Editor's note: This is the 242nd in a series of articles recalling vanished Huntington scenes.
HUNTINGTON — With its gleaming white paint and fancy red trim, its tall black stacks crowned with bright gold and its churning paddle-wheel, the "West Virginia Belle" was a colorful reminder of the steamboats of yesteryear. From 1988 to 1993, the "Belle" plied the Ohio and Kanawha rivers between Huntington and South Charleston, offering day-long trips between the two cities as well as brief dinner cruises out of both.
The "Belle" was built by the husband and wife team of Robert and Ruth Kehl of Dubuque, Iowa. The Kehls long had operated tour boats on the Mississippi and had the "Belle" constructed at a cost of $3.5 million when they decided to branch out with a boat on the Ohio. Later the Kehls sold the "Belle" to Mary Kantz and her brother Tim.
Like the Kehls, they hailed from Dubuque. Both were licensed river pilots.
The big paddle-wheel on the "Belle" was strictly for show. The boat wasn't powered by steam but instead by three big diesel engines. Two hundred feet long, the big boat had four decks. The lower two decks were enclosed and temperature-controlled. The third was partially enclosed.
Passengers were welcome to visit the pilot house, located on the top deck. With a capacity of 1,200 passengers, the "Belle" sometimes seemed like a floating convention center.
According to Mary Kantz, roughly 90 percent of the boat's passengers hailed from out of state. Many arrived by tour buses and stayed one or even two nights in local hotels. In late 1993, a casino made Mary and Tim Kantz an offer they couldn't refuse and the following January saw the Belle sail away to Caruthersville, Missouri, and a new future as a floating Mississippi River casino.