The SPIRIT of Dubuque, an authentic dual paddle wheeler, was designed by Robert Kehl with the help of the New Orleans marine engineering firm of Ross Kramer, Inc. Construction began on the vessel on July 1, 1976 by the Morgan City based Scully Brothers Company. It was the first paddle wheeler the Brothers had made; their specialty was tug boat construction. The SPIRIT was designed to be powered by two Detroit diesel 6-71 engines (200 horsepower apiece) and to carry 377 passengers, with a minimum of four crew members, for the total capacity of 381. The 93-by-28-foot boat draws three feet of water and features an enclosed, air-conditioned dining deck and an open upper deck for sightseeing.
The twin-paddle-wheel riverboat began its 1,385-mile journey from Morgan City, LA., to its home port of Dubuque with the aid of eight cases of bananas. The bananas, still in their shins, were sliced lengthwise and placed under the boat so it would slide easily down beams into the water. To use grease, would have created a suction cup under the SPIRIT, which would have made it difficult to push off. The SPIRIT was launched and the twin engines driving the two paddle wheels, providing the sole power for the boat, were started up. Averaging 6 m.p.h. on the flood-swollen Mississippi River, the vessel was "projected" to arrive in Dubuque within eight or nine days.
Before the journey began, it was discovered that the paddle wheels were not quite strong enough to power the boat and the wheels collapsed. The wheels were reinforced and the sternwheeler departed from Morgan City on the Intracoastal Waterway to the Mississippi River on April 25, 1977.
The SPIRIT of Dubuque entered the Mississippi River through the Port Allen Lock near Baton Route, LA. However, the batteries weren't charging properly, so the riverboat had to stay over-night in Baton Rouge. The problem was soon under control and the SPIRIT departed Baton Rouge. The water was high, which increased the number of snags, mainly floating trees, that could have damaged the paddle wheels if they became entangled. The 15 crew members on board had to "rough it" by sleeping on cots and in sleeping bags while standing watch for a week (without showers).
The SPIRIT was scheduled to enter the Upper Mississippi in Cairo, IL. on May 1, 1977. The point where the Ohio River enters the Mississippi River is considered the division between the Upper and Lower Mississippi. The sternwheeler was 21 hours late when a drive shaft, bearing one of the two paddle wheels burned out just north of Vickburg, Mississippi. The craft returned to Vickburg under power of a single paddle wheel and the 6-m.p.h. current for repairs. The crew found that the identical bearing on the other paddle wheel was cracked and also needed to be replaced. The piece had to be flown in from Morgan City.
The SPIRIT of Dubuque was christened in Dubuque by Iowa Gov. Robert Ray on May 14, 1977. Since then, over 1,000,000 passengers have cruised on the historic vessel. The current owners, Captain Walt and Nancy Webster have owned the SPIRIT of Dubuque since May, 1994 and now operate the only Iowa based sightseeing and dinner cruise paddle wheeler left on the Mississippi River.
After looking for a business venture they could do together, the Websters bought the passenger paddle wheeler from Bob and Ruth Kehl, just in time for the summer season. Nancy was director of group sales at Dubuque Greyhound Park and Walt was an investment executive. More and more, they found that their work schedules clashed and in 1992, they began to talk about teaming up. "We kept arriving at the idea that we wanted to do something together, " Walt said. They kept hearing about the SPIRIT of Dubuque, a boat made famous by a well known river boating family. "The SPIRIT of Dubuque was the only sightseeing paddle wheeler for miles around, and we felt there was a market for it." "We really believed we could make it go," Nancy said.
Now they work at the same time, sometimes 18 hours a day, but the Websters say they're still having fun. "It has been a challenge, but we've thoroughly enjoyed ourselves," she said. "We've come a long way since our first cruise with 196 eager school kids. We have learned a lot, and we are continuing to learn." The couple divide the duties between land and water. Walt handles everything to do with the boat while Nancy concentrates on more land based activities, such as marketing and sales. They hired Gordon Bickal, the SPIRIT'S longtime captain, who leads the river tours and who the Websters say is an integral part of the business.
Walt and Nancy are proud of the maritime heritage of Dubuque and the role the SPIRIT has played in continuing it for the last 20 years. At first, gambling boats cut into the excursion boat business, but the market has changed since 1991, "I think they can complement each other more than compete," Nancy said.
While the Websters have maintained the basic concept which found the Kehls' success, they have not been daunted by the task of taking over a boat that was the cornerstone of the Kehl's riverboat business. "We want to set our own standard," Walt said. For instance, they offer Chicken along with Prime Rib on their dinner cruises and serve it on china. "The core concept is the same, we're just going to try to put a few different twists on it," he said.
"We just feel we can do great things, and we know there are going to be some long days and some long hours, but we're going to keep it fun," Walt said.