Historic paddle wheeler strikes, breaches dry dock on Ohio River

The vintage 1914 river boat Belle of Louisville had damage to its sternwheel after it went out of control and struck a dry dock on the Ohio River. (Photo courtesy Belle of Louisville Cruises)

The nation’s oldest operating sternwheeler was damaged when it went out of control and struck a dry dock, injuring four passengers, during a cruise on the Ohio River.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating why the 95-year-old Belle of Louisville went off course after turning around in the Ohio River about six miles upriver from its downtown Louisville, Ky., dock. The vessel operator said wind gusts were probably a factor.

The accident happened at about 1345 on Oct. 17, 2009, near Harrods Creek. The 170-foot Belle of Louisville carried about 280 passengers for the day cruise. Its sternwheel smashed into the dry dock at McBride Towing, the Coast Guard said.

“It was just below where they turn around,†said Chief Warrant Officer Tim Smith, chief of investigations for the Coast Guard’s Sector Ohio Valley. “They completed the turn, and the vessel was pointed downriver, and the damage was to the starboard stern.â€

Belle of Louisville had damage to its metal wheel guard, which the operator calls a “jockey bar,†and to several bucket boards on the wheel. The dry dock had a 4-by-4-foot breach of the hull above the waterline, Smith said.

Passengers reported that the boat did a “360†before striking the dry dock, which is on the river’s south — or left descending — bank. Smith could not confirm that the boat spun all the way around after the planned 180° turn. He said an inspection revealed no mechanical problems. The current was less than 2 mph. Winds were out of the north at 14 mph, with gusts to 23 mph.

“It was gusty,†said the city-owned Belle of Louisville’s CEO, Linda Harris. “The very back of the boat hit the (dry dock). We had to drop anchor to make sure we didn’t float any further. The biggest damage was to the jockey bar — the big iron at the back. That went into the dry dock first and bent in like a ‘V’.

“Had the jockey bar not stopped the boat, it would have crushed the paddle wheel. We just broke the boards, and they are replaced yearly anyway as they take wear and tear in the water.â€

The injuries were mostly contusions after a few passengers fell down, the Coast Guard said. Two passengers were briefly hospitalized, and two others were treated at the scene.

Belle of Louisville was built in 1914 at James Rees & Sons Co. in Pittsburgh. Originally called Idlewild, the sternwheeler’s current passenger capacity is 750. The boat is 46 feet wide and draws about 5 feet. Harris said two of its three rudders are original. So are the metal rings that hold the seasoned-white-oak boards onto the paddle, Belle’s only means of propulsion.

“The vessel is very broad, and she does not have any bow thrusters to move her away from (other objects),†Harris said. “She operates just like a Styrofoam cup on top of the water.â€

Smith said the weather was not necessarily unsafe for navigation that day. “The vessel historically has operated in wind conditions similar to that without incident,†he said.

The accident happened at the end of the vessel’s 2009 season. The Coast Guard placed restrictions on the boat allowing only dock-side operations until repairs are completed and it is reinspected in time for the spring.

Harris said Belle of Louisville sustained $40,000 in damage, including $12,000 to the wheel guard. Repairs were ongoing at the boat’s own Louisville pier.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff