Belle of Louisville pilot Mike Fitzgerald, a retired captain of the boat, lines it up for the race’s start. At left in the background is the Belle of Cincinnati. At right, the Delta Queen. Photos/Tom Eblen
LOUISVILLE – When Mike Fitzgerald climbed up to the Belle of Louisville’s pilothouse for his 32nd Great Steamboat Race, he wanted two things – to beat the Delta Queen, and to see her survive to race again.
Fitzgerald knew he had a better chance of getting his first wish than his second.
The Belle had a 22-19 advantage over the Delta Queen in the annual race along the Ohio River, a highlight of Louisville’s Kentucky Derby Festival since 1963.
But after 40 years of exemptions from a federal safety law that prohibits boats with wooden superstructures from carrying passengers overnight, the Delta Queen seemed to have run out of luck.
Congress last week refused to grant another exemption. If Congress doesn’t change its mind by November, when the current exemption expires, the 82-year-old Delta Queen’s days of cruising up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers could be over.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere else you can see two national landmarks race and put on a show like this,” said Fitzgerald. “This is a great tradition.”
As it passes the downtown Louisville bridges, the Delta Queen starts gaining on the Belle of Louisville.
With a picture-perfect afternoon and full loads of passengers, the 94-year-old Belle and the Delta Queen lined up Wednesday to race along with the newer Belle of Cincinnati, which isn’t a true steamboat.
Louisville’s wharf has had steamboats since 1811, and six lines once plied the Ohio River from the city. Replaced by newer technology a century ago, they hang on in nostalgia, carrying passengers on pleasure cruises.
The steam calliopes on the Belle of Louisville and Delta Queen were playing while passengers boarded, but were almost drowned out by traffic from the interstate highway beside the wharf. Tractor-trailers, which long ago replaced the trains that had replaced the steamboats, sped by. Some even honked in honor of the floating anachronisms.
The Belle was the last one at the starting line below one of Louisville’s downtown bridges, but the fireman and engineer soon had its high-pressure steam turbines at full power. It rushed ahead of the other two boats. The swoosh, swoosh of the smokestack beat a steady rhythm on the roof, drowning out the partying passengers on the decks below.
Fitzgerald knew the best advantage he had was early speed. The Belle isn’t as powerful as the Delta Queen, but it’s smaller and quicker.
“We want to get a good start,” Fitzgerald said. “We take advantage of whatever we can.”
The Delta Queen, left, and Belle of Cincinnati, speed past the Belle of Louisville in the first leg of the race.
Originally named the Idlewilde, the Belle was built in 1914 to ferry passengers and freight from Memphis. It was renamed the Avalon and ran excursions from Louisville in the mid-1900s. It was headed for the scrap heap in 1962 when Jefferson County bought and restored it.
Fitzgerald grew up not far from the river and began working as a deckhand on the Belle the summer after he graduated from high school. He never left. By his 22nd birthday, Fitzgerald had put in enough time behind the wheel to earn his master’s license. He became captain at age 25 in 1983, becoming the youngest captain on the river, and held the job for 18 years before retiring.
So what does he do in retirement? He works as the boat’s carpenter, and he pilots whenever he can.
As the boats sped past downtown Louisville, Fitzgerald, Captain Mark Doty and the boat’s three other officers in the pilothouse started looking worried. The Delta Queen was steadily gaining on them. Then passing them. Then way out ahead of them.
“She’s doing as well as she can do,” Fitzgerald said out the pilothouse window as the Belle bucked a strong headwind to cruise at perhaps 10 mph. “Unfortunately, that boat’s doing a lot better.”
The Delta Queen was far ahead at the halfway point of the 14-mile race, an island where the boats were to turn around. But when Fitzgerald and Doty looked ahead, they saw a barge taking up their half of the river.
Faced with a perceived safety threat, the Belle’s officers followed an old steamboat racing tradition: They cheated.
“Everything’s fair in steamboat racing,” said retired pilot Charlie Decker, who came along for the ride.
So the Belle turned around, followed by the Belle of Cincinnati. The Delta Queen, far up the river, saw what was happening and made its turn. Suddenly, the tables were turned. But was it legal?
“It’s all up to the judges,” Fitzgerald said with a smile.
“It wasn’t the kind of race I wanted to run,” said Doty, the captain, “but we chose to do the safe thing and turn early.”
The safe thing is at the heart of the Delta Queen’s dilemma. Fans are urging Congress to grant another safety exemption. They’ve set up a Web site – www.savethedeltaqueen.com. And Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, a big steamboat fan, urged everyone to write their congressional representatives on the Delta Queen’s behalf.
The fear of those who oppose an exemption, though, is a tragic fire in the middle of the night in the middle of a river.
When he paid a visit to the pilothouse near the end of the race, Abramson wasn’t too optimistic. “Everybody I talk to says no,” he said. “But I’m still hopeful.”
Abramson said Derby week wouldn’t be the same without the steamboat race. And without the Delta Queen, there isn’t another true steamboat left that’s a fair match for the Belle.
“In 1985, when I ran for mayor, they asked why I was running, and I said so I could get two tickets to the steamboat race,” Abramson said. “It’s a nice piece of tradition.”
With the wind at its back, the Belle of Louisville maintained its lead, steaming back to downtown Louisville perhaps half a mile ahead of the Delta Queen. But would the judges accept that?
“That’s something we’ll have to take a look at,” said Col. Ray Midkiff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the judge aboard the Belle.
But when all of the judges conferred later, they decided to give the victor’s trophy – a huge set of gold-painted elk antlers – to the Delta Queen.
Everyone seemed satisfied with the verdict. They thought the Delta Queen deserved a break. They just hope Congress will give it a break, too.
Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, left, and visits the Belle’s roof and pilot house toward the end of the race. At right is pilot Mike Fitzgerald.
Above photo: After an early turn, the Belle steams home ahead, followed by the Belle of Cincinnati and the Delta Queen in back.