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The River: Chasing the Belle of Louisville (from land with Black Beauty), taking photos and embracing fond memories

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Nothing beats the resonance of a steamboat whistle echoing off the hills along the Ohio River. Although these melodious tones were once so common, school kids easily knew what boat was passing by the whistles’ sounds. These musical reflections are heard only rarely these days. One exception happened just this past week when the 106-year-old steamboat, the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, made a triumphant pass along the Ohio River Valley from Louisville while on her way to Gallipolis, Ohio for a five-year drydock inspection by the United States Coast Guard.

Word of the BELLE’s trip didn’t take long to get around in this electronic age. Riverbuff Extraordinaire, Frank Prudent, the scion of steamboat engineering nobility, set the pace for notifying those concerned that a “Steamboat’s a’ Comin’!”

Just this past week when the 106-year-old steamboat, the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, made a triumphant pass along the Ohio River Valley.

It took me but a few minutes to “borrow” a screen take from Frank’s video of the BELLE leaving Madison, Indiana, before I had it reposted at 10:20 a.m. Tuesday, 20 October 2020 with the text:

“STEAMBOAT’S A’ COMIN’!’ The Steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE is at Markland L&D (OR Mile 531.5) and coming upstream at 7 MPH toward the dry docks at Gallipolis, OH for its five-year inspection.”

Within minutes, the post received 138 reactions, 61 comments and shared 96 times. The old-time “sternline telegraph” was nothing in comparison to the internet.

Musician John Bower immediately responded: “That’s awesome, she’s headed toward Bones Tavern,” which confused me as I thought I knew the location of every joint on the Ohio River. But since I quit imbibing the sauce over 38 years ago, an unfamiliar hostelry may exist since I took the pledge. Regardless, the BELLE, paddling toward Cincinnati, planned to tie up before dark at the Public Landing, so I was determined to see her when she passed Aurora Bend.

Cap’n Pete O’Connell, a pilot on the approaching steamboat, estimated his boat picked up speed after clearing Markland Lock.

Cap’n Pete O’Connell, a pilot on the approaching steamboat, estimated his boat picked up speed after clearing Markland Lock. Instead of moving along at seven, Pete guesstimated the BELLE of LOUISVILLE’s speed was eight mph in the pool water above the dam. After consulting a chartbook left from the Rafter CLYDE, a quick tabulation showed that the BELL was close to 35 miles below town. At eight miles-per, the steamboat had approximately four-and-a-half hours more before it showed itself close to my front door. I had plenty of time to prepare before climbing into “Black Beauty, my 1995. Ford F-150 for the short-haul to the park alongside the river.

The one thing I learned from experience chasing a steamboat from ashore, they may be slow on the water, but once you get behind their “power curve,” so to speak, they can be tough to catch following them onshore. Instead of waiting until the last minute, I asked my sons if they wanted to go “steamboat chasing” with their old man. Jesse, my eldest, had prior plans, but Jonathan, much to my delight, answered, “Sure.”

The LUCKY LADY ferryboat between Rising Sun, IN and Rabbit Hash, KY.

Jonathan and I pulled in at the park within minutes of leaving home and positioned ourselves at the lot’s north end. The car next to us, on the left, belonged to an older couple who were in the park for similar reasons as Jon and I. A woman, standing an easy distance from the next door vehicle, held one of those fancy “smartphones” and sighted along with its flat-screen into the direction of the still undetected steamer somewhere far downriver towards Rabbit Hash and Rising Sun. After several minutes of watching the woman, I suggested to Jonathan that we drive downriver where we might catch a glimpse of the BELLE paddling along above the twin towns.

Actually, we both felt more comfortable killing time on the road rather than waiting in the park where masks and social distancing are as rare as a Joe Biden yard sign further uptown.

The Middle Ohio River between Aurora and Rising Sun takes a broad sweep around immense, low-lying flood plains laid down by the retreating glaciers during the Ice Ages. The glacial outwash plains, choice ground for planting corn and soybeans, are prone to flooding, but the busy, two-lane highway sits on higher ground about a mile inland from the river. If we were to spy the steamboat at that distance, it would be more likely a glimpse of smoke from the BELLE’s tall stacks or else a cloud of steam exhausting from the engines and the steering gear condensing in the chilly, damp autumn air. We saw neither.

Frank Prudent is the scion of steamboat engineering nobility, Chief Engineer Bill Prudent.

