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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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A proud reminder of Dubuque's boat building industry.

JULIA BELLE SWAIN. The last of many boats produced by the DUBUQUE BOAT AND BOILER WORKS, the Julia Belle Swain was designed by Capt. Dennis Trone. She was built in 1971 and powered by an engine from 1915, manufactured by Gillett & Eaton of Lake City, MN, and originally used on the central wheel ferryboat City of Baton Rouge. In 1973 and 1974 the boat was used in two MOTION PICTURES--Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, based on the novels by Mark TWAIN. (1) The Great River Steamboat Company, owner of the Julia Belle Swain since 1995, offered two-day-cruises during the summer months starting in La Crosse, Wisconsin. (2)

The Julia Belle was originally based in Peoria, Illinois, making short excursions on Peoria Lake and two-day round trip cruises to Starved Rock State Park. Singer-songwriter John Hartford ("Gentle on My Mind"), a frequent guest pilot, often mentioned the Julia Belle in his songs. Later, the boat operated on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (3)

Smaller and nimbler than some similar boats, the Julia Belle Swain entered the Great Steamboat Race twice, in 1975 and 1976. She won in 1976, beating such better-known vessels as the Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville. (4)

Bob Kalhagen bought the vessel in 1994 for $500,000 and operated it out of La Crosse between 1995 and 2008. The recession forced him to shut down the business. (5)

Neglect took its toll on the vessel.

In 2013 a newly formed nonprofit called Save the Julia Belle Swain LLC raised $250,000 to purchase the steamboat, which had sat dormant on French Island for five years. (6) The city parks board unanimously approved a request to display the Julia Belle Swain at Riverside Park while the nonprofit continued its fundraising efforts to raise the $1 million needed to restore the vessel. (7)

Newt Marine's tow, the James Faris, returns the Julia Belle Swain to the harbor on which she was built.

In 2014 Julia Belle Swain Foundation became a non-profit company and major renovations were planned for the vessel for safety reasons and to be ADA compliant. The steamboat was scheduled get heating and air conditioning for client comfort. (8) NEWT MARINE SERVICE was contracted for major portions of the restoration over the winter. (9) The boat was be sent back to La Crosse for the restoration of the cabins, bars, dining areas and pilot room. (10)

The Foundation received Coast Guard approval for the project estimated to cost about $1.7 million. The plan was to have the Julia Belle Swain in service by the spring of 2015 out of Riverside Park. (11) Eric Dykman, captain of the "Julia Belle Swain," said this is just one of five true steam-powered ships left on the Mississippi. (12)

The timeline for renovation of the boat needed to be lengthened as the cost estimate rose to an expected $2.5 million. In November, 2016 it was estimated that 75% of the work was finished. To begin restoration, nearly one-quarter of paint had to be removed by sandblasting. The formerly open-air pilot house was refitted with tempered, thermal-pane windows and air-conditioned. The seven-foot teak pilot wheel, extending below the pilothouse deck, will be connected to triple rudders by stainless steel cables rather than hemp lines. Much of the hull was rebuilt. Only the ornamental iron-clad stanchions and the Texas deck cabin were the only original structural elements of the entire deck remaining after restoration. The final Coast Guard inspection was expected in the spring of 2017. (13)



1. Shelley, Tim, "Want To Own A Piece Of Illinois River History? The Julia Belle Swain Is Up For Sale," September 28, 2021. WCBU Online: https://www.wcbu.org/local-news/2021-09-28/want-to-own-a-piece-of-illinois-river-history-the-julia-belle-swain-is-up-for-sale

2. "Julia Belle Swain," Steamboats.org Online: http://www.steamboats.org/steamboat-pictures/julia-belle-swain.html

3. "Born and Raised in the South," Online: http://ltc4940.blogspot.com/2011/10/julia-belle-swain.html

4. Ibid.

5. Geyer, Allison. "Steamboat to Return to Action: La Crosse Nonprofit to Buy, Restore Julia Belle Swain," LaCrosse Tribune.com Online: http://lacrossetribune.com/news/local/steamboat-to-return-to-action-la-crosse-nonprofit-to-buy/article_fa4e5e22-f02a-11e2-a3b1-0019bb2963f4.html

6. Gabbert, John. "Waiting for the Julia Belle Swain," Big River, January-February, 2017, p. 16

7. Ibid.

8. Boehm, Martha. "Julia Belle Swain Now a Non-Profit," News800.com Online: http://www.news8000.com/news/julia-belle-swain-now-a-nonprofit/26677144

9. "Julia Belle Swain," Facebook. Online: https://www.facebook.com/juliabelleswain

10. Hanson, Brad. "Part of Dubuque's History Returns for Major Repairs," KWWL.com, July 15,, 2015, Online: http://www.kwwl.com/story/29557550/2015/07/15/part-of-dubuques-history-returns-for-major-repairs

11. Boehm, Martha.

12. Hanson

13. Gabbert, p. 19

Special thanks to Jim Massey.