Belle of Louisville
401 West River Road
After the ball is over, after the break of morn,
After the dancers leaving, after the stars are gone,
Many a heart is aching if you could read them all,
Many the hopes that have vanished after the ball.
–Charles K. Harris (1891), classic American Vaudeville song
On nights after the Belle of Louisville has pulled back into the 4th Street Dock and its passengers have disembarked; the ship’s crew has reported that things sometimes get weird. Shadows and apparitions have been seen; disembodied footsteps and voices have been heard all by crewmembers working after hours.
Built in 1914 in Pittsburg as the Idlewild, the Belle of Louisville has served for more than a century as a day packet, ferry, and excursion boat. For decades, the ship provided transportation and pleasure cruises for citizens up and down the Mighty Mississippi and other major rivers. Since the early 1960s, the ship has served the city of Louisville, its purchase and rechristening an attempt to reconnect the city to the river. The ship has been named a National Historic Landmark as one of the last remaining steamships of its type in the country.
Several sources note that the ship is not haunted, at least according to official sources. In 2013, the ship and its sister life-saving station, the Mayor Andrew Broaddus, were featured on an episode of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters. This first public excursion into the ship’s tragic history included a nod to one of the ship’s former captains, Ben Winters. The captain of the ship in the years following World War II, Winters was overseeing the ship when it was raided after authorities were tipped off about illegal slot machines aboard. Winters was struck with a heart attack as a result of the raid and passed away a short time later.
It is believed that Winters’ spirit may remain aboard the ship. One former employee reportedly saw a full apparition of Winters some years ago. While working alone in the ship’s office, the employee looked down to file some papers. When he glanced back up he was face to face with the late Captain Winters. For several seconds, the employee stared at the dead man overcome with a sense of fear before the spirit faded from view.
The episode also uncovered the sad story of “Floyd,” a crewmember allegedly sent to his death by Winters. Legend holds that Winters had a disagreement with a crewmember whom he sent to work on the ship’s paddlewheel. While the man worked, the captain ordered the ship’s boilers to be fired and to head out full steam ahead. The paddlewheel was engaged with the crewmember still on it. The poor man was mangled and drowned in the churning machinery. The spirit of this crewmember may be among the spirits that have not left the ship.
Author and tour guide Robert Parker had a terrifying experience while touring the Belle of Louisville on a cold night in September of 2003. After a short tour, Parker and his companion were allowed to explore the ship. The pair stepped into one room where they noticed an uncanny chill. As they began to leave, Parker spied a diamond ring almost hidden in the room’s paneling. He jokingly slid it on his finger and was overcome with a chill. Quickly, he removed the ring and returned it to its ledge in the paneling. Continuing out onto the deck of the ship, Parker and his companion again felt a serious chill near the ship’s calliope. After their experience, the pair learned that a crewmember had been stabbed to death in that area.
Beware, if you find yourself aboard the Belle of Louisville after the ball, you may encounters some of the specters that continue to lurk on the steamer.
- Foster, Kevin J. Nomination Form for the National Register of Historic Places for Belle of Louisville. 10 April 1972.
- Louisville Ghost Hunters Society. “Belle of Louisville,” in Jeff Belanger’s Encyclopedia of Haunted Places. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2005.
- Parker, Robert. Haunted Louisville. Alton, IL: Whitechapel Press, 2007.
- “Season 9 Episode 5 Recap: ‘All Ghosts on Deck.’” SyFy. Accessed 16 April 2018.