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May 30, 2008


One of the many fascinating things we encountered on our travels was a classic Mississippi Steamboat, the Belle of Louisville. The Belle is not quite a hundred years old and has had a chequered career, but she is now lovingly preserved on the Ohio where she no doubt still thrills onlookers and passengers alike. Mounted on her Uppermost deck, above the "Texas Deck" and aft of the "Pilot House" is something one doesn't often see these days - a steam Calliope. This is a small organ blown by steam, the 32 "whistles" each sounding a harmonic note. Mind you, with a Calliope, "harmonic" can be relative - and it also depends on how close you are to it. These things can be heard quite clearly at distances above a mile!

Belle of Louisville.jpg
Seen from aft, the "Belle of Louisville" lies at her mooring in Port of Louisburg. Astern of her is the small screw riverboat "Spirit of Jefferson" and ahead of her is the preserved "Lifeboat Station Number 10". The Calliope can be seen just forward of the searchlight mounting.

The Belle is powered by twin horizontal steam compound engines with steam supplied by three low pressure boilers mounted forward of the engines. The decks carry names evolved on these boats and probably alien to their seagoing cousins, though some do overlap. The lowest deck - the one directly covering the hull is called the Main Deck and accomodates the engines, boilers and originally the cargo space at the forward end. The next is called the Boiler Deck and is where the main passenger accomodation is located (Sometimes the boilers were mounted here as well to avoid water reacing the firebox). The next deck upward has two names. The outer part which is not covered is called the "Hurricane Deck" as it is exposed to the elements, the inner part which is covered, is the "Texas Deck" and is where the officers quarters are located. Uppermost if the Pilot Deck where the Pilot House can be seen.

Originally the Calliope had to be played from directly below the instrument on a keyboard fitted with brass "keys" operating the steam valves. The player reportedly wore asbestos gloves! It is now played by means of an electronic keyboard mounted just behind the Captain's quarters on the Texas Deck. No doubt ear defenders are provided for those on board. One can only wonder at what it's use does to the steam pressures on the boilers. Most engineers I have known go purple with rage if the "Deck Mob" play fast and loose with their precious steam by playing silly buggers with the ship's steam horns.

The triple boilers take their water directly from the river when they need topping up, something most steamships avoid because it can foul the boiler tubes, however these boilers are fitted with a "mud drum" into which the sediment settles and from which it can be ejected at intervals. Further up river, at Cincinnatti another of these old time river boats is still operating. The Delta Queen is slightly younger than the Belle but has a wooden hull which is now causing a few headaches. The two boats meet once a year for a race which must be something to see.

Perhaps I'll get to see it on my next visit - and perhaps a ride on either the "Belle" or the "Delta Queen" to boot!

Posted by The Gray Monk at May 30, 2008 09:08 AM

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