Welcome to the latest installment of the HerKentucky Guide to Speakeasy Louisville! On Thursdays throughout the fall, we'll travel back to the Jazz Age in the Derby City, when the nation's Prohibition laws didn't quench the collective thirst for Kentucky Bourbon. We'll channel our inner Daisy Buchanans and dance the Charleston at Louisville's finest establishments. And, of course, we'll take a sip or two of the native drink that kept the city's spirits high. Today, we'll visit one of the steamboats that kept the River City booming.
Louisville has a lot of nicknames -- the Derby City, the Falls City, The Ville -- but the River City is a moniker that gets at the heart of the city. It never stops being a river town whose history and fortune is intimately tied into the river that defines its northern boundary. On October 18, 1914, a steamboat known as Idlewild was launched in Pittsburgh; the Idlewild's original mission was to serve as a ferry between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas. One hundred years later, we know this boat as The Belle of Louisville, one of the most familiar sights of Louisville's downtown waterfront.
While the Belle didn't make it to Louisville until the 1930s, steamboats played an important role in Jazz Age Louisville, bringing businessmen, bootleggers, and even the occasional mobster to the city. (And perhaps even exporting a few barrels of our finest spirits, despite Prohibition laws...) The 1920s would see steamboat travel give way to modern highways, but the Belle's history -- at various times and under various names, she's served as a cargo ship, a ferry, and even a floating USO nightclub -- provides a fascinating glimpse of riverboat culture.
If, like many Kentuckians, you haven't been aboard the Belle since taking a trip with your middle school class, I highly recommend going back. I had the opportunity to take the cruise last year as part of my beau's work outing, and I have to say that it's a lot more fun when libations are served. You get an amazing view of the city, and it's a fun way to imagine traveling to the city in the era before automobiles were the primary mode of transportation! It's also pretty cool to realize that the Belle is the oldest Mississippi-style steamboat still in operation.
From all of us at HerKentucky, Happy Birthday, Belle!