New! from Heritage Press...
Volume 4, Memphis to the Gulf!
by Pat Middleton
of Steamboating on the Missouri River"
by Mike Gillespie
Dozens of historic photos, charts, maps. A huge steamboat
glossary! A fascinating collection of journal entries, memoires and
If you, too, feel called to the "fraternity of steamboaters"
here are several contacts who will be happy to help you get started.
|Other authentic steam paddlwheelers offering cruises to the
public include the Natchez, the Belle of Louisville, the Delta Queen, and the Mississippi
Queen. The Delta Queen Steamboat Company offers cruises of 7-14 days. 1-800-543-1949
Click here for some Steamboat pix from
the Wisconsin State Historical Society.
The Sons and Daughters of the Pioneer Rivermen offers a quarterly publication (The S&D
Reflector) focused on the historical aspects of Steamboating. For information on the
publication or association membership, write the secretary at 3118 Pershing Court,
Cincinatti, OH 45211
|The American Sternwheel Association is devoted to private
collectors of modern-day paddlewheelers. According to Howard, there are hundreds of
individuals like himself who have built replica paddlwheelers. Write: - P.O. Box 325,
Marietta, OH 45750
Two festivals that might interest steamboat buffs include the 25 year old Sternwheel
Regatta in Charleston, West Virginia on the weekend before Labor Day, and the 20 year old
Ohio River Sternwheel Festival in Marietta, OH the following weekend.
|The Steamboat Project is a collection of over 43,000
river photos. 21,000 different steamboats have been identified by the project. Located at
the Murphy Library--Special Collections,
University of Wisconsin-
1631 Pine Street
La Crosse, WI 54601
Call the director of the Steamboat Project at 1-608-785-8511.
A narrow maze of small islands and sloughs separate the main channel
of the Mississippi from our Goose Island campground. About mid-day we suddenly became
aware of the ghostly hint of music. A distant steam calliope! Had the Delta Queen
or Mississippi Queen already passed unseen in silence, or was the
paddlewheeler approaching our camp?
Moments later we see plumes of white steam, puffing rhythmically beyond the tree tops.
When the tall pilot house and slim blue body of the paddlewheeler finally slips briefly
into sight, we are taken by surprise. It was the Julia Belle Swain out of La
Crosse, Wisconsin. Think of it, we marvel, so many
steamboats that we cannot even guess correctly which one will appear!
Robert Kalhagen, the owner of a heavy equipment company in Madison, Wisconsin, has been
a steamboat buff for much of his adult life. He certainly never expected to own one of his
own. Yet when he saw a notice that the Julia Belle Swain, one of a
handful of authentic steamboats still cruising the rivers of the United States, was going
on the auction block, he felt he had to attend.
"I just wanted to see it one last time before it left the Midwest," he
recalled. When no one else appeared for the auction, it became apparent to him that this
exceptionally graceful, detailed steamboat could well be sold and stripped for scrap iron.
He submitted the sole bid and walked out the door as the new owner. Kalhagen decided to
move the boat north to La Crosse, Wisconsin, and offer two-day Mississippi River cruises.
When steamboats are on the river, the observation
decks at the Locks almost always host a gallery full of observers. This day the boat's
banjo player provides a rollicking round of sing-alongs, so that as we slowly rise the
eight feet necessary at Lock 8 at Genoa, Wisconsin, we come face to face with our greeters
who are singing and clapping along.
Captain Carl Henry is native to La Crosse and for him, the arrival of the JULIA
BELLE SWAIN was a dream come true.
"I started on boats when I was 19, working the Duck boats at
Wisconsin Dells," he tells me. "Think of all the kids that have
worked there through the years and then never piloted a boat again. For
whatever reason, I kept at it. Eventually working towboats, putting in the
time to earn my pilot's license." Between boats, Carl works as a
graphic artist and freelance writer.
I found him standing at the man-sized pilot's wheel in the open box of a
pilot house perched at the top of the steamboat. He points out to visitors the
authentic mechanical system of ropes and pulleys that work the rudders of the steamboat
when he turns the wheel.
When the weather is fine, Carl has the best seat in the boat. The wheel house is open
on all four sides to sunlight, breezes, and endless views of cascading bluffs and
blue-brown river stream. In storms, the room is shuttered up, except for an eye-level slit
across the front "window" of the wheel house. When temperatures
degrees, Carl is not privy to the air
conditioning that kept passengers passably cool on the deck below.
"It gets pretty quiet up here sometimes," he muses. He pulls on the steam
whistle, a looooong-toot-toot salute to a bevy of cars that have pulled over to watch us
puff slowly past. I try to memorize Carl's whistle so that I can recognize it from shore.
There is something immensely attractive about a steamboat
on a great river; so that drivers will pull their cars to the side to gaze at the ornate,
steam-puffing, calliope playing boat passing ever so slowly. Residents run out to give a
steamboat wave or ring the bell, or honk their horns. All in hopes of rousing the pilot to
his own unique salute on the steam whistle.
Beau Inman joined the Julia Belle Swain after it reached its new port.
