A Riverboat Captain Reminisces
Looking out on the Illinois River, Bob Anton is philosophical about the Spirit of Peoria riverboat leaving town after decades plying the waterway here.
“We had the opportunity to run it for a long time. Now someone else gets to enjoy the boat,” he said.
News that the Spirit was purchased for $1 million by Florida-based Yacht Starship Dining Cruises LLC after the city of Peoria declined its right to purchase the boat brought the media to Anton’s door. For 30 years, he was a licensed riverboat captain, getting his first taste of paddlewheels on the Julia Belle Swain, the riverboat that called Peoria home from 1971 to 1986.
“Dennis Trone gave me a job as a deckhand. I worked my way up to the pilothouse after much help from the owner,” said Anton, who spent a career teaching at Peoria’s Glen Oak School before retiring.
In addition to owning the boat, Trone actually helped build the Julia Belle. “He was a naval architect,” Anton said. “He could design them and operate them and he knew how to market.”
Trone was killed in an airplane crash in 2008. Meanwhile, the Julia Belle is presently out of service, awaiting renovation in LaCrosse, Wis.
As for the Spirit of Peoria’s recent departure, “lots of people don’t do things in their own backyard,” said Anton. “When they’re down in St. Louis, they’ll ride the little boats they have down there when we had an authentic riverboat right here.”
Having been at the helm of both the Julia Belle and Spirit, the two boats that served Peoria for a full half century, Anton said he had good memories of both.
“The Julia Belle was a real steamboat with steam engines and a steam whistle. One of the great moments was getting to blow that steam whistle. That was absolutely a musical instrument,” he said.
It harkened back to the river’s steamboat heyday, which began almost 200 years ago.
“Do you know why they made the Cedar Street Bridge so high in the 1930s? That was so tall-stacked steamboats that came down the river from time to time could go underneath.”
Anton also recalled cruising on the Spirit of Peoria, a boat he captained when it first came to town in 1988. Anton did double duty on Spirit cruises to Starved Rock State Park. That’s where he switched from captain’s attire to a white suit to play Mark Twain in a performance for overnight guests at the park lodge.
Anton first played Twain on the Julia Belle because “Trone thought I looked like him,” he said. Indeed, there is quite the resemblance.
While both boats were powered by paddlewheels, there were differences. The Spirit was bigger. The Julia Belle was more popular in its day.
“The Julia Belle had crowds all the time,” he said. “They ran four to five cruises a day.”
When the Delta Queen, a much larger riverboat, visited Peoria to race over three successive summers in the 1970s, there was genuine excitement, recalled Anton. The first year, the Julia Belle failed to start due to equipment failure. The following year, the Delta Queen won the race. But the third year, the Julia Belle emerged victorious, said Anton, noting that “there were crowds on both sides of the river.”
It was a different era. “There was no internet, no YouTube,” said Anton. “Those were the days of old and these are the days of new,” he said of the more challenging situation the Spirit of Peoria faced.
Anton wasn’t the only one drawn to Peoria’s riverboat scene. “I knew John Hartford. I went to his funeral in Nashville,” he said, referring to the renowned boat pilot and singer/songwriter responsible for “Gentle on my Mind.” Hartford passed away in 2001.
“He would come to Peoria just to ride the boat,” said Anton. “He could sing, play any number of instruments and would dance on a piece of plywood while he played the fiddle.”
Like Anton, Hartford got his pilot’s license so that he could take the helm when he wasn’t performing.
Navigating the river wasn’t hard, said Anton, who would often allow passengers to do a brief turn at the wheel during a cruise. “One time on a cruise to Starved Rock, I let a 15-year-old girl take the helm and I got busy with things and forgot she was at the wheel,” he recalled. “She navigated for several hours. She was a natural.”
Steve Tarter is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was
born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to
attend Bradley University and decided to stay.
He has spent a career in journalism and public relations.