Arts & Culture

The Most Interesting Race of Derby Week

A look at the historical shenanigans of the Great Steamboat Race and the people keeping the tradition alive today

Photo: courtesy of the Howard Steamboat Museum

Steamboats America and Cincinnati race in the last sidewheel steamboat race on record on the inland rivers, 1928.

The sixtieth annual Great Steamboat Race takes place on the Ohio River on May 3, but the name is a bit of an oxymoron. The vessels travel “at about the speed of tortoises,” says Travis Vasconcelos, “riverlorian” (river historian) and director of the Howard Steamboat Museum. “Nobody is getting any more wind in their hair than the weather is putting out.” This traditional showdown between riverboats began in 1963, when the Belle of Louisville raced the Delta Queen. The former—built in 1914 as the Idlewild—is the only remaining authentic steamboat from the great American packet-boat era and still races today. During her incredible history, she has been a freight ship, a passenger ferry for amusement park goers, and a floating USO nightspot.

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Historically, steamboats raced to drum up business at a time when rivers were industrial superhighways. The winner’s golden antlers were a light-reflecting status symbol seen for miles. This particular race in 1963 was the idea of Betty Blake, then a public relations director for the Delta Queen, and its Ohio River race path has endured since its inception, beginning in downtown Louisville and looping around Six Mile Island—the site of many race-day shenanigans—before returning to the starting line.

photo: courtesy of the Dave Thomson Collection at
Great Steamboat Race 1976 commemorative ticket.
photo: courtesy of the Howard Steamboat Museum
The Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen at the start of the 1963 Great Steamboat Race.

The circular path of the race made the corner lot of schoolteacher Miss Ambrosia, aka “Miss A,” an ideal race-viewing place. Vasconcelos’s earliest memories of the race are of gathering with family and neighborhood friends on the porch at Miss A’s place—on Riverside Drive in Jeffersonville, Indiana—in the 1960s, chowing down on turkey sandwiches and watching the steamboats chug up and down the river.

photo: Andrew Hyslop
Sue Grafton and her husband, Steve Humphrey.

Now, restaurants reel in crowds, but in the sixties and seventies, Vasconcelos says “people had parties up and down the river, anywhere there was a porch or a piece of land.” For the Humphreys across the river in Louisville, the riverside estate Lincliff was just the spot. Steve Humphrey and his late wife, Sue Grafton, began hosting intimate boat race parties twenty-something years ago. He’s now remarried to Janice Carter Levitch Humphrey, who grew up near Churchill Downs but still celebrated the steamboat race, and the two are scaling up this tradition. This year, they will celebrate with over seventy people dressed in “boat race fashion,” including the mayor of Louisville, Craig Greenburg. Barbecue and all the fixins’ alongside a champagne cocktail with a splash of bourbon and a cherry will mark the festivities.

Boat race parties are just one way to celebrate. Most years you can actually hop on board the competing steamboats by purchasing a ticket on their websites (this year’s VIP ticket on the Belle of Cincinnati includes a special bourbon tasting). But prepare for race-day rivalry. For example, the Delta Queen added a bow thruster in 1974, enabling the 1,650-ton vessel to turn on a dime. So in 1975, the rival Belle had two tugboats flip her around right at Six Mile Island—both maneuvers were ruled legal because neither steamboat was pushed up or down-river. In 1976, Captain Larken of the Belle offered a tugboat to Captain Wagner of the Delta Queen, and Captain Wagner accepted. The little tugboat turned the Delta Queen around, then backed up and held the steamboat in place until her crew cut the line—again, a legal move.

photo: Courtesy of Murphy Library Special Collections/ARC, University of Winsconsin-La Crosse
Officers on the deck of the Belle of Louisville, 1983, left to right: C. W. Stoll, Lexie Palmore, Charlie Larkin, Doc Hawley, Kevin Mullen, Jim Blum, Joe Hughes, and Mike Fitzgerald.

Nowadays, the Belle of Louisville races the Belle of Cincinnati—not technically a steamboat, but according to her captain she made steam at the race last year, courtesy of a kettle. (The American Queen is also joining the race this year.) Vasconcelos encourages people to watch what might be the most interesting race of Derby week. “You never know what this year’s version of the truth is going to be, and that’s what keeps it fun.”