He brings with him a long river history. Beau's grand-dad, Ellis Truman, and then his dad,
Charles Inman, operated the first family ferry at Winfield, Missouri from 1892 until 1966,
when his dad designed the Miss June and opened the Tower Rock Ferry at
"I grew up on that boat," Beau recalls. "I started to steer it when I was
eight. By the time I turned ten I had enough hours logged to get my pilot's license.
'Course they didn't give pilot licenses to ten year old kids." When Charles began
hauling logs down river for the East Perry Lumber Company, June Inman became only the
second woman licensed as a river pilot in the United States.
"We operated there until the pontoon bridge at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, was
dismantled so they could build a new bridge. My dad moved his boat up there with $36
dollars in his pocket for change. That first day he moved 1200 cars a day at $3 a car.
With a little help from a friend, he paid off the $60,000 still due on his boat in thirty
days!" Eventually Beau and his dad ferried cars at Beardstown on the Illinois River,
and between Ste. Genevieve and Modoc, Illinois. Beau met his wife, Cecelia, while
operating the ferry at Cassville, Wisconsin, from 1988 to 1991.
He told me, "I've been away from the river for a while, but I'm back now to
recover my pilot's license."
Beau left the ornate bar area to pull out his guitar.
Steamboat crews are a talented and flexible lot. The Captain is now bartending, the
engineer is piloting and the bartender is performing.
Frederick Peterson was a passenger aboard the Julia Belle Swain. I
found him pretzeled around a railing trying to photograph up the side of the boat. His
interest in steam engines came from his father's interest in steam locomotives.
"To me, steam represents the very heart of America's rise to international power and
influence," he explains.
"The Julia Belle Swain is very similar to the type of boats Sam
Clemens piloted. This is as close as I'm ever going to come to that era. You smell the
steam, you smell the valve oil. It brings back a lot of memories, and to me, it just
smells a lot better than a diesel tractor."
"Sometime you may hear a steam whistle at night echoing across the water," he
continues, almost without pause. He's thought through all of this before, it seems.
"It's kind of mysterious, that sound. Makes you think of all the places you'd like to
travel to; all the places you haven't seen yet. It's the closest you can get to a time
"Where'd you come from this morning," a
woman calls, leaning far over the railing at the Lock 8 observation deck.
"From Prairie du Chien, about five hours ago," one of our crowd calls out.
"Five hours!" A murmur runs quickly through the small gathering of observers.
"Five hours! We drove here from Prairie in half an hour!"
I didn't find Howard Dahlgren on board the Julia Belle Swain. He had
tied up ahead of her on the La Crosse levee to enjoy Oktoberfest activities. He captained
his own privately built paddlewheeler, the 67' John Theodore D. He was eager to
tell his story.
"My interest in steamboats started one day when I was six years old and my family
took a ride on the old steamer, Capitol, out of St. Paul, Minnesota. It was a magnificent
boat with a steam calliope and all the fancy work. For me, it was one of those powerful
moments that are remembered distinctly for the rest of your life. It was always my dream
to own my own paddlewheeler. I finally did at age fifty." Howard motioned toward the
Julia Belle Swain behind him.
"Now that boat is probably the handsomest steamboat on the whole river. Dennis made
it as authentic as we'll ever have a boat today. Notice the lanterns hanging from the tall
stacks, and the iron feathers that crown each of those stacks. He's done it perfect. The
boat has three whistles and they're all in tune. The steam calliope has a beautifully
carved antique keyboard. The pilot house is open, like it really was in the days before
they had glass windows." He pointed out the high silhouette of the Julia Belle Swain,
with each of it's three decks slightly smaller than the one below.
"The proportions are so well done, the bric-a-brac. Notice the graceful curves of the
deck lines. That's called shear. Its that shear that makes a boat look so handsome. Dennis
even added a bull rail around the bottom deck. In the old days, packet boats like her
carried livestock." Harold, I found, talked about Dennis Trone in the same familiar
manner as did the other steamboat buffs. It must have been hard for Dennis to put such a
boat up for auction.
The calliope (pronounced CAL-EE-OP) takes over from the banjo player as the lock gates
slowly swing open and the red paddles start the slow, powerful rotation that moves the
ship forward from the lock.
"Safe trip! Good bye! Have fun! Good bye!" Looooong-toot-toot,
the gallery and we slip away from the lock. Our very silent, nostalgic vessel is alone
again in the center of a great river. We settle into our various seats, rejoin
conversation groups, take up a summer read. Only the excitement of seeing a free floating
bald eagle interrupts the reverie.
An eagle, and the steady Ka-SHOOSH of the paddlewheel. . .
Pat Middleton is a frequent contributor to regional Magazines and the author of several
guides to heritage, recreation, and natural history along the Mississippi River. For
information about the series, Discover! America's Great River Road, contact the
publisher: Heritage Press, Rt. 1,
Stoddard, WI 54658. Phone 608-457-2734 or check out the wealth of travel and educational
resources on the Mississippi River Home Page
The Julia Belle Swain, operated by the
Great River Steamboat Company, offers 1 and 2-day cruises. Write them at 200 Main Street,
La Crosse, WI 54601. Or Call:
1-800-815-1005 or fax 1-608-784-4882
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