| . Idlewild: It's been 36 years this month
since a steamer set sail from Dubuque
Long-time Dubuque residents know that summer along
the Mississippi always meant a river excursion on a paddlewheel
It was 50 years ago this month when the front page of the Aug.
10, 1947, Telegraph Herald featured this photo of the excursion
at the Dubuque municipal landing. She was getting ready to board
passengers for the first moonlight excursion here since World War
The story reported that over 2,000 people showed up for
the 8:30 p.m. trip, which featured dance music by the Skyliners
Orchestra on the boat's ballroom deck. So popular was
the resumption of steamboat excursions in those post-war days,
that more than 700 people had to be turned away that evening.
Similar crowds showed up all along the river from McGregor,
Iowa, to Winona, Minn.
The last pre-war excursion for Dubuquers had been in July
1942, when the new Streckfus side-wheeler
ran a chartered trip for the DeMolay and Visitation alumnae.
of St. Louis, who bought out the old Diamond
Jo Line at Dubuque in 1911, had sent its popular excursion
Deluxe to the upper Mississippi during the summer months
in the 1920s and '30s.
But now those old wooden-hull boats were dismantled, while
the President was plying the Ohio and lower Mississippi,
and eventually would become the local excursion boat in New
Orleans harbor. Nearly 50 years later she would return to
the Quad Cities as a casino boat. But in 1947 the Idlewild
was the last of the old-time excursion boats to visit Dubuque.
Captain of the Idlewild that day was 84-year-old
Winters, a veteran of both the Diamond Jo and Streckfus
Lines. Also aboard was Capt.
Arthur Quinn, of Davenport, former master-pilot on the ferryboat
Quinlan at the Quad Cities. In a few days, Capt. Ben, as
he was called by river friends, would suffer a fatal heart attack
while the boat was up at LaCrosse, Wis.
A local sheriff there had been tipped off about several
slot machines aboard the Idlewild, and when the boat was raided,
it was too much for the old man's heart. Carried by crewmen
to his room, Capt. Ben died aboard the boat. On his
deathbed he asked that this boat on which he would end his
river career be renamed in honor of the side-wheeler on which
he had started over a half-century before. So in 1948, the
B>Idlewild was renamed Avalon.
That summer of 1947 had been both a historic and a tragic
one for steamboating. On the same day that the Telegraph Herald
was reporting the Idlewild's excursion, 1500 river miles
away in Pittsburgh another sternwheeler arrived at Dravo Shipyard.
A newcomer to the Ohio and Mississippi, and still camouflaged
in her Navy gray war paint, this steamer was scheduled for
conversion to a modern, air-conditioned tourist boat. She
had just arrived from San Francisco, and her name was
Meanwhile, as the Idlewild steamed downriver towards
Dubuque on Sept. 9, disaster struck on the Ohio. The big Cincinnati
Queen exploded and burned down to the water's edge at
a landing in downtown Pittsburgh. Fortunately there were no
passengers aboard at the time, but 17 crewman lost their lives
in that explosion, and it signaled the end to regular steamboat
excursions on the Ohio.
And so as 1948 began, only the renamed Avalon survived
as a link to the old steamboats that once landed at scores
of old river towns. The Avalon "tramped" the
inland waterways, cruising on eight different rivers and visiting
17 states during her excursion season, a record that no other
boat has ever matched. Her deep, mellow whistle, the halo
of mist that shrouded her churning red paddlewheel, and the
stately, hypnotic rhythm of her old-time steam engines and
long pitman arms as they glided back and forth, recalled scenes
of a simpler time for thousands of Dubuquers.
And at night the boat's three decks were outlined with
hundreds of lights, making her a glittering palace afloat
on the black waters of the Mississippi.
The summer of 1961 was the Avalon's 14th excursion
season at Dubuque. In mid-July she carried over 1,100 passengers
on her afternoon trip. On Aug. 3, she was back at Dubuque,
having tramped all the way upriver to St. Paul.
Arriving late in the afternoon, she only made her moonlight
cruise, and then left Dubuque immediately at midnight for
dates down river. As
Whitney backed her away from the landing, no one could foresee
that this had been the last steamboat excursion that would ever
be made at Dubuque.
Financial troubles for the boat, changing habits of recreation
and leisure time, and the advent of television and air-conditioning
had brought an end to this colorful and romantic era in steamboating.
In February 1962, Steamer
Avalon Inc., filed for bankruptcy and the boat was sold to Louisville.
Renamed Belle of Louisville,
she continues to operate there today, but only runs local excursions.