Paddlewheel Steamboat, Currently Docked In La Crosse, Approved For Renovation

Julia Belle Swain Restoration Will Cost An Estimated $1.8M

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Above, the Julia Belle Swain docked in La Crosse. Photo: Maureen McCollum/WPR News.

After being docked for years, the Upper Mississippi River’s only true paddlewheel steamboat is a step closer to cruising again.

The three-story blue and white riverboat known as the Julia Belle Swain was built in the 1980s. What makes it historic is its 1917 steam engine that powers its giant red paddlewheel. It’s one of five boats of its kind left in the United States.

Last year, members of the Julia Belle Swain Foundation announced that it was going to restore the unique riverboat. Now, after months of waiting, the U.S. Coast Guard approved the group’s restoration plans.

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Foundation president John Desmond says on top of replacing the boiler, the boat will now be compliant with the American Disabilities Act and the capacity will be 149, far lower than what it was previously.

“If the paddlewheel were to fail with people on it, how do you get it to port?” said Desmond. “We’re adding on some bow thrusters and one auxiliary engine to make it safer.”

Desmond says with all the updates, the Julia Belle Swain’s makeover could cost around $1.8 million.

He said the group is in talks with the city about docking the Julia Belle Swain permanently at Riverside Park in downtown La Crosse. It could be a place to get drinks and appetizers during the week and could cruise the Mississippi River for excursions on the weekends.

“The goal is to keep this thing in pristine condition for the long 50-year, 100-year cycle,” said Desmond. “The only way to do that is to generate some revenue that makes sense.”

The group recently received its 501(c)(3) status, so they can begin seriously fundraising. Desmond said they hope to have the Julia Belle Swain operating again next year.

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