The Belle of Cincinnati. (Photos courtesy of BB Riverboats)
Passenger Vessels

Bernstein Still ‘In Love With’ River, More Than 50 Years Later

Alan Bernstein.
Alan Bernstein.

In the summer of 1970, Alan Bernstein “fell in love with the river,” as he puts it, and unwittingly spawned a career on it that has lasted more than 50 years.

The then-18-year-old had a job working for the summer on the Delta Queen steamboat, part-time in the dining room and part-time as a deckhand.

Bernstein, now 71, still uses words like “magical” to describe the experience.

He would have kept his job on the boat, he said, if his father hadn’t insisted on college. After college, his dad, Ben Bernstein, had other ideas.

Father Knew Best

“My father said ‘Let’s do these restaurants together,’ so I went in business with my dad,” Bernstein said. “We grew a pretty large restaurant empire, and along the way we had the opportunity to buy a restaurant on the river, and we had never tried that before. It was called the Mike Fink. We kept getting calls. When does the boat go out? When does it come back? How long is the cruise? Well, it didn’t move.

“One day I said to my dad, you know, we get a lot of calls about people who want to go out on a cruise, and there was nobody else doing it. In 1976, there weren’t a lot of people doing it anywhere in the country. So we decided to get into the boat business.”

The elder Bernstein decided that the family’s involvement would go farther than his son had imagined, though.

“I said, ‘Dad, we don’t know the first thing about boats.’ He said, ‘Alan, you’re going to learn.’ He said not only that. He said, ‘You’re going to get your captain’s license, and you’re going to drive the thing.’ ”

Just like that, Alan Bernstein was back aboard a riverboat.

“He said, ‘Alan, you’re going to learn.’ That’s all he kept saying. ‘You’ll learn. You’ll learn. You’ll learn.’ Well, we bought the boat, and my learning experience started. A year later I had a pilot’s license. Everything he said came true. Everything. It’s just amazing how my father saw this vision, and I was blind to the whole thing. That’s how we got in the boat business.”

Help From A Friend

The Bernsteins also hired as consultant Betty Blake, a longtime friend and restaurant customer, who had served as public relations director for the Delta Queen and helped to preserve it.

With Ben Bernstein as an owner and Blake helping to show the Bernsteins the ropes, the obvious name for the enterprise was BB Riverboats.

The company’s first Ohio River cruise was on March 15, 1980, on the mv. Betty Blake, a 400-passenger sternwheeler that was leased from the Gateway Clipper Company from Pittsburgh, Pa.“Betty and I spent hours with her trying to teach me about things like why is it important to watch your fuel costs? What do we have to do maintenance-wise?” Bernstein said.

Over time, the relationship was more like family than it was business.

“Betty was my second mother,” Bernstein said. “I had two mothers back then, my real mother and Betty Blake. She was a dynamic lady, and I was honored to be her honorary son.”

Blake lost her battle to cancer in April 1982, but the lessons she taught Bernstein helped BB Riverboats to continue to thrive, Bernstein said.

Growth And Expansion

The business grew from having one cruise boat to three and from three to five. During the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., for which BB Riverboats was granted exclusive rights for riverboat cruises, the company was operating six boats: three in Knoxville and three in the Cincinnati area.

“I know I-75 from Knoxville to Cincinnati with my eyes shut,” Bernstein said. “It was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had to be part of a World’s Fair and meet people from all over.”

After the Betty Blake came vessels like the Mark Twain and Becky Thatcher. In 1999, The Bernstein family bought its flagship vessel, the Belle of Cincinnati. Today, the Belle of Cincinnati and its sister vessel, the River Queen, take an average of 250,000 passengers per year on excursions on the Ohio River from their homeport in Newport, Ky.

Bernstein’s children now make up a third generation involved in the family business. His daughter, Terri Bernstein, is the company president. His son, named Ben after Alan’s father, is vice president of finance.

Alan Bernstein has been married to their mother, Mary Bernstein, for 50 years now. At an age where some people might be thinking about retirement, he said he is “slowing down,” from his pace of 80-90 hours a week 10 years ago to “60 or 70” now.

