The steel hull of the Belle Miracle Ann has carried many names in the intervening decades prior to arriving in West Atlantic City.

No one remembers who inspired its first name, the Belle Anne Marie. For a time, the steamer - along with its operator, the Kanawha Packet Company - bore the name of a river in West Virginia. In Nashville, it was renamed the Belle Carol, possibly for a wife, a daughter, a lover or just a pretty name. And Zachary Taylor, a name it carried as a Mississippi River tour boat, may commemorate the 12th U.S. president or the president of Zachary Taylor Riverboat, Co.

Most of the paddle-wheel steamer's owners and namesakes are gone. They are enigmatic names on a U.S. Coast Guard title abstract, one of the near-century-old vessel's few surviving pieces of documentation.

Jeffrey Spear, president of the Marietta, Ohio-based Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, said the old river boats have rapidly disappeared since the 1950s, when they were replaced by diesel power boats.

That they survived that long was a blessing, he said.

While a lock and dams system was finally opened along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in 1929, allowing the larger diesel boats to operate, Spear said the stock-market crash temporarily spared the then-outmoded river boats.

In World War II, steel was rationed as part of the war effort, again sparing the steamboats from the scrap yard. Once materials were again widely available, the freight ships that carried coal and other supplies up the river were replaced by the more efficient diesel-powered vessels.

"Overnight passenger boats were fading out, too, because nobody wanted to ride those old boats," he said.

Despite being the workhorses of 19th and early 20th century transportation, Spear said the river boats are now a novelty item, most of them transformed into museums and restaurants.

"We used to have a good captain friend, who always used to say, ‘Don't get too fond of them. Once they're turned into restaurants, they get greasy and then they burn,'" he said.

But the allure of the paddle-wheel steamer is still strong. Spear said it has to do with the pioneer spirit of America.

"It is that Mark Twain attitude," he said. "Even he admitted he never did anything in his life as satisfying as being a (riverboat) pilot. There's a lot of romance connected to that, rightly or wrongly. It appeals to people's sense of what America was really like."

R.C. "Heck" Heckert, administrative assistant and former president of the American Sternwheel Association, knows the attraction of the ships.

"It's done out of a labor of love," he said. "You can't put a price tag on it."

Heckert, a former captain who worked on the river for more than 40 years, said he's constantly restoring his riverboat, the Dixie, which was built in 1937 and has had just three or four owners. From his home in Parkersburg, W.Va., he's rebuilt most of Dixie's superstructure over the last 10 to 12 years.

"Very seldom does it ever go to dock," he said. "I just use it as a place to tinker, to work on it."

And with less than 100 of the historic paddle wheelers left, Heckert said it's important to keep the old ones around.

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

609-272-7256