The Julia Belle Swain and her Steamboating Fraternity

By Pat Middleton

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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


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or Email:

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

Steamboating Memories

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.







jbs.jpg (4121 bytes)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 hover near 100 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 Wittenberg, Missouri.

"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." 

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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 machine."

"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, Carl salutes 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, 
Ste G
Powell Place,
La Crosse, WI 54601. Or Call:
1-800-815-1005 or fax 1-608-784-4882
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