Some excursion vessels happily seem to live forever. They change owners, change paint colors, endure countless renovations, bare scars from misguided attempts to "improve" her propulsion system… but the boat lives on. Such is the case of a 1969 vintage two-deck paddle wheeler built in 1969 by the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Company. The vessel has had many names. But the one most associated with the vessel is Bonnie Belle, owned for many years by Lloyd and Bonnie Poore and sailed on thousands of excursions on the Ohio River.
It also spent some time on the Missouri and Ohio rivers under other names and various owners. The vessel is a classic design hydraulic paddle wheeler with an enclosed main deck and a canopied second deck. A 240 hp Isuzu engine drives the hydraulic pump and another engine powers a 65 kW genset.
When I first saw the Magnolia Belle in October, it was an unusually cold and blustery day. It was still the Bonnie Belle to me, although it sported blue trim rather than the more traditional red. It rode high in the water her stern highlighted by the paddlewheel. I was hoping that the new owner had an appreciation of the treasure he had just bought for the history of this boat mirrored the ups and downs of the excursion boat industry.
Since I was at the boat before the owner arrived I stepped onboard and it was like going back in excursion boat history. The main deck cabin was in the process of being renovated not so much to modernize it, but to return it to its former glory.
I was relieved to learn that Joe Baer, a successful line haul towboat pilot from Cincinnati, now owned the boat. He bought the vessel and moved it to Madisonville, La. on the Tchefuncte River. Baer is lovingly restoring the boat, updating the interior, modernizing the pilothouse and doing those one million and one things needed to bring the old Bonnie Belle into her new life
as the Magnolia Belle.
Yes, Joe Baer knew the history of the boat and told me things about it I never knew. The boat was in good hands.
The 85-ft. by 23-ft. vessel operates very simply. The main engine drives a hydraulic pump that powers the paddlewheel. Steering is accomplished by a direct chain drive from the large wheel in the pilothouse to the rudders.
The main deck can seat 80 comfortably and 40 additional guests can be seated for dining on the upper deck, making a 120 person charter an ideal party size.
"We intended to do a lot of charters and that is what we are focusing on at the moment, " said Baer. The boat has a 3.5-ft. draft so it can go into any marina in the area to pickup guests.
"The boat is harbored on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Madisonville, but we do cross the 24-mile wide lake for pickups in the larger New Orleans area as well," Baer said.
All of the food for the vessel is catered by Benedicts Plantation, Mandeville, La. "We do have a holding and prep galley with a refrigerator/freezer, beer cooler, dishwasher and a commercial oven aft on the main deck," Baer added. "The galley can and has served 120 people for dinner," Baer said.
Charter corporate events, rehearsal dinners and other parties form the core of the business for the Magnolia Belle. "We may add scheduled cruises to the mix in 2005 depending on how the business develops," Baer added.
But there is no question that owning his own excursion boat is what Joe Baer has wanted to do for a long time.
Now he has his chance as the owner of a boat that has seen many good times, but few recently… being passed from owner to owner like a star baseball pitcher past his prime.
Unlike athletes, excursion boats can return to their former grandeur with the TLC of a caring owner and a well thought out marketing plan. Baer may just be the right owner at the right time for this proud paddlewheeler.
— Larry Pearson