Lake Hamilton riverboat on water 30 years

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published June 27, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 26, 2013 at 9:22 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Above: Mark Buhrow stands on the deck of the Belle of Hot Springs, which takes passengers on cruises around Lake Hamilton. Buhrow’s family has operated the riverboat for 30 years.

— “This was a wonderful trip,” said Jan Miller of Bradley, Miss., on her first trip to Hot Springs. “Going out on the riverboat around the lake was so relaxing. And the narration about the history and fine homes on the lake was so interesting.”

Told of his passenger’s comments, Capt. Mark Buhrow of the Belle of Hot Springs smiled and said Miller’s comments reaffirmed why Buhrow’s family has operated the riverboat on Lake Hamilton for 30 years.

“Tourism is sightseeing,” Buhrow said. “Going places and seeing new things and learning about them firsthand is what tourism is about.”

Since 1984, the Belle of Hot Springs has been carrying passengers on its triple decks for a 15-mile cruise around Lake Hamilton. Guides have entertained the visitors with tales of the history of the Valley of the Vapors while they take in the views and have lunch or dinner.

While the Belle takes its trips around the lake every day of the year, Buhrow said the busy time is about to begin for the operation.

“July is our biggest season, especially for families,” he said. “Schools now go into June and start anytime from mid-August, so July is the prime vacation time for individual tourists.”

Many passengers for the Belle of Hot Springs come as part of a group.

“We have family outings, weddings, corporate meetings, convention outings, all kinds of groups,” Capt. Buhrow said.

On Friday, Miller and her family were among around 60 passengers who toured the lake on the 1 p.m. cruise. At 8 p.m., a wedding-rehearsal party was cruising the river and having dinner.

The riverboat can carry up to 250 passengers, and Buhrow said the Belle has been the setting for all kinds of parties, including weddings.

“We can seat 220 people on the benches here, and we have an arch we can put up in front of the pilot house for a wedding,” he said, standing on the top deck that is open to the sky. The two decks below are closed and air-conditioned and feature tables, booths, a bar on each deck and a dance floor.

“I would move to the top and enjoy the sun and scenery,” Miller said. “Then I would come back inside and cool off in the air conditioning, so I was always going in and out.”

While the Belle of Hot Springs is in its 30th year of operation on Lake Hamilton, the family-run business started long before that, and in a lake far away.

“My father returned from World War II and started a boating business in 1947 in northwest Iowa,” Buhrow said. “He got into building cruisers, and my father started with a riverboat cruise on Lake Okoboji. We ran trips from Memorial Day to Labor Day.”

Buhrow said the boat could not have a longer season because the lake froze over in November and did not thaw until April.

The riverboat that plies Lake Hamilton was built in Iowa in 1960.

“It is a riverboat because it has gas propellers,” Buhrow explained. “If it had a paddle wheel, it would be a paddle wheeler. It does have twin diesel engines. The boat has a shallow draft and a blunt, rounded bow, and docks face-first where passengers can just step on and off.”

Buhrow said his father wanted the riverboat to be a family business, but Buhrow had always resisted joining the business.

“He talked me into it after a while,” Buhrow said, “but by then, the business was dying. It needed to move.”

After investigations of possible locations for the riverboat, Buhrow found out about Hot Springs.

“I liked what I saw about it, and my father and mother said they had been there once on vacation,” he said. “We came to check it out, and while I was talking with other businesses, bankers and the chamber of commerce, dad bought a house, so we were moving to Hot Springs.”

During that trip, Buhrow met his wife, a native of Little Rock.

“I tell her sometimes, ‘You were born here, but I live here by choice,” he said. “I love Arkansas and its people.”

Today, Buhrow is still a licensed riverboat pilot, but his young brother pilots the boat for its cruises.

“During the first 17 years, I rode the boat every night,” he said. “Then my wife told me I saw the children about 15 to 20 minutes a day, so I came into the office full time.”

The Belle usually carries a crew of four to six, but there can be about 25 employees during a busy dinner cruise. The company has about 40 people, and he said the food service is a big part of the company’s development.

“We used to cater the meals, and then I noticed I was spending about $100,000 a year on caterers,” Buhrow said. “So I fired the caterers and hired cooks.”

The company now operates the Gilligans on the Lake restaurant below the cruise office and gift shop, and the restaurant also prepares the food for the cruise lunches and dinners.

“How many other restaurants in town are operating after 30 years?” Buhrow asked. “The food business was new to us, but buying this property allowed us to expand and have more control over the restaurant, and that has been good for us.”

The business has changed in the last five years, he said.

“Corporate and association business — the big groups — don’t hold the big conventions anymore and bring large groups,” Buhrow said. “But the individuals [take cruises] at about the same amount.”

That is why July and its family vacations are vital to the Belle of Hot Springs and its crew, he said.

For more information about the Belle of Hot Springs, visit www.belleriverboat.com or call (501) 525-4438.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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