Crew Spotlight Series: Kadie Engstrom, Historian
One of our amazing crew members—Kadie Engstrom—has worked aboard the historic steamer Belle of Louisville for 50 years! Just as the Belle has held several jobs throughout history, Kadie has held several jobs aboard the vessel during her tenure, including as the Belle’s first female Chief Purser and (currently) as a historian for the three vessels at Belle of Louisville Riverboats. As a historian and educator, Kadie has not only contributed to several publications and authored a book (“Pathway Through the Past: A Timeline Tour of Historic Sites in the Louisville, Kentucky, Metropolitan Area”) but she also offers guests a wealth of knowledge aboard our narrated cruises. In this Crew Spotlight chapter, we interview Kadie to learn more about the roles she has held within Belle of Louisville Riverboats and her work to preserve and share the vessel’s 107-year-old legacy.
how long have you worked with belle of louisville riverboats?
Oh, dear. Well, now, I signed my paperwork as a new crew member on August 16, 1972. I worked my first cruise on August 18, so in just a few days I’ll be celebrating my 50th anniversary with Belle of Louisville Riverboats. Egad! Most of the people I work with now weren’t born yet when I started on the Belle!
At the time, she was the only boat we had, and I began as a concessionaire. I became Lead Concessionaire (with a whole 25-cents-per-hour pay increase!) a few years after I started, then in 1981 I became the first female purser the boat had ever had since she was built in 1914. In 1986, I became the Belle’s first female Chief Purser in her history, and in 1992, I requested to become the Belle’s Education Coordinator. That was my title until 2022, and am now the historian for all three of our boats.
what are some of the important responsibilities of your job?
I feel I am an ambassador for our vessels and community, and for the more comprehensive understanding of the importance of the river steamboat in our country’s development. Most of what I do revolves around helping people gain a broader awareness of our boats, river and steamboat history, and an appreciation for that era of time. I accomplish that through several avenues, including narrations on our boats, presentations, exhibits and written resources that can be shared with teachers and the general public.
Over the years, I’ve gained an overall appreciation of the steamboat era and its importance to all of American history, and I feel it’s part of my job to relay what I’ve learned on to the larger audience (of all ages) as a whole – sort of “paying forward,” in a sense. I’ve learned from others, and I feel it’s essential that I share what I’ve learned so this river part of history doesn’t get lost in history. I try to be as accurate as possible, so myths and legends are labeled as such, and not mistaken for fact.
in your opinion, what is the best aspect of your job?
The sharing of steamboat and river history, greeting people from all over the world and having the opportunity to tell people about our boats and their place in Louisville’s history are all wonderful and rewarding aspects of my job.
what does a typical workday look for you?
Mine would be more a description of what my time looks like when I’m narrating a cruise. I arrive a little early to check in with the ticket office, then I work my way to whichever boat I’m scheduled. I’m on early enough to work with one of the other education staff to get the sound system set up, then I greet the passengers as they arrive. Once the cruise starts, so does my narration, and I tailor that to the theme of the cruise and the passengers we have on board. When the boat lands back in, I thank the passengers for being with us, and follow it up with any special requests I might have gotten during the cruise, such as resources I can e-mail or pursuing information for a question asked. Some of the work I do is on computer, like composing resources, serving as a consultant or working with someone on a special event or presentation.
what is the most unique aspect of your job?
The subject area – steamboats, river, development of the country, life on the river. It’s an era of time we’ll never get back, and the only way we can come close to making it current is by bringing people on a boat and telling them the history that surrounds the experience.
what is your favorite memory of working with belle of louisville riverboats?
There are way too many to choose from. Many of my memories from half a century (oh, my, get that! HALF a century!!!) are from individual experiences on, especially, the Belle; the people connected to the boats in some way, including crew and passengers; and from what I’ve personally accomplished because of my work with the Belle.
One of my best memories is of the day that Captain Mike Fitzgerald asked to talk with me about taking on the job of Chief Purser. I was working another more-than-full time job and he – rightfully so – wondered if I would be able to do both jobs well. He and I knew the Chief Purser position would require a lot of time and commitment, in essence another full-time job for at least seven months of the year. The most I could offer was if he took a chance on me, I would give it my all, and he eventually decided that was all anyone could ask. Six years later, he was dismayed but generous when I asked him to let me change positions to become the Belle’s Education Coordinator, leaving the Chief Purser position in other hands.
why is belle of louisville riverboats important to you?
We are where people can come in the Louisville area for a river cruising experience. Visitors from all over the world want to ride the Belle of Louisville, as the oldest steam-powered river boat of her kind anywhere in our country. That we can offer a true river experience makes [Belle of Louisville Riverboats] important to me.
is there anything you would like to add?
I wouldn’t trade anything for the time I’ve been involved with Belle of Louisville Riverboats. It has enriched me, broadened me and introduced me to amazing people all over the country with an interest in steamboats or river history. If I can give some of that back by sharing my knowledge gained along the way, then I’m the one who’s the better for it.