What it’s Like to Lead a Chicago Architecture Boat Tour

Editor’s note: One of the best ways to see Chicago is on a river tour.  But have you ever wondered what it’s like to lead one of those tours?  Our own Patrick McBriarty got the chance this summer.  Here’s his report on what it’s like on the other side of the mic.

Patrick McBriarty hosting a Wendella boat tour

Several months after the publication of my first book Chicago River Bridges I found myself talking with Michael Borgström the President of Wendella Boats.   He said to me, “Why don’t we put together a river tour on the bridges?”  I jumped at the chance and we quickly arranged a meeting to talk details.  For me this was an exciting prospect and yet another means for introducing people to Chicago’s great bridge history.

Grateful for the opportunity and for the vote of confidence from Wendella we soon had a schedule of one tour per month from June through October.  The resulting five Chicago River Bridges Tours were a mix of two Thursday evenings and three Sunday mornings.  These tours gave me another avenue to promote the book and documentary Chicago Drawbridges filmmaker Stephen Hatch and I co-produced.

Patrick McBriarty hosting a Wendella boat tourI was a bit nervous about giving a river tour, not because of having to talk in front of an audience.  Already having given a score of book presentations, public speaking did not frighten me. Rather, it was the dynamic element of trying to talk bridges as the boat moved down the river that worried me.  The information about the bridges would have to be concise, yet flow freely.  This would be a far different experience from my more controlled 45-50 minute multimedia presentations.  On the river I could not simply click from slide to slide to illustrate a point or idea as needed.

However moving past the bridges just a few feet away created a certain excitement, and other river docents had figured out a way to do this, so I was excited by the challenge.  The solution would be in the preparation.  This began in March with a meeting at Wendella and working with Phyllis Kozlowski, Wendella’s Director of Education, to develop a tour route, a narrative outline, and a selection of bridge stories.  As additional preparation, I took one of Wendella’s architectural tours to get a feel for the pace and style of these tours.  It was very helpful to see a docent in action and it allowed me to visualize creating a similar tour on the bridges.

Several weeks prior to my first tour I also developed a handout detailing basic bridge operation, bridge maps, and basic bridge history.  This preparation was probably about a week’s worth of work spread over a couple months and included another follow-up meeting at Wendella to create and finalize the tour route and schedule.  Next, I drafted a press release, which was then reworked by Wendella, and circulated to our various contacts.  In total this probably involved another day’s worth of work spread over a 2-3 week period.  So all told, putting this tour together took six to seven days of work over a three month period.

Patrick McBriarty hosting a Wendella boat tourOn June 25th, I gave the first tour accompanied by Dr. Kozlowski.  That way if I completely bombed, she could take the microphone from me and salvage whatever tour was left.  Thankfully that was not necessary and in the end she was quite pleased with the tour despite me leaning on her to answer a few architectural questions for the audience.

Needless to say, I was a bit nervous during this first tour and felt a tension between talking about each bridge as it passed, and providing coherent stories with the information bouncing around in my brain.  Thankfully I was comfortable talking about the bridges without notes and soon found simply explaining things as we went along and telling compelling stories and not worrying too much about having to point out each bridge worked reasonably well.

Patrick McBriarty hosting a Wendella boat tourOf course it was of great help that the City of Chicago years ago installed large signs identifying each bridge.  Breaking information up into bite sized pieces made it easier to go with the flow of the moving tour boat and lent itself to later cross referencing locations, bridges, or situations to give the overall tour a continuity I was afraid of losing.

The other benefit of the tour starting and ending at the same place was that we passed each bridge twice, so if on the first pass I missed an important story, point, or concept I got a second crack at it later in the tour.  The spacing between bridges varied and seemingly constrained or stretched certain stories. However I quickly found that no one seemed to mind if we passed a bridge or several bridges with little or no mention as I told a more complete story about an earlier bridge, or jumped ahead to an upcoming bridge.

Patrick McBriarty hosting a Wendella boat tourI have now done three of these tours and each one becomes easier and easier and I am confident of providing a great experience particularly after receiving positive reviews from Stephen Hatch’s 11 and 13-year-old daughters.

Preparation for each tour usually begins a day or two before with a phone call to Wendella regarding the expected attendance and to discuss any details or special requests.  I then draft, revise, and send an e-mail to my 1,500 or so followers as a reminder and to encourage last-minute attendees.

Then about two hours before the tour I gather up a case of books, DVDs, a water bottle, pens, hat, and jacket, if needed, and shoot off to the tour to arrive about 15-30 minutes early.  Parking is usually a problem so I often have to walk some distance to get to the dock.  For one tour I definitely cut things too close, arriving just five minutes before hand, which made a few Wendella folks a bit nervous.  This was just enough time to unpack and talk with the boat captain about the route and key spots to pause or slow to accommodate a longer story.

Patrick McBriarty hosting a Wendella boat tourEach tour begins with a safety announcement, usually given by the captain, and then a Wendella tour guide introduces me and hands off the microphone.  From there I pretty much wing it, having talked about the bridges so many times. But I also follow my outline and provide patrons an overview of what they will be seeing and tell some history punctuated by stories about specific bridges. Anecdotes like the homeless man living in the Lake Shore Drive bridge, the first drawbridge in Chicago at Dearborn Street, the Flood of 1992 at Kinzie Street, or the sand barge Michigan running aground on the Washington Street Tunnel.  Several of the bridges like the Lake Shore Drive Bridge or Kinzie Street Bridge have multiple stories, making it easier to vary each tour and make it more interesting for me and anyone taking the tour for a second or third time.

Geographically, the tour begins at Trump Tower Docks next to the Wrigley Building.  The tour leaves the dock and goes out to the mouth of the Chicago River and returns down the Main Channel to the fork in the river.  We briefly go up the North Branch to catch the Kinzie Street Bridge then spin around and head down the South Branch to Chinatown.

Patrick McBriarty hosting a Wendella boat tourWe turn around just in front of the hulking Pennsylvania Railroad vertical-lift bridge — a definite highlight of the trip.  On the return between 18th Street and the Harrison Street Bridge I usually take a break to informally chat, answer questions, and sell or sign books.  This gives people time to refill a drink, use the bathroom, take in the great views and not have to listen to me.  Then as we get closer to the Loop I re-start the talk until we are tied up at the Trump Tower Docks west of the Michigan Avenue Bridge at the end of the tour.

Once at the dock I either sell and sign books on the boat or move to the dock to talk informally, depending upon how soon the boat needs to move along.  When packing up and getting off the boat thank the captain and crew.

My favorite part of conducting the river tours with Wendella is meeting new people and hearing their bridge stories, particularly from the relatives of folks who worked on Chicago’s bridges in decades past.  These stories usually provide new insights that sometimes will get incorporated into future tours.

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Author: Patrick McBriarty

Patrick McBriarty, a former business person and consultant, over a decade ago discovered a new focus and fascination for Chicago bridges. His first book Chicago River Bridges won the 2013 Henry N. Barkhausen Award for original Great Lakes Maritime History and presents the untold history and development of Chicago’s iconic bridges. Published by the University of Illinois Press in October 2013. Concurrently in 2011-12 with filmmaker Stephen Hatch, they co-produced the documentary Chicago Drawbridges, which was first broadcast on Chicago public television in April 2013. Patrick is currently working on a forthcoming series of children’s books sharing his excitement and appreciation for bridges with a smaller audience. The first children’s book Bridges of All Kinds is available now and the second picture book Drawbridges Open and Close illustrated by Johanna Kim is currently under review with several publishers. Patrick holds a bachelors in business administration and a masters in economics from Miami University.

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