Julia Belle Swain Illustrations
See also, Julia Belle Swain Photos, page 1, page 2


Paul Norton's watercolor of the JULIA BELLE SWAIN


Unmistakable JULIA BELLE SWAIN on '92 Illinois license plate

I've had this '92 Illinois license plate for a long time - finally got around to scanning it. The JBS probably ran the Illinois River out of Peoria around that time.


Illustration of the JULIA BELLE SWAIN on page 48 of the August 1977 issue of Ford Times.


Steamboat a-comin'

The Julia Belle Swain has opened a door to the past and folks along the Illinois River love it

Ford Times
August 1977
by Jerry Klein
Illustration by Larry McManus

Churning upriver from Peoria, Illinois, these summer days, her paddle wheel raising long swells astern, her deep, melodious whistle echoing along the bluffs and far bends of the river, is the first steam- powered packet boat to be based on the Illinois since 1935. She is the 156-foot Julia Belle Swain, finished in the spring of 1971 at the 101- year-old Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works in Iowa and christened at Peoria May 8 of that year.

She has brought back the sights and sounds of an earlier day when boats with tall stacks belching smoke were regular callers along the waterfronts of the river towns. And when she looms out of the summer evenings, white water curling away from her bow, her calliope sounding slightly off-key and her 1916 steam engines whistling softly, the past is back again and an era that long seemed to have been closed is instead reopened.

For years along the Illinois, there has been only the harsh klaxons of towboats and the throb of diesels. But when the Julia Belle hauled into the little towns and landing spots on her upriver voyage from Grafton, where the Illinois joins the Mississippi, people poured down to the river by the hundreds. At one town teachers brought whole classes of children to see what it used to be like. Old timers came to look and stayed to reminisce. Kids wanted to know when and how they could get a ride.

The idea of a new steamboat for the river was that of Captain Dennis Trone, who came out of the Navy in 1963 and founded the Sangamon Packet Co. with his brother, appropriately named Robert E. Lee Trone. The two began running a small diesel-hydraulic excursion boat at New Salem, where Lincoln lived as a young man. Public response convinced the Trones that people might be ready for the kind of authentic river boat that now exists mainly in legend. For on all the inland rivers there were only two old-time steamboats left, the Delta Queen at Cincinnati and the Belle of Louisville at Louisville.

The Trones bought half interest in the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works in 1965. It is an old company that has turned out some of the most famous boats on the river. Among them were the U.S.S. Ericcson, built in 1894 and regarded as the world's first torpedo boat; a railroad ferry in 1907 that was remodeled 30 years later to become the Admiral, which still is carrying passengers at St. Louis, and the Sprague, biggest sternwheel towboat ever made and now a riverfront museum at Vicksburg.

Dennis Trone began designing and building diesel-powered boats for such cities as St. Louis, Dubuque, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Lake Geneva. But his idea for a real steamboat remained. The idea took off when the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce sent a committee to Dubuque to look into the possibilities of a sizeable excursion boat to help bring back life to Peoria's riverfront. When Trone was able to acquire the City of Baton Rouge, a steam- powered ferry that was replaced by the new Baton Rouge bridge, the river's newest steamboat began to take shape. Trone towed the ferry to Dubuque, stripped out her 1916 Gillette & Eaton steam engines, pilot house wheel and paddlewheel-drive parts for the new boat. The hull would serve as a wharf boat and floating restaurant at Peoria. And the Julia Belle Swain, newest of the river steamboats, was on the way. Her name came from a packet that had been based at Peoria nearly 50 years earlier, one of the boats run by Captain Percy Swain and named for his daughter.

When the Julia Belle arrived at Peoria May 8, bands played, aerial bombs exploded, politicians delivered speeches about the great river that had carried Marquette and LaSalle and helped to settle the interior of the country. Julia Belle Swain Shelton of San Francisco cracked a bottle of Peoria whiskey over the bell on the boat's Texas deck and said, "I christen thee Julia Belle Swain reincarnated." And the deep steam whistle erupted with a stirring blast that awakened long-stilled memories along the river and fired the imaginations of young and old.

She carries 400 passengers on her 1-1/2 hour trips at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. daily. Dinner or dancing trips, or both, also are available.

Her first deck is open, as were those on the old packets that Mark Twain piloted. Her second- and third-deck cabins are richly carpeted, have radiant heating in overhead panels and are studded with the kind of ornate fixtures that recall the golden age of the river.

High atop in her gingerbread pilot house is the massive wheel from the old Baton Rouge and on the main deck are the engines, made 61 years ago and executing day after day a precise and fascinating choreography with a faint whisper of steam. There is a feeling of grandeur about her as she slips proudly upriver, the wind singing its old songs in her rigging.

The steamboat has come back to the Illinois, bringing the past to the present and restoring to the river something of the glamour and romance that once made it famous.

Editor's note:

The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce annually, usually in June, sponsors Steamboat Days on the Riverfront. The three- day event includes boat racing, continuous entertainment and a lighted parade of boats. For information, write the Chamber at First National Bank Building, Suite 307, Peoria, Illinois 61602.



Promotional poster for the PBS broadcast of the 1990 TV movie adaptation of Mark Twain's LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI. In the poster an artist painted the likenesses of Robert Lansing as Pilot Horace Bixby and David Knell as Cub Pilot Sam Clemens with a representation of the JULIA BELLE SWAIN as the ALECK SCOTT. This poster courtesy of

The chapter topics are animal kingdom, children, domestic disasters, fun & games, ghosts, grief & sorrow, naughty folks, odds & ends, transportation, weather.


With the exception of images credited to public institutions,
everything on this page is from a private collection.
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All captions provided by Dave Thomson, primary contributor and historian.