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Mark Doty Remains Master Captain of the Belle of Louisville After 42 Years

Writer / Gavin LaPaille
Photography Provided

Mark Doty didn’t expect to get a lifelong career when he first showed up at the Belle of Louisville. But that’s exactly what he got.

Doty, the chief operating officer and master captain of the Belle, began his career with the local landmark as a deckhand, which involved cleaning, sweeping and getting the boat ready for events. He then worked his way up to a licensed mate and captain, before taking over as the master captain of the Belle in 2007. In 42 years with the Belle, Doty has done a little bit of everything with the boat and its thousands of passengers.   Mark Doty

“I never imagined it would go this far,” Doty says. “I didn’t have any interest in working on a river. That just sort of fell into place.”

Day-to-day life brings a vast number of experiences for Doty, including captaining the Belle on many of its cruises, leading other captains who also drive the boat, and working on maintenance and safety guidelines to keep the Belle safe and running smoothly.

“I’m not stuck behind a desk all the time,” Doty says. “I’m not stuck cruising a boat all the time. We cruise the boat six months of the year, then we strap on tool belts to do the work to get the boat ready for next summer.”

During that time, Doty has watched Louisville go through constant transformations and development.

“I’ve watched the city front get built,” Doty says. “I started down here when there wasn’t much else. Now they have the Belvedere extension, restaurants, developed Waterfront Park, different museums. It has helped us get people down here. Before, people only came when they were offered a trip. People stroll down here all the time for other things now.”

The Belle has been on the water since 1914 and is the only remaining authentic steamboat from the great American packet-boat era. Originally named the Idlewild, the boat first set sail on October 18, 1914 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and served as a ferry between Tennessee and Arkansas near Memphis. During the 1940s the boat offered moonlight cruises and served as a USO nightspot on the Mississippi River to help with World War II efforts. The boat was later renamed the Avalon and was sold to a group of Cincinnati investors.

It wasn’t until 1962 that the Avalon was put up for auction and was purchased by Jefferson County Judge-Executive Marlow Cook for $34,000 and renamed the Belle of Louisville. Her first appearance under the new name was in the inaugural Great Steamboat Race in 1963, going up against the Delta Queen in what has become an annual tradition during the Kentucky Derby Festival. In 1988 the Belle was highlighted as the nation’s oldest and most authentic river steamboat, a designation it continues to hold today. The Belle celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014, as the only steamboat in history to reach that age.

Doty says he is proud to captain a boat with so much history.Mark Doty

“When you work down here you don’t even think about that aspect of it, just doing the job,” Doty says. “When you step back and look at the whole picture, it’s pretty neat that you’re running one of these antique landmarks up and down the river.”

The engines on the Belle are actually older than the boat itself, having initially been installed on a different boat that burned down the year the Belle was built. They date back to the 1800s, adding to the experience for guests.

“Most people have a good time out on the river,” Mark Doty says. “Even when it’s raining, they come to see the engines. Our engine room is wide open and they can watch that old machinery that is clanking.”

In addition to the Belle, Doty also has its sister boat, the Mary M. Miller, under his guidance. Named for America’s first female licensed steamboat captain, the Mary is a propeller-driven steamboat built in 1985, with a capacity of 450 passengers and a diesel-style engine.

While both boats have a maximum speed of about 12 miles per hour, Doty says the experience driving them is very different.

“With the Mary you can basically land the boat using your engines,” Doty says. “You don’t have to do a lot of steering. You can pretty much put it where you want it. With the Belle there’s no diesel engine, just a paddle wheel. With the Belle you need to know where you want to be 10 minutes ahead of time. When you’re planning with the wind and the current, you need to plan. It’s 10% heart and 90% luck. Every landing is different and you can’t get used to the same thing or you’ll mess up. I have a little bit of experience but I am surrounded by guys who were here when I started, which really helps.”

The Belle isn’t the only historic landmark under Doty’s guidance. Life Saving Station #10, better known as the Belle of Louisville Riverboats Ticket Office, also holds this distinction, with a history dating back to 1881. She is the only remaining inland Life Saving Station in the United States. She stays dockside and does not cruise as the other two do, with no propellers and no engine.

Doty says having two historic landmarks is an appeal for guests.Mark Doty

“Up until this past year, 80% of our passengers were out of state,” Doty says. “They were coming and knew about us because it’s a national historic landmark. We own two of the historical landmarks in the city limits, and there’s only eight of them. People come to see the history. We operate like they did 100 years ago.”

The Belle continues to offer a variety of experiences for guests, with cruises designed for sightseeing, dining and kids, that go up the Ohio River and take in all the sights. With a capacity of 800, the Belle also hosts many special events designed around holidays, school programs and group events.

Recently the Belle went through shipyard inspection and was told it could stay on the water for 75 years if regular maintenance of the boat is upheld.

“We have a new strategic plan,” Mark Doty says. “We have a lot of meetings and created Friends of the Belle to help raise money for the boat. It just keeps us busy, doing a lot of research for what we need to do. We don’t have a full game plan yet for what our schedule is going to be. We’re changing some things up. We’re not going to just be a party boat. We want to be more educational.”Mark Doty

Doty has had a number of memorable experiences in his career with the Belle including the many steamboat races and meeting celebrities like Muhammad Ali, Roger Staubach and Carol Channing. He’s hoping to have many more as he continues to lead the Belle down the river.

“I’m not tired of it yet and I just turned 60,” Mark Doty says. “I’ll keep going until I get bored with it, but after 42 years I’m not there yet. I’m not going anywhere. They’ll have to kick me out. I don’t really know anything else. It’s been a pretty good life.”

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