gently lowered us to the McAlpine pool that was somehow reminiscent of an out of tune calliope (oxymoron?). In my mind, nothing can match the rollicking good humor of a well-tended calliope.
Alas, some of the acts booked by the festival gave NO solace to lovers of classical music. The closest they got was some swing music from WWII era that was real nice. Others were not only reminiscent of a traveling train wreck, the VOLUME was set FAR above the OSHA legal limit of dB 90. Please do not remind me that calliope music might exceed that limit.
There were river people who came great distances, like Bubba Dow from New Orleans and Lake George, NY; Cap’n Doc Hawley from New Orleans; David and Jonathan Tschiggfrie from Dubuque; steam launch owners, and Mr & Mrs Widmer from Switzerland who made themselves known to me. I got autographs of the BELLE’s crew, calliope players and other important people on the front cover of the wonderful current issue of the Reflector which featured the BELLE’s 100 year history and a photo of the boat head-on with the crew arrayed thereon. I got signatures of the Kentucky governor, the Mayor of Louisville and members of the Coast Guard and I made all them sign John Fryant’s wonderful back cover.
Then there was Daffy Duck. I don’t know where Daffy lived. Most ducks are social creatures and travel in pairs at least. Not Daffy. Daffy was a loner. If Daffy saw me remove a tube of crackers from my duffle, she was suddenly RIGHT THERE! She could wheedle bits of sandwiches from the homeless! Donno if she runs the Waterfront, but I give her high marks for her role in the entertainment department. Daffy left her signature several times, but I don’t think you’d want to put it in a book!
There were throngs of people touring the SNYDER, the LEWIS and surrounding MISS BLUE from time to time, and many were hosted aboard the CLYDE and signed her register although the CLYDE. was not geared for tours. Local media spent much time with both Cap’n Don of the CLYDE. and Cap’n Walnut of MISS BLUE and both evidently appeared on WBKY and perhaps others.
The week was filled with river folks from far and near having fun in each other’s company. Some, like Doc Hawley, I’d known for over twenty years, but never really had any conversation. Others, like the MOR and other folks of S&D were there in force, including our intrepid Reflector editor David Tschiggfrie and his son Jonathan. All too soon for some of us, the week was over. At least and at last, on Saturday, my wife, Carol, and son, Tom, came down to ride the BELLE with me and enjoy some of the day with MISS BLUE. Again, all too short. Kudos to the crew of the BELLE who had her shining and standing tall for the event and were extremely helpful to us and to Cap’n Don of the CLYDE. And that does not even mention Aaron and Errin, who put the Industry event together, and, more importantly, MADE IT WORK!
Of the countless folks who visited MISS BLUE, most asked if it was the AFRICAN QUEEN, or remarked about the similarity to the AFRICAN QUEEN of movie fame. It is not the AFRICAN QUEEN but of similar power and propulsion. Built in 1910, MISS BLUE is only four years younger than the AFRICAN QUEEN, and NO, I did not build her myself! In my 80th year, some math might reveal the probability of such an event. And, yes, she burns wood and charcoal, boils water into steam which runs the engine and blows the whistle.
The Birthday Bash ended on Sunday and my brother John took MISS BLUE home to her snug place in our barn on Saturday night. We knocked things down late Sunday and since John was gone home, Aaron went with Cap’n Don and me on the CLYDE., starting back up the Ohio River 110 miles to Aurora early Monday morning in a soft rain. We picked up Pete O’Connell (alternate master and pilot of the BELLE OF LOUISVILLE) as pilot for the first day. He took us as far as Madison where his wife picked him up Monday night. Tuesday saw us off again toward home. We locked through Markland with Cap’n Don at the helm to fight the eddy-current wind that swept us to the windward side of the lock without harm. I took the helm out of the lock and kept it all the way to the seaplane dock at Rising Sun (across from Rabbit Hash). The latter part was navigated in the dark from East Bend to Rising Sun. We had lost all battery power and used lanterns for our marker lights. We used two batteries and a Jump starter to (barely) start the high compression diesel engine on the CLYDE. Wednesday morning. We left Rising Sun Wednesday morning and got to Aurora (some ten miles) by noon. Brother John joins me in thanking all these people for a memorable time, especially our host, Cap’n Don Sanders.
We blew the whistle for Payne Hollow, home of artist Harlan Hubbard, the mouth of Indian Kaintuck Creek, birthplace of WWI hero Samual Woodfill, and the collision site of the Steamer AMERICA with Steamer UNITED STATES, which claimed some 63 lives in December of 1878. We passed Laughery Creek and Laughery Island where the Indians under the British soundly defeated Col Lochery’s men there in 1783 during the Revolutionary War.
We averaged 6.2 mph on the way down and 4.3 on the way back which calculates to an average current velocity of about one mph. The, then new, Laidley steamer CITY OF LOUISVILLE set the upstream steam record of 9:42 minutes (numbers she carried on her pilot house). That’s over 13 mph. It was 130 miles of open river way back in 1894. She later set the downstream record of 5:32 for a speed of over 23 mph. She tore up the river and snapped mooring lines, tearing out timbers and blocks. Her wake snapped an inch-and-a-half steel wire rope at North Landing and the Cincinnati Gas Company nearly lost its entire 28 barge fleet to the tempest she churned up! Courts ruled later she could do so due to the competition of railroads. We seem to be in little danger of any such lawsuit!
The wisdom of taking such a trip at my age is open to debate. Charge it up to senility or second childhood. At 79, I prefer to think of it as mid-life crisis. After piloting the CLYDE. most of the way back, I got home in time to run my car into a ditch totaling it. Sigh, was it worth it? Don’t tell Miss Carol I said so, but, YOU BETCHA!