Skip to main content

Ohio River Cruise, Historic Mansions, and More
Saturday, June 10, 2017

By Nelson Price | Photographs by Randy Lehman

A steamboat cruise on the Ohio River – with tours before and after of historic mansions and museums in Indiana river towns – was the Spring Pilgrimage’s highlight. The trip unfolded on a sunny Saturday, June 10, which was ideal for a ride on the Belle of Louisville, the country’s oldest operating Mississippi River-style steamboat.

A maximum capacity of 55 Pioneers traveled on the motor coach from Indianapolis to southern Indiana, with some joining the group at our first destination in Jeffersonville. In addition, about eight other Pioneers met us at the steamboat just to enjoy the cruise and luncheon aboard the Belle of Louisville.

The first destination in the morning was the Howard Steamboat Museum, a mansion in Jeffersonville built by the son of shipyard entrepreneur James Howard. In 1834, James Howard founded the Howard Shipyards, which evolved into the country’s largest inland shipbuilding operation. The Howard-owned shipyard continued in operation for 107 years until being purchased in 1941 by the U.S. government, which built battleships during World War II.

The Howard Steamboat Museum, Jeffersonville

During the 1890s, James Howard’s son, Ed, built the 22-room Romanesque Revival mansion that houses the steamboat museum. Ohio River historian Kadie Engstrom met the Pioneers at the museum and answered questions as the group enjoyed self-guided tours. She explained that the “golden age of steamboats” lasted from the 1870s through the 1890s.

The second-floor bedroom at the Howard Steamboat Museum
Stairway to the third floor, Howard Steamboat Museum

Skilled craftsmen did the intricate woodwork in the mansion-turned-museum hired to work on the opulent riverboats. The mansion includes a grand stairway (much like one on a steamboat), a Moorish parlor with a Steinway piano, and a brass bed from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. More than 90 percent of the museum’s furnishings belonged to the Howard family. Small models of ferry boats and steamboats are displayed throughout the mansion, where the Pioneers watched a video about the shipyard’s history. 

Ms. Engstrom joined the Pioneers on the motor coach as the group crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. As a calliope played on the dock, the Pioneers boarded the Belle of Louisville, built in 1914; its engine (that turns the paddlewheel) had been built in the 1890s.

The Belle of Louisville

“If Mark Twain were alive today, he could operate this boat,” Ms. Engstrom announced as she provided river commentary during the two-hour cruise. Aboard the steamboat, the Pioneers enjoyed a buffet luncheon in the dining room. During the cruise, landmarks that were visible included the Colgate Clock in Clarksville, the second-largest clock in the world; it is affixed to a former Colgate Palmolive soap-making factory.

Lunch aboard the Belle

After the Ohio River cruise, the Pioneers traveled to a natural landmark throughout Indiana history: the famous Falls of the Ohio, where explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left for St. Louis. (The Missouri city was their departure point for their historic expedition to the American West.) Lewis and Clark had convened at the Indiana cabin of Clark’s older brother, Revolutionary War hero and frontiersman George Rogers Clark.

The next destination of the Pioneers was the Carnegie Center for Art & History, a cultural center in a renovated Carnegie Library built in 1904 in the Ohio River town of New Albany. Pioneers enjoyed self-guided tours of the Carnegie Center, which had contemporary art exhibits as well as permanent exhibits about the Underground Railroad in southern Indiana.

That was followed by a motor coach tour of Historic Mansion Row in New Albany with commentary by Jessica Stavros, the director of the Culbertson Mansion.  The mansions were built for riverboat investors and other entrepreneurs who became some of Indiana’s wealthiest residents during the mid and late 1800s, including Washington DePauw, namesake of DePauw University.

Culbertson Mansion, New Albany

The Pioneers disembarked to enjoy a light dinner reception at the Culbertson Mansion, a historic showplace built in 1867. A presentation by Ms. Stavros and guided tours of the Second Empire-style mansion followed that. Its original owner, William Culbertson, rose from dry goods clerk to become the most prosperous leasing entrepreneur in New Albany.  With frescoed ceilings, hand-painted walls, crystal chandeliers, and exquisite furnishings on four floors, the Culbertson Mansion is an Indiana State Historic Site and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to Ms. Stavros, Culbertson spent $2.3 million in 2017 currency on his lavish home. Today, the mansion serves as an example of the tastes and aspirations of people during the late 1800s. After the Culbertson Mansion tour, the Pioneers boarded the motor coach for the return trip to Indianapolis.

A group of happy Pioneers travelers