“That’s not bad for an old guy,” he quipped.

He also continues to give back to the industry and the community.

‘Helping People’

Bernstein joined the Passenger Vessel Association, the national association representing the interests of the U.S. passenger vessel industry, in 1980. In 1988, he served as its president.

He was a co-founder of the region’s Tall Stacks festivals, which took place in the Cincinnati area in 1988, 1992, 1995, 1999, 2003, and 2006.

Bernstein is also a founding member of the Central Ohio River Business Association (CORBA), which was established in November 2011 as a trade association representing local businesses conducting commerce primarily along the Ohio River in the tri-state region of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. He served on the steering committee.

He has spent time speaking at various schools, including in Career Day settings. Bernstein said organizers asked him to come because he tended to speak about more than just his trade. Instead, he talked about things like making good first impressions, telling students when applying for jobs to make sure their fingernails were clean, that they didn’t have holes in their clothes or dirt on them, that their hair was combed, that they both looked and smelled good and that they looked a potential employer in the eye.

“I can’t tell you how many kids won’t look at you when they talk to you,” he said. “They look off to the side. Those are the things they’re not teaching today, but they need to teach.”

Often, he said, he took a chance on hiring young people who said they wanted to work, but whom other companies may have been hesitant to hire.

“I’m very committed to helping people,” Bernstein said. “My father believed in it. My mother believed in it. Not everybody wants to do stuff like that. I have taken many kids and said you know, if you stick with it, you’re going to become a really good citizen to your community.”

He recalled one young man, to whom he served as mentor for many years. When he came to work for Bernstein, he was living in the housing projects in Covington.

“He retired a few years ago,” Bernstein said. “He retired as vice president of Fidelity Investments.”


Helping the community means reaching out beyond the geographical reaches of the northern Kentucky/Cincinnati region as well.

“The river community isn’t very large,” Bernstein said.

In 2015, Bernstein was named the Port of Louisville Propeller Club’s Maritime Person of the year for his work helping to put on the 100th birthday celebration for the Belle of Louisville. This year, CORBA named him its “friend of the river.”

“Anything having to do with the river, Alan’s in, 100 percent,” CORBA Executive Director Eric Thomas said in presenting Bernstein with the award, calling him a true champion and ambassador.

“I don’t think there is a greater ambassador on the inland river system, particularly for the Ohio River, than Alan Bernstein, and I mean that with all sincerity and whole-heartedly,” Thomas said.

The award recognizes a lifetime achievement in service on the inland rivers of the United States while preserving the cultural significance of the Ohio River as a way of life.

John Groundwater, president of the Passenger Vessel Association, has known Bernstein since coming to the organization in 1994.

“Alan is the consummate riverman,” he said. “Alan has a longstanding love for the passenger vessel industry, and the western rivers, not only for the history of the western rivers but for all whose who operate along the rivers,” Groundwater said.

Bernstein has benefitted the PVA in many ways, he said, including hiring its first regulatory consultant, being involved in the implementation of Coast Guard Subchapter T, which regulates passenger vessels, and in PVA safety initiatives. He also helped widen the scope of membership to add to the organization’s rolls, believing there is strength in numbers, he said.

“Because of his outgoing personality and willingness to share knowledge, Alan has made friends and built relationships within the entire industry, coast to coast,” Groundwater said.

Looking back on his years of service, Bernstein said he wouldn’t change his experience and how he learned for anything.

“I learned everything from the bottom,” he said. “At 18 years old, I fell in love with it. I didn’t know at 18 that I would own boats and operate boats for 50 years, but it was a start.”
He added, “I look back at all the people that I have met over the years that I deal with on a regular basis that are just quality people. People that get into the boat business, it must be a regulation that you have to be a good person to do that. I have learned so much from other operators by either going to their operation or talking to them on the phone or they come here. I really love the fact that I have friends in almost every major city in the United States, and it’s all because of the boat business.”