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Front view of the Fred A. Busse Engine 41 fireboat

Cruise Along Chicago Waterways On a Historic Fireboat

New Chicago Fireboat Tours are a unique way to explore the magnificent Second City.

Sight-seeing boat tours consistently rank as one of Chicago’s most popular attractions by visitors and locals alike. A new vessel has joined the fleet of choices–an authentic 1936 fireboat owned and operated by Chicago Fireboat Tours.

(Many thanks to Chicago Fireboat Tours for hosting my sunset cruise!)

For nearly half a century, the Fred A. Busse fireboat responded to emergencies and rescue operations as the Chicago Fire Department’s Engine 41. Chicago Fireboat Tours navigates the same waterways with daytime guided historical tours on the Chicago River and sunset cruises along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Tours run between 1 ½ and 2 hours.

“We give our guests a glimpse of what it was like to be a firefighter stationed on the boat in 1937,” says co-captain and co-owner Raymond Novak.

Two people sitting at the front of a boat facing city high-rises
The Chicago Fireboat Tours sunset cruise follows the Lake Michigan shoreline.

The fire-engine red Fred A. Busse, named for a former mayor, was the world’s largest diesel-powered fireboat when built. It was designed to fit underneath the city’s many bridges to minimize response times. With four water pumps, it was rated for a combined 10,000 gallons per minute and could spray water up to 27 stories high. The fireboat and its crews supplied water to some of the biggest fires in the city. Among them was the McCormick Place convention center inferno on a bitterly cold January night in 1967. The fireboat was retired in 1981.

A New Chapter in Chicago’s Maritime History

Chicago Fireboat Tours was launched, if you’ll pardon the pun, by two friends and U.S. Navy veterans. Novak and Erich Totsch had worked together and individually on various vessels in Chicago but dreamed of captaining their own. In late 2018, Novak was browsing boat sales on the internet and came across the fireboat.  It was located in the resort area of Door County, Wisconsin, where it had been converted into an excursion boat. The Fred A. Busse was just what the two aquaphiles were looking for. 

“This boat is part of Chicago’s history with the fire department and with maritime history in general,” co-captain Totsch says. “Bringing it back to its home port in Chicago is pretty special.”

A deflated firehose is wrapped around a large spool.
The fireboat is a floating museum of artifacts and photographs from its firefighting past.

Over the next several months, the duo researched the history of the fireboat and worked out their business plan. They also underwent an extensive financing process aided by the Veterans Business Project, a matchmaking organization between veteran entrepreneurs and lenders. Chicago Fireboat Tours embarked on its first cruise July 6, 2019. 

A Likely Partnership

Novak and Totsch served in the Navy at different times and in different roles, but their experiences and long-term deployments at sea prepared them well for partnering in a cruise company. Novak tends to the engineering side of things, and Totsch leans toward the business side. But they both can do everything, even filling in for an absent docent or tending the refreshment bar.

“In the Navy, you’re trained in your department, but you’re also trained to work outside your department, too,” Novak says. “We both know each other’s jobs on the boat. I’m Mr. Fixit, but he can help me. He’s the topsider. If he needs something, I’m there too.”

“We’re pretty even, but even Ray would say I don’t get my hands dirty as much as he does,” Totsch says with a chuckle. 

At sea, everyone at every level is trained in firefighting–there’s no fire department to call, he adds.

Side view of a squatty, one-level red fireboat
The Fred A. Busse fireboat responded to Chicago’s waterfront emergencies for almost half a century.

This year, due to the pandemic, cruise season didn’t start until June 23. The end date is weather-dependent, but could be as late as mid-November. After two summers, Chicago Fireboat Tours hasn’t yet operated for a full season, but the red retro-styled vessel stands out as a floating museum. 

“We’re a history tour,” Totsch says. “Our tours tell the story of how the fireboats came about after the Great Chicago Fire (in 1871) because the city needed a way to fight fires from the river. We highlight some of the big fires and how this boat ties in with modern firefighting and helped shape the city into what it is today.”

Chicago skyline at sunset with the Navy Pier “Centennial” ferris wheel in blue.

Plus, the urban streetscape is stunning, Novak says.

“When we leave the dock for one of our tours, in less than 5 minutes you can see about 80 percent of the city skyline,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to start our tour that way.”

How To Find Chicago Fireboat Tours

The Fred A. Busse is docked at DuSable Harbor, 111 N. Lake Shore Drive, on the eastern-most end of Randolph Street. The location is totally walkable from downtown. After an early dinner on Michigan Avenue before our sunset cruise, we strolled across the street and through Millennium Park to the curvaceous 925-foot-long BP Pedestrian Bridge over Columbus Drive. At the end of the bridge, you’re in Maggie Daley Park. Follow a short path to the traffic light at Monroe Street, and you’ll safely cross Lake Shore Drive to the Lakefront Trail. Look north, or left. You’ll see a large black and white ship, the MV Abegweit. That’s the home of the Columbia Yacht Club. Directly behind it on the same pier is the Fred A. Busse.

A sign for Chicago Fireboat Tours, phone number 312-919-3367, website www.fireboattours.com
Chicago Fireboat Tours is located at DuSable Harbor downtown Chicago.

If you’re arriving by taxi or ride-share, there’s a turnaround at the entrance to DuSable Harbor. Also, parking lots are nearby. Tell the attendant you’re there for Chicago Fireboat Tours.

 A Note on Coronavirus Precautions

Chicago Fireboat Tours is operating with a reduced passenger load to observe social distancing. Face masks are required, and hand-sanitizer dispensers are stationed in various locations. The front of the boat, or bow, is arranged with theater-style seating. The canopy-covered back, or stern, is set with tables, each surrounded by four chairs. The fireboat is sprayed with EPA-approved disinfectant before and after each cruise.

Learn more about Chicago Fireboat Tours and book your excursion. ###

12 thoughts on “Cruise Along Chicago Waterways On a Historic Fireboat

    1. Most of the other sight-seeing boats leave from Michigan Avenue and the River, which is on the edge of downtown, or from Navy Pier, more than a mile from downtown. One of the reasons I love this one is it is right downtown next to the parks, the Bean and the Art Institute.

  1. Chicago Fireboat Tours is amazing. I would love to be on tour with them one day. Maybe when I visit family in Chicago. The skyline is stunning.

  2. What an exciting way to see Chicago. We love this Midwestern city, but have never had the pleasure to view it by fire boat. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

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