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The Julia Belle Swain riverboat was a part-time resident of Chattanooga for five years in the 1970s. Chattanooga News-Free Press photo via ChattanoogaHistory.com.

For five years in the 1970s, the Julia Belle Swain steam-powered riverboat was the toast of Chattanooga. Built in 1971 by Dubuque (Iowa) Boat and Boiler Works, it was docked in Chattanooga from 1972 to 1977.

During those years it was the jewel of the yearly Fall Color Cruise, which snaked from Chattanooga to Nickajack Lake through the Tennessee River Gorge.

The Julia Belle Swain would dock in Chattanooga, offering fall and winter excursions, and then make its way hundreds of miles by river back to Peoria, Illinois, and other Midwestern cities for a summer cruise season.

At points in its 50-year history, the Julia Belle Swain has been based in Chattanooga, Peoria, Evansville, Indiana, and, most recently, La Crosse, Wisconsin, where it sits idle, according to a 2020 newspaper report.

This photo, taken here in 1975, was recently found in a box of color slides discovered at the offices of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The slides have been digitized by Sam Hall, curator of ChattanoogaHistory.com, and displayed on the website.

The stern-wheeler — a replica of a mid-19th century American steamboat — was designed and operated by Capt. Dennis Trone, a naval architect, according to various online sources.

The engine that propelled the Julia Belle Swain's stern-mounted paddlewheel was a vintage, 1915 steam engine salvaged from the City of Baton Rouge ferryboat in Louisiana, according to records.

On its first visit to Chattanooga shortly after it was built in the early 1970s, the Julia Belle Swain set the city abuzz. According to a report in the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1972, excursions on the riverboat during that year's Color Cruise quickly sold out.

ChattanoogaHistory.com

Launched by history enthusiast Sam Hall in 2014, ChattanoogaHistory.com is maintained to present historical images in the highest resolution available.

If you have photo negatives, glass plate negatives, or original non-digital prints taken in the Chattanooga area, contact Sam Hall for information on how they may qualify to be digitized and preserved at no charge.

 

A reporter in 1972 wrote, "The Julian Belle Swain is unique in that, although a new boat, she retains the old-time character and charm associated with an 1850s river steamer.

" The boat has three decks and is of all-steel construction. The two upper decks are enclosed and carpeted, with a promenade deck around the outside; while the lower deck is open and suitable for a dance floor. Radiant heaters are located throughout the boat to provide warmth on cool days, and the boat is equipped with a snack bar serving hot dogs and hamburgers."

The Julia Belle Swain gained nationwide fame in two 1970s-era films, "Tom Sawyer" (1973) and "Huckleberry Finn" (1974). In 1976, it made headlines by winning the annual Great Riverboat Race near Louisville, Kentucky.

The late folk musician and songwriter, John Hartford, was one of the boat's most ardent fans. He mentioned her in some of his songs and was often invited by the owners to pilot the riverboat.

By 1977, Capt. Trone announced that the Julia Belle Swain and two companion vessels would leave Chattanooga and not return after that year's Color Cruise. An Oct. 28, 1977, News-Free Press headline read: "Short Era of Sternwheelers Ends Here." Declining revenue and docking fees imposed by the city at Ross's Landing were given as reasons for the exit.

Earlier this century the Julia Belle Swain was sold to a preservation group that spent considerable time and money on a partial renovation, according to news reports.

In May 2020, Dan Sanders, writing for the Northern Kentucky Tribune, reported, "Today she rests sadly bobbing on the water in a slough near La Crosse, Wisconsin, after a restoration effort fell short of funds and failed. The lovely 'Julie Belle' awaits a miracle for someone to step forward with whatever it will take to complete her resurrection."

In 1985, the Southern Belle riverboat arrived in Chattanooga to fill the void and remains in operation here today. From 2009 to 2014, the historic Delta Queen riverboat also docked here as a stationary hotel and restaurant.

See more historic photos at ChattanoogaHistory.com, and follow the "Remember, When Chattanooga?" public group on Facebook.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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