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    Riverboats had long, glorious journey


    . 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 steamboat.

    It was 50 years ago this month when the front page of the Aug. 10, 1947, Telegraph Herald featured this photo of the excursion steamer Idlewild at the Dubuque municipal landing. She was getting ready to board passengers for the first moonlight excursion here since World War II.

    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 President ran a chartered trip for the DeMolay and Visitation alumnae.

    Streckfus Steamers of St. Louis, who bought out the old Diamond Jo Line at Dubuque in 1911, had sent its popular excursion boats Capitol and J.S. 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 Ben 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 W.J. 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 Delta Queen.

    Meanwhile, as the Idlewild steamed downriver towards Dubuque on Sept. 9, disaster struck on the Ohio. The big Cincinnati excursion steamer Island 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 Capt. 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.

    Copyright 1997 Telegraph Herald
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