The Great Steamboat Race 2008

Every year we have a steamboat race on the Ohio River as part of our annual Kentucky Derby Festival. Various boats have participated over the years but the main contestants are always our own Belle Of Louisville and Cincinnati's Delta Queen, two of only about six authentic steamboats still running on the rivers. This year, for the 45th annual race, The Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen were joined by the Belle of Cincinnati.

The race is a 14-mile round trip route starting at the Clark Memorial Bridge in downtown Louisville Kentucky and goes upriver to Six Mile Island where the boats turn around and race back to the bridge. Even though the Ohio River is 3/4 mile to nearly a mile wide in this stretch, it poses some difficulty for the larger boats to turn around quickly.

The long standing rivalry between the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen has often led to some good-natured shenanigans during the races.  The "races" are really just for fun anyway as the boats are not  evenly matched in terms of size, weight, power or top speeds.

The Delta Queen (left) and the Belle of Louisville head upriver at the start of the race. The Belle of Cincinnati is hidden from view behind the Delta Queen.

The Delta Queen leads the race pulling away. She is a magnificent authentic sternwheeler built in 1926 and at the time, the Delta Queen and her sister boat, the Delta King, they were the most lavishly appointed and expensive sternwheel passenger boats ever commissioned. The Delta Queen is is 285 feet long, 58 feet wide, and draws 11.5 feet. The boat weighs 1,650 tons, with a capacity of 200 passengers. Its compound steam engine generates 2,000 ihp powering a stern-mounted paddlewheel.

The Delta Queen cruises the Mississippi River and its tributaries on a regular schedule, with overnight cruises ranging from New Orleans to Memphis to St. Louis to St. Paul to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, and many more. The Queen was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

Gleaming with four decks of teak and original Tiffany-style stained-glass windows, Delta Queen accommodates just 176 guests, all in outside staterooms. Unique touches abound, including a rare ironwood floor gracing the Orleans Room, the heart of the ship's nightlife, and an 1897 steam calliope that was once salvaged from a sunken showboat and sold to a circus. You'll even find the very same ship's bell that sounded out landings for the steamboat Mark Twain rode downriver in 1883.

This could be the last race for the Delta Queen.
Because of her wooden superstructure, The Delta Queen does not meet modern safety standards for overnight passenger cruises. Since 1968 she has been granted exemptions to to a 1966 U.S. Coast Guard fire safety rule. The rule forbids wooden structures on vessels that carry more than 50 passengers on overnight trips. This year, the exemption was not granted and unless something changes by November 2008, the Delta Queen will only be allowed to make short daytime cruises.

There is a grass roots effort of people lobbying congress to grant another extension. Supporters point out that the boat has been operating without an incident for 81 years  and even if there were a fire, the boat is never far away from a riverbank and rescue a big difference from ships at sea. And, unlike at hotels made of wood, vacationers staying in Delta Queen rooms must undergo a safety drill before sailing. A night watchman patrols the boat.

The Belle of Cincinnati

Running second in the race at this point is the Belle of Cincinnati.

The Belle of Cincinnati, a modern authentic paddlewheeler, is an excursion riverboat and calls the Port of Cincinnati home. This excursion boat was formerly known as the Emerald Lady and used as a casino boat out of Iowa and then Mississippi in the early 1990s. In 1998 BB Riverboats bought the Emerald Lady and in 1999 they began restoration while docked in New Orleans. When the restoration was complete, the newly named Belle of Cincinnati towed the World Peace Bell (currently on display in Newport, KY) to Cincinnati. The Belle of Cincinnati officially began operating on the Ohio River in Cincinnati on August 6, 1999.

This impressive boat boasts a total of 4 decks, which includes 4 dining rooms, dance floors, an open-air deck, and room for up to 1,000 guests. The Belle of Cincinnati also has some unique features like handrails crafted from Louisiana Swamp Cyprus, which is found only in New Orleans. Captain Alan Bernstein and his wife also keep a large portion of their personal river art collection on-board.

The Belle of Louisville

Bringing up the rear in the upriver leg of the race is the Belle of Louisville.

The Belle of Louisville, which was added to the National Historic Register in 1990, is one of six authentic paddlewheel steamboats operating on U.S. waterways. The Belle was launched in 1914 under the name Idlewild. She was purchased at auction in 1962 by the city of Louisville $34,000. The following year she competed against the Delta Queen in the first-ever Great Steamboat Race.

The Delta Queen continues to lead the way as they approach the turn around.

The Belle of Louisville decided to make her race course a little shorter by turning around early and suddenly she has a big lead coming back down river.

At this point in the race, the Belle of Louisville has a commanding lead with about 3 miles to go. The Belle of Cincinnati, being smaller and able to turn around faster, took over second place and the Delta Queen finds herself in the last place.

It's always a big party on the steamboats during the race.

A few balloons launched to get a birdseye view of the race.

Spectators line the shore on both sides of the Ohio River to watch the annual race.

The Delta Queen Pours it on and overtakes the Belle Of Cincinnati.

The more powerful Delta Queen closed the gap but couldn't quite catch the Belle of Louisville before she crossed the finish line. However, the judges overturned her victory  because of the Belle of Louisville's early turnaround and awarded the race to the Delta Queen. Of the 42 times that the Belle of Louisville and Delta Queen have raced each other in the Great Steamboat Race, the Belle has won 22 times and this was the 20th win for the Delta Queen.

And a barefoot young Huck Finn is left with dreams and memories of a sunny day on the river.

Photos and story by Mike Carter 2008

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