The best place beside “downtown” Rising Sun and the LUCKY LADY ferryboat to see what’s happening on the river is an unused dirt ramp at the end of a road once named “Dam View Lane.” The ramp overlooks the Ohio across from old Lock & Dam No. 38, whose buildings still stand. Once belonging to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lock and dam worker’s houses have since been converted into a small settlement of sorts. Arriving at the bottom of the dirt road as close to the river as we dared, Jonathan and I saw neither steam nor smoke or heard anything sounding like a steamboat huffing and puffing along.

A call to a pilot buddy aboard the BELLE got an immediate, though broken reception. Rising Sun sits in a bowl surrounded by steep sides of the Ohio River Valley, where electronic reception is still sketchy despite the latest efforts to improve it with tall steel towers and such.

“Where y’ at?” I bellowed to make myself heard on the other end. But all I heard was a garbled response.

“You see the old dam site – Lock and Dam 28? Look at your chartbook.”

Still garbled.

“OK… Look for us at the ferry landing in Aurora,” I added in case their telephone reception was better than mine.

Ten minutes later, Black Beauty was the only motor vehicle parked on the concrete ramp at the former ferry landing. I had an N 95 mask left from wire-wheeling the bottom of the Rafter CLYDE three years earlier strapped around the back of my head with the mask itself on my chin and ready to snap into place if anyone else came to witness the BELLE chugging along. Far down the river, the tiny form of the Steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE was the first indication of the best show coming to town in a long time.

Jonathan suggested that we follow the BELLE upriver as far as Lawrenceburg. We beat the steamboat there where more photos recorded her passing.

Closer and closer, the steamboat came toward us. A distance below the riverside park, the BELLE of LOUISVILLE blew someone a salute as I made out the shape of two much smaller motor vessels following alongside the BELLE. One I didn’t recognize, although I knew that Dave Miller, a local boatman and marina owner, planned to be on the water to watch the steamboat pass. The other I immediately realized was Captain Aaron Richardson’s tugboat, the ELIZABETH LEA, a historic river craft built as a dredge tender towboat for the Army Engineers in 1939 and presently on the National Register of Historic Places.

There was enough time for me to leave the truck and walk to where the ferry ramp and the river met. Still, no one other than Jonathan and I were on the landing as traffic buzzed around the bend on IN Route 56 alongside the Aurora Eagles Club. Any minute, I expected revelers from within the Eagles to steam out and onto the ramp as they did, recently, when the sternwheel traveler, the GAMBLER, pulled into town for an overnight stay. None did, so we had the ramp to ourselves.

I appreciated being with my son Jonathan Evan Hartford Sanders as much as I relished the progress of the BELLE of LOUISVILLE.

By now, the BELLE of LOUISVILLE was above the electrical power lines drooping in a graceful curve from a tower on the Indiana side to a tall, steel support on the Kentucky side of the river. My trusty pocket camera soon started clicking away as the BELLE appeared larger and larger as she came closer. My friends in the pilothouse were expecting to see me somewhere along the Aurora shore, so I started waving in the traditional river wave with both arms extended high overhead. Within seconds, a steam cloud emanating from the iron, three-chime steamboat whistle appeared before the sound…then:

“Whhhhhhooooooooooo… Whhooooo… Whhoooo…”

Such an amazing vision flooded my senses as the BELLE passed in a euphony of sounds of escaping engine and steering gear exhaust, slapping paddlewheel buckets, and the moans from that glorious, ancient whistle as my camera recorded the “hullabaloo,” as Captain Ernest E. Wagner might have said.

After returning to the truck, Jonathan suggested that we follow the BELLE upriver as far as Lawrenceburg. We beat the steamboat there were more photos recorded her passing. This time, no whistles blew. I thought of calling my pilot-friend to beg for a salute but chose to watch quietly as the first steamboat I worked aboard when I was only seventeen when it was the Steamer AVALON, pass into the distance.

Besides all the glory of witnessing the passage of the century-old steamer, I appreciated being with my son Jonathan Evan Hartford Sanders as much as I relished the progress of the BELLE of LOUISVILLE.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.  

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  1. Joy Scudder says:

    What a great trip that must have been! Once again, Captain Don, thanks for sharing the experience. I was almost there.

  2. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    Great story. Your way with words made it possible for me to picture the Steamer BELLE of LOUISVILLE making her way upriver.

  3. Edward F. Giusti says:

    Great story, Capt. You are a very lucky man, doing what you love with your son. Thanks for sharing the story and the photos.

  4. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Thank you Capt Don for bringing a “chase” to life. I could feel your excitement & hear the whistle. That’s so cool Jonathan could share it with you.

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