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The River: The voyage of the sternwheeler, SPIRIT OF PEORIA, leaving namesake city for LaCrosse Wisc.


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.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The voyage of the sternwheeler, SPIRIT OF PEORIA, Captain Troy Manthe’s new toy, is the most-watched excitement on the river this week. Cap’n Troy recently acquired the SPIRIT in the town carrying its name, where it had been an Illinois River entertainment fixture since 1988. The city of Peoria had an option to purchase the paddlewheeler to prevent it from leaving. But instead, Yacht Starship Cruises of Tampa, a business belonging to Manthe, secured the vessel when the city failed to act.

The voyage of the sternwheeler, SPIRIT OF PEORIA, Captain Troy Manthe’s new toy, is the most-watched excitement on the river this week. (Photo by Robert Learmont/Midwest Towboat Review))

Captain Manthe was also in charge of my last professional riverboat, the HILTON FLAMINGO, a New Orleans casino vessel before Hilton sold it to Hyatt Gaming of Chicago. Hyatt renamed the stern paddlewheeler the GRAND VICTORIA II and moved the floating casino to Rising Sun, Indiana, on the Middle Ohio River, where I was in command as “Senior Captain” for some 16 years.

The SPIRIT, heading for LaCrosse, Wisconsin, on the Upper Mississippi River, will join another river passenger boat; the JULIA BELLE SWAIN, often called the JULIE BELLE, or the JBS. The late Captain Dennis Trone, a legendary riverman, designed and built the steam-powered JULIE BELLE at his Dubuque Boat & Boiler Works, the former Iowa Iron Works where such historic steamboats as the CLYDE, the first iron-hulled boat on the Western Rivers, and the SPRAGUE, the largest steam towboat ever built, came to fruition on the same marine ways. The JBS has remained partially rebuilt for several years and needs reassembly. Extensive makeovers await the SPIRIT and JULIA BELLE  before being moved to an undisclosed new location to operate in a passenger-carrying capacity again. So far, the owner is reluctant to disclose the new base of activity, but he has assured his followers that it will not be Tampa.

Captain Troy Manthe at the wheel of the SPIRIT OF PEORIA. (TM Selfie)

From the many photos and videos posted on social media, Captain Manthe and his crew appear to be having an exciting affair. On one posting, I mused, ”Cap’n Troy should’ve made this a paying trip – he’d a filled the boat. What an adventure it must be.”

According to a later post, rumors claim that once the boats are sufficiently equipped to leave LaCrosse, the trip to the mysterious new location will welcome passengers aboard for segments of the journey. But as Captain Dave Franklin often quipped,

“Reckon they’ll have anything good to eat on board?”

The JULIA BELLE SWAIN has remained partially rebuilt for several years and needs reassembly. (Online Photo)

The further up the Mississippi the SPIRIT paddles, the more I’m reminded of the last time I was on the Upper during the Spring of 2012 on the epic 1,300-mile voyage of the Rafter CLYDE from Alma, Wisconsin to Aurora, Indiana on the Middle Ohio River. Whereas the SPIRIT OF PEORIA overnighted alongside the excursion boat TWILIGHT, another Captain Dennis Trone creation, while both vessels slumbered against the former center-wheel ferry, the CITY OF BATON ROUGE (CBR), the CLYDE rested alongside a municipal dock upstream from the TWILIGHT. 

Back in my deckhand days during my second season aboard the Steamer AVALON in 1960, many an off-duty hour found me aboard the Baton Rogue ferryboat riding back and forth with the Chief Engineer who sold newspapers to patrons of the steam-powered ferry. A rusty Civil War cannonball the Chief discovered along the shoreline kept his pile of papers from blowing across the deck in the brisk wind whipping up the river. Ironically, the engines from the CBR are on the JULIE BELLE, now belonging to Cap’n Manthe.
 

The SPIRIT OF PEORIA overnighted alongside the excursion boat TWILIGHT, another Captain Dennis Trone creation.

Just a few years ago, in 2014, the SPIRIT and the Rafter CLYDE were together in Louisville, Kentucky, with many other riverboats to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Steamer BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, the former AVALON of my youth. Captain Alice Grady, the skipper aboard the SPIRIT, came aboard and visited the CLYDE. The picture of her broadly beaming a giant smile behind the wooden steering wheel inside the CLYDE’s pilothouse is still Alice’s signature photograph on her Facebook page. Before the remarkable riverboat gathering ended, Cap’n Alice gave me the Cook’s Tour of her boat.

Speaking of Louisville reminds me that the SPIRIT was my friend’s design, Captain Alan L. Bates, late of that city. Cap’n Bate’s remarkable book for model builders and steamboat buffs of all stripes, “The Western Rivers Steamboat Cyclopedium,” is always within reach of my computer desk, next to Cap’n Fred Way’s directories of steam packets and towboats. Alan’s Cyclopedium influenced the building of the Rafter CLYDE, according to a quote in Heartland Boating, September 2004:

“Ed knew CLYDE’s general shape and design from pictures he had and then relied on a book called ‘The Western Rivers Steamboat Cyclopedia (sic)’ by Alan L. Bates for help with details.”

By the time this column is published, the SPIRIT OF PEORIA will be two days already in LaCrosse and partnered with her new sister boat, the JULIA BELLE SWAIN. More information will be forthcoming about Captain Troy’s plans for his new sensations.

Indeed, he surely has a raft of ideas concerning the future of these classic paddlewheelers. So all we can do in the meantime is wait, watch, and wonder what is in store for them.

Captain Alice Grady, the skipper aboard the SPIRIT, came aboard and visited the CLYDE.

Alan’s Cyclopedium influenced the building of the Rafter CLYDE, according to a quote in Heartland Boating, September 2004.

The SPIRIT Passing Centennial Bridge, Bettendorf, IA. (Photo by Robert Learmont/Midwest Towboat Review)

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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6 Comments

  1. Michael Gore says:

    We anxiously await Capt. Don’s next installment to reveal the future waters for these two grand dames! Running waters, not tidal, hopefully preferred!

  2. Connie Bays says:

    I’ll be interested, among many I’m sure, to hear what comes next for the Julia Belle Swain and the Spirit of Peoria. I know how the people feel about losing their vessel when the Spirit of Peoria sailed away. I still look toward the levee and the Union Building for the Sternwheeler precious to my heart, that sailed off for other places. Every time I cross the I64 interstate bridge into Charleston, WV, I miss the P. A. Denny that much more. I always enjoy your column! Keep the stories coming!

    • Jessica Yusuf says:

      As always, informative and entertaining. I look forward to hearing what happens next!

  3. Jo Ann Schoen says:

    Thanks for another interesting article, though I am deeply saddened by the way the whole exchange of ownership was handled. I will miss my friends on the SPIRIT of PEORIA immensely. I certainly hope each and everyone of them “come out on the other side” with even better jobs.

  4. Mike Washenko says:

    Thanks for keeping us informed, I don’t get on Facebook much to keep up.
    Another great column, keepem coming.

  5. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Awesome again,Capt Don as you tie together older boats & new . You help us know a bit about ” Capt Troy”. I look forward to ‘ meeting ‘ him more as we read your follow ups as his plans emerge. Thanks for the joy of knowing they’re in good.loving & capable hands! Keep the news coming.

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